JOHN FOGARTY: It's time to reform football’s provinces

If you thought your eyes and ears deceived you last week, you wouldn’t be alone. Aogán Ó Fearghail and Páraic Duffy endorsing more championship matches? 
Come again?

Wasn’t it the GAA president who last November told the Irish Independent: “We have taken a decision that we don’t want any more inter-county games. 

“Round-robin or group stages – whether in provinces or outside – would increase the number of games so any proposal that includes them will not be looked at any further. 

“We’re simply not going to squeeze the clubs anymore. On the contrary, we’re trying to free up more time for them.”

In January, director general Duffy outlined why the GPA’s football championship blueprint wasn’t included on the Clár: “Clearly, you cannot have a principle that says we want to protect the club game and then turn around and recommend a proposal that increases the number of Championship games.” 

Admittedly, the GPA were calling for almost a double of the current amount of matches, not the extra eight fixtures which is part of Duffy’s plan but what he said back then about the official players body – “they want more games” – clearly now applies to the GAA’s hierarchy.

When convinced by the strength of an argument, Duffy hasn’t been afraid to change his mind. 

The sanctity of the September All-Ireland finals was once something he strove to enshrine but he has since recognised the value of condensing the championship.

However, this change of heart is all of his own making and quite sudden considering his public views earlier this year.

The GPA, in their reaction to Duffy’s recommendations, didn’t cover themselves in glory. 

In this newspaper last Friday, their head of communications Seán Potts backed it – “We would broadly and warmly welcome the proposals” – yet over the weekend the GPA’s official Twitter account were highlighting their rejected blueprint called for more matches for weaker counties.

This reaction seemed to come in the face of criticism on social media from footballers that developing sides hadn’t been truly considered in Duffy’s plan. 

Most of the pros and cons of the new structure have already been laid out. 

The potential anomalies of an Ulster team having to play 11 games to win an All-Ireland and a county being able to go all the way having lost on three occasions are worrying.

The loss of non-final replays will be more than compensated for by the eight extra matches, which the GAA can’t hide would give a boost to the coffers in terms of gate receipts and TV money. 

All the same, Duffy’s remarks about there being too many games available for live broadcast may come under further scrutiny.

On the plus side, putting more space between provinces and the All-Ireland series could work to a degree. 

Galway and Tyrone have exited the championship so soon after their first provincial championship victories in eight and six years respectively. 

Their defeats to Tipperary and Mayo have taken the sheen off their achievements yet were they to play three “quarter-final” round robin games there would at least be more value for them and perhaps their Nestor and Anglo-Celt Cups mightn’t feel as worthless. 

Having said that, from an All-Ireland viewpoint being provincial champions doesn’t carry so much weight when now they will likely be required to win twice instead of once to reach an All-Ireland semi-final.

Whatever about the strong arguments claiming the new GAA-GPA deal being a poke in the eye for the club player, Duffy’s structure isn’t another although it will further complicate the aspirations of attaining a calendar season. 

The thorniest issue is, of course, a dependable club fixtures season but that lies with county boards and also provincial councils who simply must condense their championship durations. 

As regards the availability of county players, when boards aren’t willing to enforce the 13-day rule, Croke Park can only do so much. 

In fact, if Duffy’s plan is to be equitable even more championship games are needed but at provincial level. Last year, the Leinster Council, along with Carlow and Longford, almost succeeded with their motion to enable provinces the right to change the structures of their championships. 

With the exclusion of Dublin, it seems Leinster would be better served by guaranteeing its counties three games in a round robin.

Played over four consecutive weekends, the 10 participating counties could be split into three round robin groups with the best team in each earning semi-final places alongside Dublin. 

A two-week break would then follow for the semi-final and a similar gap prior to the final. 

All in all, eight weeks – one less than the current time it takes to stage their 10 fixtures.

Imagine two openly-drawn groups of three in Munster and Connacht with the table-toppers winning through to the final, a minimum of two provincial matches for everyone? 

Both competitions could be played off in five weeks (six in Connacht considering New York). Connacht currently requires 10 weeks for six matches. 

The Ulster SFC, in its current guise as an eight-game straight knock-out, can stand on its own but it too must shrink for the benefit of clubs. Hosting the four quarter-finals over two weekends instead of four would do just that. 

Without promising more games for developing counties and further tightening of the inter-county season, Duffy’s plan falls short but at least it is a discussion paper.

There should be room with a view to amend.

Provoked Connolly far from a complete innocent

It's time to reform football’s provinces

Former Dublin manager Pat Gilroy took to Twitter on Sunday evening to defend his St Vincent’s club-mate Diarmuid Connolly as well as Seán Cavanagh following their dismissals on Saturday.

“Ironic two of the cleanest footballers in Ireland get sent off this weekend #rewardsledging,” he posted.

There is little doubt Connolly was subjected to provocation against Donegal - as he has been over the last 12 months - but to paint him as a complete innocent borders on the disingenuous.

In fact, he was the instigator in the incident which saw him pick up his first yellow card when he brought down Ryan McHugh off the ball. 

It made redundant what Jim Gavin said about his team not deserving to go down to 13 men because of the way they play. If that wasn’t arrogance then it came extremely close to it. 

Michael Murphy should have been red carded for hitting Brian Fenton with a closed fist, Eoghan O’Gara shouldn’t have been dismissed but what about Philly McMahon making contact with Leo McLoone’s face and the verbal onslaught from Jonny Cooper on Murphy in the tunnel at half-time which prompted the Donegal captain to push him to the ground? 

Mickey Harte was as incredulous as Gavin about Seán Cavanagh’s red card after a game where his players were determined to test the length of Aidan O’Shea’s fuse.

Deadlock will reignite fans’ flames

It's time to reform football’s provinces

After Sunday’s momentous All-Ireland semi-final, Derek McGrath spoke of how he hoped his team’s performance would rally the county. 

“I think the people of Waterford will take great confidence out of how the lads just went for it when they had to.” 

Prior to the weekend, many in Waterford had yet to forgive the team for the Munster final defeat.

One keen observer of the team admitted he had never experienced as negative a public reaction to a Waterford win as that which followed the Wexford quarter-final. 

Waterford may revert to a more defensive style for Saturday’s replay but it should take more than the side playing a conventional style of hurling for fans to get back on board. 

Sunday’s display had to be built towards that and while McGrath’s work may not yet be complete true supporters will have recognised it was one in the making. 

To get to that point measures had to be taken.

In Kilkenny, the draw may just have reawakened fans from a complacent slumber that has beset the county in recent years. 

Even if their replay record indicates normal service will resume in Thurles, there will be doubts and they should ensure the black and amber brigade flock to Semple Stadium.

john.fogarty@examiner.ie


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