KIERAN SHANNON: For all the changes, the GAA approach remains the same

An Éire Óg defender gets his clearance away. Picture: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

They’d like to think they’re making changes — and for the better — but it would appear to be that the GAA’s modus operandi is just business as usual under the new leadership tandem of John Horan and Tom Ryan.

On the surface some of Horan’s suggestions and actions concerning the GAA calendar and its competition structures seem progressive, even welcome.

Already he’s seen to it that next year’s hurling championship will have no team playing three consecutive weekends in the provincial round-robin series.

Restructuring the hurling league for 2020 is also a logical move, recognising the new reality that’s the new-look championship; the last thing a team facing into a dog pit like the Munster championship is another carnivorous league as the old Division 1A often amounted to.

And then there’s what could well emerge as the defining element of his legacy: His recommendation for a tiered football championship.

At a press launch of the ESRI report last week he informed us of the following steps that had been or would be taken: He’d put it to the floor at Central Council for “just a straw-poll opinion”.

Everyone put their hand up. As a result, they’d written to the counties to ask them to come up with what they feel is the best way to roll out such a competition.

If he had his way Division Three or Four team that get to a provincial final would still have the chance to get to the Super 8s. Even though the Super 8s could be scrapped after the 2020 championship. I mean, they could be, couldn’t they?

It’s supposed to be just a three-year experiment. Something temporary, not necessarily set in stone, right?

Conceivably they could be discarded by the 2021 championship, even though by 2020 Horan could have presided over the introduction of a new championship which would be working on the premise that the Super 8s would still be in place….

And this is the problem.

For all the changes, the GAA’s MO is still the same. Still only tweaking, meddling, institutionalising the ad-hoc. Applying a sticking plaster when the diagnosis suggests radical surgery is required.

We’re coming up nearly two years now since the Club Players Association (CPA) was formed and while Horan and Ryan have already met with its representatives, you’d have to wonder by Horan’s recent pronouncements did they listen to them.

Their treasurer Anthony Moyles articulated their concern better than most last year when being critical of the GAA’s preference for “incremental change”.

“It doesn’t fix the wound. You are putting on your sticking plaster. You need to have a situation where the nettle is eventually grasped, disregarding any roadblocks that are there. Incremental change has been happening for 20 years, there’s been bits and pieces. We’ve to come to it with a blank canvas.”

The CPA recently reiterated that stance both publicly and privately to Horan at a meeting with him and other leading figures in Croke Park last month, calling for “the appointment of a select committee consisting of experienced and suitably qualified people from both inside and outside the GAA with a strong independent chair to look at the fixtures crisis in totality”.

In their view, “nobody in the room argued it wasn’t needed.”

And yet just weeks after that call for such a committee and a blank canvas and Horan is already working off an existing piece of paper, penning his own added notes on the margins.

And so the madness continues. A predominantly summer sport like hurling will have its national league starting in January and its preseason provincial competitions starting in December, meaning pre-season collective training for many teams will start in November.

And then we feint wonder and alarm that 40% of players in the ESRI report claim they have no break from the games.

In advocating the case for the Super 8s, Ryan’s predecessor Páraic Duffy argued that the new format and schedule would facilitate the earlier staging and completion of county championships throughout the country, vehemently pointing out that by the first week of August, only the All-Ireland semi-finalists would still be playing inter-county football; by mid-August, just the two finalists.

Now, if Horan has his way, the finalists in an ‘intermediate’ All-Ireland will playing as the curtain-raiser for the Sam Maguire decider itself [Though there are some saying it should be the U20s. And right now it’s the U17s].

Which is fine in itself but dilutes Duffy’s argument as up to eight counties would still be involved by mid-August.

At some point the meddling has to stop.

You cannot keep institutionalising the ad-hoc forever. Basic questions have to be asked, basic assumptions have to be challenged.

For instance, does there have to be a national league?

Especially with more and more people copping on that a championship with some form of league format is ultimately the best and most equitable way of running of a championship?

While there’s a growing resentment to the provincial championships taking up so much of the summer months, there would also be a reluctance among the public and players and not just the provincial councils to discarding them completely, so what if inter-county football season started with the provincial championships instead, runoff in a round-robin format?

Wouldn’t less people lament the passing of the national league than the provincial championships?

Would there be anything wrong with the inter-county season not starting until March? Already there are traditionalists bemoaning that September now is solely a shop window to the women’s finals and the club game but the biggest league in the world — the NFL — is happy to be done and dusted over five months.

Say the GAA finally does get run off in the one calendar year, the club All-Ireland finals played before Christmas. What better way to fill and celebrate the St Patrick’s Day weekend slot than with the launch of the new inter-county season?

That way players wouldn’t have to report back to collective pre-season training until the new year, students could focus on third-level competition up to mid-February, long-term burnout would be considerably reduced.

And here’s another assumption only a blank-canvas attitude would challenge. Does the championship have to start in May only? Is it so ingrained in our psyche that we need that air of anticipation, the smell of cut grass and the longer evenings for it to feel and be championship? Or, to facilitate more summer championship action for the club player, can we live with the inter-county championships starting that bit earlier?

There’s quite a few important episodes of recent GAA history that tends to be overlooked by the powers-that-be, such as the old Division 1A-1B format that helped the noughties become the most egalitarian and evenly-contested era in football history as the Fermanaghs and Wexfords reached All-Ireland semi-finals from routinely playing the Mayos and Tyrones in the spring; and now we wonder why football has become so elite when even in the spring the top teams are essentially treated like a gated community, while an honest and progressive Division 2 team like Clare are kept on the outside when their equivalent in the noughties got to play and mix with the privileged.

The Football Review Committee (FRC) of 1999 is another episode that is worthy of being resurrected from the archives. Its proposals eventually led to the introduction of the qualifiers but their initial recommendation was for a two-tier competition amalgamating league and championship which would begin in the spring.

Seven teams from Ulster and four from Connacht would comprise a northern conference, then the top seven in Leinster and the top four in Munster making up the south. You’d still have provincial semi-finals and finals, with the winners then making it through to the All-Ireland semi-finals, while the winner of the All-Ireland intermediate championship would be promoted to the Sam Maguire race the following season.

Ultimately the package was rejected when counties took their lead from Cork and Frank Murphy.

Murphy’s main contention was that it would kill off the dual star and that championship was championship: Do-or-die, simple as.

But all these years on there’s an acceptance that Tony Kelly should be guaranteed more than one championship game, even if it means Podge Collins being unable to play both sports.

I remember at the time asking Art McRory, a member of the Football Development Committee, his main rationale behind the proposal. He was blunt in his reply. “To help the club game.”

Under the FDC’s plan every county would get 10 competitive games and yet no more than 14. There’d be plenty of weekends for club action throughout the summer because the county programme of games would be staggered.

Everyone would know when the club was playing and when the county was playing. Who knows that now?

In Kilkenny they’re ready to march on Croke Park over the lack of club action throughout the height of the summer just past.

A McRory-like proposal, or a blank-canvas approach, could appease – even please – them.

Continuing to stick a plaster over the wound won’t.


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