About the kindest way to describe how John Horan is going about fixing the fixtures is that it’s as if after commissioning the Brennan brothers to assess and improve his hotel, he has them arrive on site only to find him already unleashing his inner Dermot Bannon who is about to give a foreman the thumbs up to a garish giant water fountain being plumped in the middle of the foyer. With a miniature one to go in every other room in the building while he’s at it.
‘Eh, yeah, I like how that goes there. Sure work around that. That’s not a problem, is it, John and Francis? Work away off a blank canvas like that.’
Next Saturday, less than three weeks after he finally unveiled his 11-person Fixtures Calendar Task Force (FCTF), Horan and the GAA are bringing to Central Council two alternative proposals as to how the All-Ireland football championship should be run from next year on.
Both proposals advocate a two-tier championship, throwing in such sweeteners as the Tier Two final being televised live from Croke Park and either the winners or an All-Star 15 from that competition being treated to a tour abroad.
But what could be missed — especially by the GPA, which has been asked to canvass its members but has been traditionally passive on such issues — is what else is the fine print and what wasn’t included at all.
Both of Horan’s proposals advocate that the provincial championships are retained and played as normal — even though the FCTF is supposed to have full scope to review and even recommend disbanding such competitions if they believe so.
Next Saturday’s two proposals also advocate that the Super 8s, whose trial period is supposed to expire at the end of the 2020 championship, is also run off in its current format. The qualifiers will also remain. The only issue is whether those qualifiers will include Division Three and Four teams that fail to reach their provincial final and whether the Tier Two championship should include its own backdoor.
Neither option includes a round-robin format. A team like Fermanagh that comfortably retained Division Two status this year but happened to run into two First Division teams in the championship is again guaranteed no more than two championship games.
In two straight weekends, teams 16 to nine will be disposed of in the qualifiers, their summer finished by the end of June. Meanwhile, all of July and the first weekend of August will be given over to the Super 8s.
Right there, Horan has inadvertently eroded much of the foundation as well as moral high ground for a two-tier championship.
Take someone like Ciaran Deely, who in principle is in favour of a second-tier championship which would naturally include the London team that he coaches. But in championing such a demarcation, Deely was assuming that teams would have a minimum programme of three games (four teams of four, with top two advancing to the quarter-finals was what he recommended) to help with their development. Horan’s proposals fails to meet such a basic criteria.
Two years ago, this column interviewed Kevin O’Donovan, then a mere coaching officer with the Cork county board. As well as giving a fascinating insight into the challenges and potential within his own county, he spoke about the broader fixtures issue about as well as anyone we’ve ever encountered.
“We need a games programme for people to play the GAA,” he said. “A programme of regular, meaningful games for all — for kids, youth and adults, at club, college and county level.
“Right now, the GAA doesn’t provide regular, meaningful games for all of them… As an organisation [it] has gone totally elite in the last decade… The Super 8 is the obvious example. I see the reason for it but tell me, where is the equivalent version of it for everyone else?
“The one thing I learned from my time as an underage club secretary was that the objective of any competition run by the GAA was to knock out as many teams as fast as possible so we could get the bloody thing over.
But as a coach, and in terms of developing players and keeping them in the sport, to me, a good games programme is one where the gap between the first team finishing up in the competition and the last team playing in it is as short as possible.
"Soccer gets that; it’s one of the reasons why it is the mass participation sport in the world. But we don’t.
“Yes, there comes a time when it’s ‘Sorry, there has to be knockout now’ but not before assuring everyone a programme of regular, meaningful programmes.”
Horan’s proposals only heightens rather than alleviates those concerns. The GAA might guarantee regular, meaningful games for its county footballers with the league, but as a disillusioned Mickey Quinn from Longford told Off The Ball AM yesterday, most of the league is “played in shit conditions and spectators can’t go out and enjoy those games”. He wishes for a programme of games similar to that during the summer.
While O’Donovan appreciates that there has to a cut-off point when a championship becomes knockout but that the gap between the first team out of it and the last team standing should be as short as possible, Horan is quite happy that the ninth-best team in the country should be finished by June 29 but that the eight-best team can play until August 4.
In trying to make the second-tier championship attractive — though nowhere near as appealing and exciting as that proposed here in previous columns or by Eoin Sheehan and Kieran Donaghy on that same Off The Ball AM show — Horan has actually created a no-man’s land for teams too good for Tier Two but not good enough for a Super 8.
A Fermanagh or Clare would nearly be better off being relegated to Division Three to increase their likelihood of playing July football. The one bit of hope in all this is that O’Donovan, now the Cork county secretary, is on the fixtures task force that Horan established earlier this month.
But the concern and question is just how much sway does he and his committee colleagues have? Horan’s intention is that they present a set of options to him in the autumn to be put forward to next spring’s Congress. Yet, by the time they’ll be concluding their suggestions, his two-tier championship is likely to have already been passed.
The GAA hierarchy has previous on this. On the eve of Pauric Duffy’s Super 8 motions being officially announced as being part of the Clár for Congress 2017, the newly-founded CPA asked him to freeze on such a proposal until an overall review of the fixtures took place. Duffy bulldozed on regardless. He’d put too much time and thought into his brainchild for them to be held up by an uppity newly-formed body.
By now, though, the CPA have more credence, and chances are that both they and the fixtures task force come October will have invested a lot more thought into their proposals than has gone into the two-tier proposals being presented to Central Council this Saturday.
Before any further renovations, there has to be a review of the business and premises after which certain pillars have to be established and a blueprint is drawn. Fine if you want to a two-tier football championship but what if the FCTF has agreed, as a value, that there is some form of preliminary round-robin championship for all, just like every county, from the Liam MacCarthy to the Lory Meagher, is assured in hurling?
You would hope that someone soon will be as frank as Francis Brennan and advise Horan to step aside from his bulldozer and ask the foreman to take the giant water fountain back to the warehouse for the moment.