If the past month has highlighted anything, it’s that it’s not just on Proposal B that that inter-county footballers and managers significantly differ from administrators. It’s that managers and players are publicly accountable, while a lot of leading officials are not.
Take the case of Peter Keane. Three years ago this month, having achieved the not-inconsiderable feat of leading his county’s minors to three consecutive All-Ireland titles, he was appointed Kerry senior team manager.
In his first year, he took a team that had failed to reach even the All-Ireland semi-final stage the previous year and guided them to within a kick of a ball of winning the 2019 All-Ireland and beating the greatest team the sport has ever known.
In 2020, his team went one better in the league by winning it, but were undone in the championship by a goal in injury time of extra time.
In 2021, his team came back with a vengeance, playing devastating football in the league before going on to win the Munster Championship in the most comprehensive manner it has ever seen. But then, after being in the groove of playing a match every week or two, they had a five-week layoff and were subsequently beaten in the All-Ireland semi-final by a point in extra time.
And that, folks, was that for Keane. Didn’t matter that his team lost to the eventual All-Ireland champions. Didn’t matter that over his three years he never lost a championship match in normal regulation, that any defeat he endured was either in a replay or in extra time. He was replaced, removed, in a very public manner, his name and headshot appearing in every national paper and multiple other social and traditional media platforms.
Imagine how tough those days must have been for him and his family and management team. But even he would have understood at various times before, during, and after serving in the post, that such a possibility could come with the territory.
In Kerry, there are certain standards and expectations to be met, at least by managers, and the blunt truth of it was, Covid or no Covid, he’d fallen short. Two leagues, two Munster titles and two All-Ireland semi-final and final appearances wasn’t good enough. Kerry’s “failure” was on him.
Players are similarly droppable, disposable. If you go a game or two without playing to a certain level, you are left off the starting 15, possibly even the matchday 26, or the panel itself. And the whole county — sometimes even the whole country — knows about it, or any mistake you might make in a televised match.
Theboys can circle you on their screens and say you should have been here, you should have done this, but you didn’t track and cover back; you fumbled the ball, fluffed that kickout. You cost your side the chance to deliver an All-Ireland.
Last weekend, the GAA as an organisation fumbled the ball. Between its director general (Tom Ryan), its president (Larry McCarthy), and its director of games administration (the anonymous but highly influential Fergal Magill) who served on the fixtures review taskforce that came up with Proposals A and B, they didn’t track back and sweep up all the obvious and avoidable flaws inherent in them both. And so they blew the chance to deliver a satisfying All-Ireland for all of us as much as the infinitely-more scrutinised James Horan and his players did for Mayo the previous month. After all that momentum, talk, hype, and expectation over the preceding four weeks, they failed to get over the line.
Except the GAA hierarchy doesn’t look at it that way.
As Larry McCarthy said in declaring the result: “The motion has failed.”
He hadn’t — at least not in the way a Keane or Horan had.
Nor had Ryan. Instead, the director general cut a detached, unperturbed figure in the post-congress press conference, just, as Jack Anderson of this parish noted, like he had in a pre-congress press conference last week.
“Ryan’s tepid support,” Anderson wrote, “was a bit like how Irish people generally greet a dessert trolley. ‘I’m not really sure, do I have to? Ah sure, the chocolate cake will do.’ GAA Congress delegates know that a soft yes from the top table is really a nod saying: ‘It’s OK to vote no if you don’t know.’ ”
That was probably the most significant reason why Proposal B fell — because of what we might call ‘The Shaggy Factor’. Too many top-table officials could protest ‘It Wasn’t Me’. (We don’t even know how some delegates on the floor, like Dublin — and John Costello, a fixtures taskforce member — sided, again in stark contrast to players who often have a scoring return or even player rating alongside their name in the paper).
Or, in McCarthy’s case, the Billy Jean factor, given he didn’t set up the fixtures review taskforce.
This kid was not his son.
Magill had no such excuse, being a member of the fixtures taskforce Horan commissioned, and surely one of the figures its ex-chair Eddie Sullivan was alluding to last month in suggesting that there were people in Croke Park capable of amending any championship proposals ahead of Special Congress. Anybody who has undergone the painful process of doing a doctorate will be familiar with having to defend that doctorate and pre-empting any possible counter-arguments.
Sadly, Magill hadn’t either the inclination or ability to pre-empt them and robustly defend his taskforce’s thesis.
Any sub-committee McCarthy now commissions must do so. Proposal B’s flaws are numerous, but resolvable. First, there’s what we might call The Monaghan Factor: That the sixth-highest-ranked team in the country won’t qualify for the knockout stages of the All-Ireland. This could be easily sorted by this column’s decade-long campaign for a return to Division 1A/1B format, where the sixth-best team in the country — by virtue of being third in their eight-team group — would make it to an All-Ireland quarter-final round.
One other weakness in Proposal B that didn’t get enough attention was what we’d call the Dublin or Kerry factor.
Both those counties would almost certainly finish in the top five of Division 1. So by game six of a seven-game campaign, they’d probably have already qualified for their All-Ireland quarter-final.
There wouldn’t be enough incentive for them to top a group, and thus for supporters to go in their droves to their round-robin games.
Proposal B inadvertently was creating too much of what we’d term ‘70% Football’ in both the proposed springtime provincial championships and round-robin championship stages: Some counties wouldn’t be going near full throttle for too much of the year. But again, that is easily rectifiable.
Run your provincial round-robin provincial championships as in Proposal B, only this time appease and address the Ulster Factor. Reward the provincial champions with a fourth, or — if you really wanted to call Brian McAvoy’s bluff — a fifth home game in their All-Ireland seven-game group. Also, in the case of two teams ending up on the same number of points, the first tiebreaker becomes who won a provincial championship instead of who won the head-to-head game or had the superior scoring difference.
Then, in the championship, have eight teams in 1A and another eight in 1B. Everyone — in all four groups — plays three games at home (or four if you’re a provincial champion), three away, and one in Croke Park: every weekend there could be a game in each division held at Headquarters, making the place the new Tayto Park: Somewhere where every kid from every county can go for the ride.
The sides that top both Division 1 groups go straight through to an All-Ireland semi-final, while the sides that finish second and third qualify for the All-Ireland quarter-finals: that way you address the Dublin Factor.
Or, if you’re like Kevin O’Donovan and believe it was a strength rather than a flaw of Proposal B that the winners of Division 3 and Division 4 (or possibly 2A and 2B) qualify for the All-Ireland play-offs, such teams could play the teams that topped 1A and 1B. In a couple of years’ time, it might not be the mismatch it would be now. In 2005, Monaghan won the old D2 and pushed Tyrone hard in the last 12.
In 2008, Wexford were also the country’s 17th-ranked team by virtue of being D3 champions, and reached the All-Ireland semi-final. In 2009, the 25th-ranked team in the country, D4 champions Sligo, got within a point of Kerry in Tralee. It had only been two years since they’d been mixing with the big boys in 1A/1B. With a springtime programme of games against the best sides in their province sprinkled with winnable games against teams of their own standing, a team topping D3 and D4 could be suitably battle-hardened to be as competitive as they were in the noughties.
This all could still work out for everyone: Like a team losing a league final or a match in the provinces, absorbing the lessons, making the necessary adjustments, and coming back to win the All-Ireland.
But McCarthy needs to acknowledge all the above factors, especially the Shaggy one. He and Ryan are lucky they have another chance when a Peter Keane did not.
Deliver a fit-for-purpose All-Ireland for 2023, whether that’s through Congress or another special Congress in 2022.
If they don’t, it’s on them.