Kieran Shannon: We know the GAA has more pressing worries, but...

As much as we’d come to associate this time of year with glorious hurling weekends magnified by the sport’s highly satisfying new format, we may have forgotten the soundtrack that usually accompanied football around now: the din of complaints and demands for a “new championship structure”.
Kieran Shannon: We know the GAA has more pressing worries, but...
GAA offices at Croke Park

As much as we’d come to associate this time of year with glorious hurling weekends magnified by the sport’s highly satisfying new format, we may have forgotten the soundtrack that usually accompanied football around now: the din of complaints and demands for a “new championship structure”.

Only when it came to the proper time for such a discussion, there still didn’t seem to be enough time for a proper discussion.

The advanced mark and a second-tier championship breezed in last October at a special congress in Cork at a time when the public and counties were preoccupied with their own club championships and the media was either reporting on them or still recuperating from a couple of breath-taking All Ireland senior football finals.

Then this past February at Congress, a new back-pass rule sailed through without more than a two-minute discussion, largely because there was barely two column inches on it in the lead up.

With a deluge of O’Byrne Cup and national league games and All Ireland club finals to be squeezed in during the six weeks after Christmas, sure who was monitoring and debating something like that?

Now, with no games, there should be no excuses. Time is one thing we have plenty of. To hear and weigh up the merits and cons of various proposals, on such matters as the “championship structure”. And yet all we’ve heard are crickets.

For sure, the GAA has a more pressing concern right now, namely whether it’ll have any games, or even training sessions, in 2020 and what they might look like.

But that doesn’t mean that it should neglect what those games and championships might look like in 2021 and 2022.

In case you as well as they have forgotten, a Special Congress was – and actually still is – scheduled for this October to decide and vote on a series of proposals from the fixture review taskforce commissioned by president John Horan 12 months ago and which reported its findings six months ago.

In advance of such a vote, the taskforce was meant to undertake a roadshow to explain the various options which had floated, the most striking concerning what senior inter-county football’s competition structures and calendar might look like from 2021 on.

In trying to free up more time for the club game and yet suitably promote the county game, the taskforce offered up three options.

Option One was – is – that the national league be retained in its current format but then you’d have eight teams in each provincial championship so there’d be an equitable number of games played in much the same time frame.

For how it might look like we’ll go further than the workforce have thus far and draw up what a Munster championship might look like.

In Pool A, Cork, Clare, Tipperary and guests Wexford; then in Pool B, Kerry, Limerick, Waterford and guests Laois. Every team plays their three fellow pool members, with the top team (say Kerry and Laois for the craic) going through to the Munster final. Second and third then would go into the qualifiers, and fourth would play in the eight-team Tier B ‘Tailteann’ Cup.

Likewise in the other ‘provinces’ where you’d likely have an Ulster team and possibly a Leinster one too playing in Connacht. Its merits? Every team would be guaranteed at least four championship games, a crack at winning a retained provincial championship, and a pathway to an All Ireland competition.

Option Two then is that you flip the league and championship. In the spring you’d have your provincial championship, and then in the summer you’d have a championship similar to the current national league – though more alike its 1980s-1990s format.

The Munster championship would have its six traditional members, only they’d all play each other in a round-robin format.

The table-toppers, say, Cork, would be straight through to the Munster final, while second and third, say Kerry and Clare, would play off in a semi-final. Connacht would roll the same way.

Leinster and Ulster then would each have two groups of five (with one Leinster team falling in to Ulster) before the top two in each group play in the provincial semi-finals.

All would be standalone competitions, with no link to the championship. Instead the championship would be your current national league – Divisions One to Four – straight through the summer, with everyone having a chance of winning Sam Maguire, the same way in 1986 a Division Three Laois won the national league outright.

Taking this year’s league standings as they were before the lockdown, the All Ireland series would work like this. The top four teams in Division One (Galway, Tyrone, Kerry and Dublin) would be straight into the All Ireland quarter-finals along with the top two sides in Division Two (Armagh and Roscommon).

The remaining two spots then would be determined by a qualifying round, where Cork (top of Division Three) would play Westmeath (fourth in Division Two) and Limerick (top of Division Four) would meet Laois (third in Division Two).

A bit like a Joe McDonagh team like Laois were able to reach last year’s Liam McCarthy Cup quarter-final when a Waterford couldn’t, a Division Four team could go further in the race for Sam Maguire than a Mayo. Promotion and relegation would continue on a two-up, two-down basis.

As unconventional and untraditional as it might be, it would provide up to 15 weeks for clubs, a more regular summer schedule for county players, and with so many round-robin games in stone, would allow county boards to plan much of their own club schedule.

Option Three then is to retain the current format, just making a couple of scheduling tweaks, like having just a week instead of the traditional fortnight break between the hurling and football All Ireland finals.

There’s quite a bit to digest there – and debate.

In fact, there’s a case that there should be a couple of other options explored, such as Option One’s league format reverting back to the old 1A 1B, 2A 2B format that helped make the noughties the most democratic era in the history of the sport – a bit like the Football Development Review group of 2013-2014, it was an oversight by the fixtures taskforce not to review the pros and cons of moving away from that successful format.

The important thing though is that there is a debate, and that the GAA encourage rather than stifle one.

Colm Parkinson in his GAA Hour has made the point that it was quite concerning that Allianz signed up to a five-year extension of their sponsorship of the national league when the very format and timing of that competition could be radically overhauled.

Do they know that they might be effectively sponsoring a spring-time provincial championships? Do the provincial councils know that? Or is that they do already know that Option Two not really a runner and something the taskforce just put out there to appear broadminded to those advocating for a “blank canvass” approach?

We would hope not.

While there may be no roadshow as well as any games this summer, in these days of Zoom, we can still talk. So let the talking and debating begin now.

We can’t say this time that we hadn’t the time.

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