Football: Time for new direction

Sport is, first and foremost, all about fair play, in principle if not always in practice.

This is something I believe everyone can agree on. It follows, therefore, that competitions should also be based on the principles of fairness and equity.

In most sports, including club GAA, great efforts are made to have equality in all competitions. We have senior, premier intermediate, intermediate, premier junior, junior and novice club competitions, all of which are designed to give every club a sporting chance of winning.

Why then, at inter-county championship level have we some of the most inequitable competitions imaginable? The answer is, of course, that’s what the majority want or is prepared to put up with, especially in football. This is particularly strange when you consider that every county feels it must play for the Sam Maguire Cup regardless of its own size, resources (both personnel and financial) and history. Yet only a select few counties have any realistic hope of achieving All-Ireland glory.

Those on the periphery merely live in faint hope of somehow upsetting the massive odds that are invariably stacked against them. It is a hope that has got smaller over the years and will almost inevitably continue to become even more remote in the future. How often have you heard successful county spokesmen (it’s never women, but that’s an argument for another day) say upon winning the biggest prize of all: “A county like ours needs to win the All-Ireland every now and then to keep the game alive.” What then will keep the game alive in weaker counties if this All-Ireland success is the very basis for survival in the strong counties?

When the qualifiers were introduced, it was officially to give teams a second chance after suffering defeat at provincial level. Many of us in the GAA at the time felt that giving counties a second chance could potentially be of tremendous benefit to the weaker teams in the competition. Sadly this has not turned out to be the case. Instead, the backdoor system has helped the stronger counties far more as it gives them a chance to regroup and march onwards (Galway, Cork, Kerry and Tyrone). It has done little or nothing of worth for the weaker counties, apart from the occasional good result, which, with so many games being played over a 10-year period was inevitable, but hardly significant.

So, what do we do? Nothing? In an interview some months ago, Paraic Duffy said there wasn’t much point complaining about the All-Ireland Championship format if you couldn’t come up with a better alternative. It’s a fair point.

So here goes. I am proposing a format that will restore the status of the provincial championships, will strengthen the national league and make the All-Ireland both a better and fairer spectacle for all. Is this possible or desirable? I believe it is. I don’t like wasting time doing things that fail to get desirable results. For that reason, let’s first dispense with this notion that the open draw is the so-called “great equaliser”. Old habits die hard in the GAA, and the open draw has as much chance of being accepted as Pat Spillane has of being voted ‘Diplomat of the Year’. So let’s forgot about the open draw.

What do I suggest? Leave the national league as is and the provincial championships as they are (i.e. let each province decide how to run their own championship). That could mean either retaining the status quo or possibly introducing a round robin series. What we don’t want, however, is the situation that exists at minor level. Tipperary have beaten Kerry in the Munster MFC twice in this year’s competition and yet Kerry are in an All-Ireland quarter-final this Sunday. Even most Kerry people find that puzzling. And then we talk about the burnout at minor level? The minor system in its current guise makes no sense.

But back to the matter at hand, the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship. The Tommy Murphy Cup was a good idea, but bringing it in after counties were defeated twice in the championship was a bridge too far. Do we need two championships? Yes, we do. After the conclusion of the provincial championships, 16 teams should go into the draw for the Sam Maguire Cup. The rest should go into the draw for the Tommy Murphy Cup (or whatever that secondary championship might be called).

What 16 qualify for the Sam Maguire Cup? Firstly, the two finalists in each provincial championship will progress through to the next stage. That’s eight counties, twice as many as the number that qualified under the old knockout system, which existed for more than a 100 years, when only the provincial winners went through. As a further incentive, provincial champions should get a home game.

What other eight counties would make up the final 16? After year one the winners and runners-up of the previous year’s Tommy Murphy Cup would qualify. This in itself would give real status to the Tommy Murphy Cup. This brings the total to 10 counties. The other six counties (eight in year one) would be selected on their position in the national league. Parallels can be drawn with the Premier League where finishing in the top four qualifies teams for the Champions League, while finishing fifth or sixth lands you Europa League football for the coming season.

Such a system provides a real incentive to counties to finish as high up in the national league as possible. Just as importantly, it’s a system that is fair and transparent. The other 16 counties (plus New York and London) would go into the secondary championship. I have no doubt such a system would take off in a big way. The only thing preventing it happening is fear of the unknown.

However, it would be very easy for the GAA to make this a success. It would be their responsibility to promote the Tommy Murphy Cup. If promoted with vigour and dedication, the Tommy Murphy Cup would become a credible event with its own prestige and merit. The draw would take place along with the Sam Maguire. The semi-finals and final would take place in Croke Park. The final should be played the same day as one of the All-Ireland semi-finals. It would be the main game of that day taking place at 3.30 pm, with live TV coverage of the final.

The secondary championship would have its own All-Star team who would get a trip with the Sam Maguire All-Stars and play them in a competitive fixture. This would be a far more interesting format then the current situation whereby the All-Stars of one year play the All-Stars of the previous year. There is an obvious flaw in this arrangement whereby frequent overlaps require a raft of additional subs. Certainly a fixture between the representatives of the ‘Tommy Murphy Cup’ and the Sam Maguire would provide a greater spectacle and a very competitive encounter.

Of course, there will be naysayers who will tell you that such a system would never catch on. I strongly believe they are wrong. Look, for example, at the way the Christy Ring and Nicky Rackard Cups (sadly with little or no promotion) have incentivised weaker hurling counties. Look at how the All-Ireland club competitions have caught fire.

A secondary competition as I have outlined could do the same for Gaelic Football. Weak counties, like Fermanagh, Wicklow and Waterford, to name three, can never aspire to winning Sam. But they would have real incentive and hope of winning the competition.

Under this system these sides are also taking part in the Sam Maguire Cup through the retention of the provincial championships.

This is a win/win proposal for the GAA. It adds much needed spice to the national leagues and reinvigorates a severely weakened provincial championship system while retaining the local derbies that have been so integral to the games for well over 100 years. It is also, crucially, transparent and fair, offering no critical advantage to one county over another. It would also be a big money-spinner if promoted correctly, as competitiveness would be restored at both Sam Maguire Cup and Tommy Murphy Cup level.

I do hope it will be given support. If however you don’t approve, try, as Paraic Duffy said, to come up with a better system. For tradition, in and of itself, is no reason to follow a course set out in front of us. It’s time for another change of direction. It’s high time we stopped going from side to side, and instead start moving our beloved game forward once more.

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