Football’s B Championship proposals warrant A+ planning and debate

There are three straightforward, interrelated questions to be asked about the proposed establishment by the GAA of a B All-Ireland Championship for inter-county Gaelic football:

Football’s B Championship proposals warrant A+ planning and debate

There are three straightforward, interrelated questions to be asked about the proposed establishment by the GAA of a B All-Ireland Championship for inter-county Gaelic football:

1. What is the purpose of the competition?

2. Who is this being done for?

3. How does the GAA make policy?

A good place to start looking for the answers is in the briefing that the president of the GAA, John Horan, gave to journalists when he discussed the plans for what he calls a ‘two-tier championship’.

When you look through the briefing for a clear exposition of why a B All-Ireland Football Championship is being introduced, it is difficult to find one – beyond the assertion that a gap exists between Division 3 and 4 teams and the rest.

If the purpose of the B championship is to close the gap between the weakest teams and the strongest ones, it is doomed to failure.

Worse than that, the introduction of such a championship will carry the illusion of a strategic attempt to meet the needs of those who do not enjoy success. But it will only be an illusion. Indeed, far from working to close the gap, it will instead most likely perpetuate it.

Sops such as promising a B All-Star tour and increased media exposure for the competition are hollow and insubstantial.

Basically, the idea that the B Championship should be introduced in isolation, rather than as part of a wider programme of reform of funding, coaching, and structural form of the calendar, is a complete nonsense.

In the course of the briefing, it is fascinating to observe that any attempt to tease out the nature of any refined plan in all of these areas was met with no meaningful answer by John Horan – beyond a defence of the funding received by Dublin.

It may very well be that an All-Ireland B Football Championship is the right decision – but the case for it has not been properly made.

It must be part of wider structural reform and its introduction must be tied to a series of measures that can be transformative of the fortunes of counties who are currently struggling.

And as for the second question – who is this being done for? – the presumption must be that it is being done for those counties who do not regularly compete for championship honours within the current system.

But, as one inter-county player said this week: “I don’t want to play in a B championship. We already have a tiered system. It’s called the League. I love the League. It’s a brilliant competition. If we want to progress through our level, we have promotion to aim at. And it’s a great aim.

“But I also love the championship. I have only ever won one inter-county provincial championship match and a few qualifiers.

"But that’s not the point. I get to play against the very best teams to see where I am. It’s knockout football. And it’s a great experience. Defeat is hard to take and we have had a few beatings. I’d prefer that than be stuck in a dead-end, second-rate championship.”

Part of this, of course, is the search for glory – for that genuine sense of unique achievement, a full-time feeling that will last a lifetime:

“So which do you think the Laois players got the greatest kick out? Do you think it was winning the Joe McDonagh Cup? Or beating Dublin in the real competition?”

All of this leads inevitably on to the third essential question: how does the GAA make policy decisions?

In this instance, John Horan was absolutely clear that his basic ambition is to get a two-tier system accepted, come what may.

He said: “The whole idea of pushing the Tier Two is to get an appreciation that Tier Two is accepted within the organisation. The last time we came in with a big fixture plan, Tier Two was in the middle of it and it just fell out the back door. It didn’t happen.

“You all know it yourselves: it’s the norm in hurling, it’s the norm in ladies football, in camogie to have tiers.

“It always seemed to be a barrier in football.

So we want to crack that barrier and that will actually give certainty to the fixture committee before they come back with their report that Tier Two has now been accepted within the organisation and they can fit it in with a structure.

But detail matters, clarity of purpose matters, basic planning matters. To commit to creating an All-Ireland B Football Championship without a proper rounded plan for the entirety of Gaelic football is absurd. And, of course, it failed before when it was not properly thought out.

And, what is evident here is that there is no proper plan. It is the GAA once again going about things in an ad hoc manner. For example, when asked what would be on the agenda for the Special GAA Congress that would create the All-Ireland B Championship, John Horan said:

“Experimental football rules, the Tier Two proposal, and there may be one or two other items on it, we just haven’t clarified that yet.”

This is not how change should be undertaken. So the same Special Congress that will bring in a B All-Ireland may also outlaw the backpass in Gaelic Football and maybe introduce a black card in hurling and what else?

All of this offers an insight into slapdash policy making. That sense is manifest in two other crucial points.

Firstly, the GAA set up a new committee in June to examine the fixtures calendar.

And yet Central Council has now decided to change the dates on which the All- Ireland club hurling and football finals are played.

Moving these finals from March 17 may be the correct thing to do, but how can this be a decision taken at this point and in isolation, rather than after a full consideration from the Fixtures Committee which will report in November?

Secondly, when the issue of whether the number of counties competing in the Leinster Hurling Championship should be increased from 5 to 6 was raised, John Horan did not see it as something that was imminent and gave no indication that he thought it was a good idea when asked two questions about it by journalists.

But fast forward a couple of weeks and (following Laois’s victory over Dublin) it is now considered almost inevitable that Leinster will be increased to 6 teams.

Again, this is an entirely incoherent approach to planning. More than that, it underlines that this is not how a progressive sports organisation should run its flagship competitions.

Paul Rouse is associate professor of history at University College Dublin.

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