Seán Kelly: These Championship proposals will work if given the chance

A few years ago, I had the privilege of proposing on these pages how I believed the All-Ireland Football Championships should be restructured to make it more appealing, more relevant and, above all, more rewarding for the most important component — the players and management.

Seán Kelly: These Championship proposals will work if given the chance

My proposals received a lot of positive reaction at the time. Now that the flaws in the current provincial system and the qualifiers have been further highlighted, people are beginning to ask consistently: is it time for change?

The answer is yes. And the sooner the better.

The GPA says they are going to canvass players on this issue, with Dessie Farrell adding that the provincial championship system has run its course. I don’t think that is the case and I doubt if inter-county players think so either. People have spoken about a Champions League-type championship, or four provinces of eight.

My answer to those suggestions is that the Champions League works well in soccer but will never work in the All-Ireland Football Championship which has a tradition going back over 130 years.

As for the four provinces of eight, well, it’s a nice mathematical concept, but it’s a few hundred years too late. Redrawing the provincial boundaries is never going to happen. So what’s the solution?

The best solution is essentially what we proposed here in 2012. I think more and more people are coming around to that way of thinking. I even saw that Jim McGuinness proposed — broadly speaking - the same concept recently in The Irish Times.

There’s no doubt about it, the qualifier system has lessened the importance of the provincial championships. However, that does not mean we should get rid of them. Absolutely not.

Firstly, our provincial councils are an essential part of the structure of the GAA. People identify with their province. Players like playing in their provincial championships; Centuries-old rivalries which are the bedrock of the GAA have been nourished and cultivated by the provincial competitions. Imagine no Munster final ever again between Cork and Kerry or Cork and Tipperary in hurling.

Ditto other provinces. So, the solution is not to get rid of the provincial championships, but improve them. It can be done.

Basically, all we need to do is introduce two All-Ireland Championships: one Sam Maguire Cup for the top 16 counties and one Tommy Murphy Cup-type competition for the rest — not forgetting London and New York.

The provincial championships are played on a knockout basis. For the Sam Maguire Cup, the finalists of each province qualify, as do the previous years’ finalists of the Tommy Murphy Cup. Then, the rest of the 16 are selected based on the positions they finished in the national league.

The remaining counties will then compete for the Tommy Murphy Cup. This adds a new dimension to the leagues, as the higher up a county finishes, the better the chances of guaranteeing a ranking that will see them compete for the top-tiered All-Ireland Championship, ie, the Sam Maguire. The provincial championships may then decide on how best to run their own championship — be it an open draw or seeded draw.

With this system, every player can play in their provincial championship but now, also, entertain a more than realistic hope of winning an All-Ireland medal — either a Sam Maguire or a Tommy Murphy one.

For me, this is guaranteed to work; all it takes is a bit of imagination and promotion. The key for this to work is to play as many games as possible — certainly up to quarter-final level — home or away, or failing that, a Sam Maguire and Tommy Murphy game together as part of a double-header. Television coverage has to be arranged so that both championships get ample coverage. There should be an All Stars team — and an All Stars trip — for the Tommy Murphy Championship team too.

It wouldn’t work? Well, we introduced it for hurling and it’s working very well. The major downside in hurling is that when we introduced the Christy Ring and Nicky Rackard Cups, we insisted that both would be played as curtain-raisers to the All-Ireland semi-finals and televised live.

That happened initially but was then changed to playing them in an empty Croke Park on a Saturday afternoon at the end of May or early June. Big mistake, but even with that they are a huge success. So, for the Tommy Murphy Cup, the finals should be played on the same day as an All-Ireland semi-final. This is gold — what player wouldn’t bite his hand off for that?

This solution I offer is so obvious that I can’t understand why it won’t be introduced at least for a trial period of three years. Instead we dilly and dally over utter nonsense like Champions Leagues, redrawing the provincial boundaries, eliminating the provincial championships and, oh yes, a round robin.

The GAA championship is all about tradition; it’s all about knockout and beating your neighbour. So embrace that and improve it. My proposals do just that and great minds and players like Dara Ó Cinnéide and Jim McGuinness agree.

Jim McGuinness made a valid point when he said “players want to feel that they are on the big stage”. With these proposals, they will. In fact, they will be on the big stage every day they go out.

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