Dr Ed Coughlan: How Gaelic football will benefit from a championship restructuring

The Leinster final proved another mismatch in a football championship season that is yet to heat up, says Dr Ed Coughlan.

Dr Ed Coughlan: How Gaelic football will benefit from a championship restructuring

The Leinster final proved another mismatch in a football championship season that is yet to heat up, says Dr Ed Coughlan.

As Wimbledon approaches, the announcement of the seedings for the fortnight at SW19 requires little more than a cursory glance as common sense often prevails.

Even on the sport’s most unpredictable surface, the top seeds tend to face off against each other in the second week, especially in the men’s game.

That is not to suggest there is the occasional upset in the early days: Rafael Nadal was beaten by Lukas Rosol in 2012, Roger Federer by Sergiy Stakhovsky in 2013. Yet neither Rosol nor Stakhovsky made it through to week two of the championships. The Herculean effort to beat a top-ranked player on an off day is what makes sport exciting to watch but it does not mean they are in the same category as those they’ve beaten.

A similar story exists within our national games, and in particular Gaelic football. Largely, common sense appears to have prevailed on the hurling side of Croke Park administration with a tiered system that pits counties against each other where the outcome is not a foregone conclusion before the ball is even thrown in. No doubt, there are some minor tweaks to be addressed in Munster regarding a clear and fair pathway for progression, but beyond that, the hurling competition structure is in good shape.

On the flip side, the football championship commenced in the first week of May and eight weeks on, we are still waiting for the action to heat up. Historically, the lifeblood of the GAA was to provide people with a day out to support their heroes.

But times have changed and the commitment that both players and management are expected to invest in their county deserves more than the inevitable early exit from the one and only competition on offer.

Wexford, Derry, Meath, Limerick, Wicklow, Antrim, Westmeath, and London were all out by the first week of June. Soon after they were followed by Waterford, Carlow, Down, Tipperary, Sligo, Longford, Louth, and Offaly. Sixteen teams consigned to a long summer of nothing to look forward to but the prospect of football in January next year. That is a lot of work and man hours of effort for two, maybe three games, especially, when the league is now dismissed as merely a warm-up for the Championship.

No disrespect to those teams and others who still remain in the competition, but the fact remains there is a gaping hole in class between the top tier teams and the also-rans.

In fact, there are probably three tiers in existence which, if properly structured, would provide a framework for the long-term development of players and coaches.

It can’t go unnoticed each of the Division One teams are still alive in the Championship, with the provincial winners also coming from the top tier (though Donegal will be in Division Two next year).

Furthermore, because of the all-Division One clash between Kildare and Mayo, do not be surprised if seven of the eight Division One teams make it into the new Super 8 format next month. Then (and finally) the quality of our national sport will be showcased in a positive light reflected in genuine competitive fixtures that will go a long way to deciding who raises Sam Maguire in September.

The challenge point framework of sport performance could direct a more common- sense approach to solving this competition conundrum.

The basic premise of the challenge point framework is that an athlete will improve from the effort they invest in practice, and by association, any task they engage in if the task difficulty is appropriate to their current ability.

Not so far out in front of them to be a pointless endeavour, not so far below them to be worthy of dismissal.

In other words, the degree of the challenge facing an athlete has a significant impact on their engagement and motivation to stay involved.

When frustrations and knockbacks present themselves, whether they view the challenge as insurmountable or not will ultimately direct their decision.

Understandably, it is very difficult to commit to a lost cause.

The potential for athletes and coaches to learn and develop is based on three things: their skill level, the task complexity, and the task environment. Which adds an interesting angle to this week’s Newbridge or Nowhere saga. Let us assume Kildare are completely correct in standing firm on their insistence to host their match against Mayo.

However, it is not unfair to suggest that their skill level is somewhat below that of Mayo, arguably the second-best team of the decade. Furthermore, the complexity of the task of beating them in Championship could be seen as a tall order. Finally, to have to do it in Croke Park, Mayo’s adopted home away from home, is an environment that has proven too much for the many who have fallen to them in recent years.

Yet, St Conleth’s Park in the heart of Newbridge is an environment that could well change this fixture into a close-run battle.

The tight pitch dimensions, the far from comfortable changing rooms and what will now be a raucous home support could change what was once seen as a formality for Mayo into an achievable challenge for Kildare.

However, think for a moment the impact of the interconnecting items of the challenge point framework. The idea of having teams playing against opposition where skill level is not so demonstrably different. Ensuring venues are not an unfair advantage to one team over another.

Moreover, providing players and coaches with an opportunity to compete in a challenging competition that will see them play throughout the summer in the best conditions of the year.

It is worth pointing out that neither Kerry, Donegal, nor Dublin learned anything about themselves last weekend. In fact, they appear to be playing in a completely different competition to almost everyone else and seem to be just waiting for the other usual suspects to join them for a month of proper football across July and August.

There is so much to be gained by providing a platform for balanced competitions across the summer months. Current Division Two, Three, and Four teams would have something to train for — let alone play for — if there was a greater likelihood of competitive matches. Furthermore, management teams would have something tangible to make long-term plans for. Most are set up to fail because they need to play a brand of football to avoid being slaughtered rather than preparing to win. Coaches and players can test themselves against peers rather than legends, which may sometimes result in an upset but more often than not games become a boring mismatch.

No doubt it would be a difficult transition for counties to make peace with the fact that for a period of time Sam Maguire is systematically out of reach. But tradition is not enough of a reason to subject players and coaches to an inevitable fall, year in year out.

If we really want to grow the game, we must first get the challenge point right. The time for change is now.

PaperTalk Munster final podcast with Anthony Daly and Ger Cunningham

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