Cork manager Ronan McCarthy has criticised the second-rate structuring of the 2020 All-Ireland football championship, describing as unacceptable that football teams must make do with a straight knockout format whereas the hurling championship will have a backdoor.
The poor treatment of football in relation to this year’s championship restructuring, McCarthy argued, is the latest in a long line of Croke Park-led decisions which have seen the game come off “second best” to hurling.
Although cognisant of the condensed timeframe Croke Park fixture-makers were working with, McCarthy says there is no excuse for not delivering a format that affords counties a second chance, particularly when the hurling championship has a backdoor built into it.
Fitting a football qualifier system into the eight weekends from October 31/November 1 to December 19/20 was not doable. But counties could have been guaranteed more than one championship fixture had an open draw been used or the inter-county season been brought forward when the beginning of the club window was moved from July 31 to July 17.
As it is, Cork will begin the championship with a Munster semi-final against Kerry, the first time since 2000 the counties have met in a knockout provincial clash.
“If there is a backdoor in hurling, there should be a backdoor in football. The justification that there are too many teams in football is no justification at all,” McCarthy told the Irish Examiner.
“There was a balance to be achieved and look, it was going to be tight and it was going to be difficult to do, but both championships should have been treated the same. For what is invested in it by players, I think it is a poor return on that. And I suppose I’m looking then at a trend over the last number of years where I would feel that football has kinda come off second best.
“You had the situation in recent years where U20 hurlers could also play senior inter-county, whereas U20 footballers could not.
“You had a situation where there was a backdoor in U20 hurling, whereas there was no backdoor in U20 football.
“You have the constant revamping of the hurling league where, basically, there has been no relegation the last number of years and a lot of kinda meaningless matches to make sure the top teams stay in the top divisions.
“And you had a situation this year where U20 football was put back into February in the middle of the college season, so there is a bigger question really in relation to the treatment of football as a whole. It has become almost acceptable to treat football and the football championship poorly, and the only grounds for that seems to be that there are more teams.
“Football is obviously my passion, first and foremost. People who are interested in football really need to stand up and be accounted for, and to say, this isn’t acceptable that there would be more favourable treatment given to hurling than there is to football. That is a trend that nobody can deny. It has been led in Croke Park and it needs to stop.
“It is something I felt strongly about before now, but again, it has been repeated with the different treatment of both codes for this year’s championship. In the situation we are in, it is difficult to get a system that is going to keep everyone happy, but, as I say, if there was going to be a backdoor in one code later this year, there should have been a backdoor in the other.”
Despite his grievances with the structure cooked up by Croke Park, McCarthy says he is relishing their winner-takes-all Munster semi-final against the Kingdom on November 7/8.
“It is something to really look forward to, something to really treasure because it could possibly be the last time there is a knockout game like that. Certainly, other teams might have an easier avenue earlier on. But to ultimately be successful, you are going to have to beat the Kerrys, Dublins, Tyrones, Donegals, and Galways. We have to try and do it in our first game.”
The manager welcomed the opportunity to finish out their Division 3 league campaign before Kerry’s likely visit to Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Victory over Louth on the first weekend back would seal promotion with a round to spare.
It emerged last Friday evening that the Kerry SFC is to conclude on the weekend of September 26/27, affording manager Peter Keane six uninterrupted weeks with his panel ahead of their game with Cork. McCarthy is hopeful of a similar preparatory period when the Cork county championship program is unveiled tomorrow. He is confident club players in Cork will be provided with something a little more meaningful than a rushed, blitz-style championship.
“It is important that there is a really good quality club championship, that players are given games. Ultimately, that is what it is about, be it at inter-county or club level, that players have matches. I think that is what the executive will put in place, be it three groups of four or four groups of three in each grade.
“Some of the formats that some of the counties have suggested are disgraceful and running off games almost blitz-style is appalling. What our executive and our board are trying to do is get that balance right. It will be tight, no question about it, but if we get that six weeks of preparation after a meaningful county championship, I don’t think anyone could complain."