Thinking outside the box: Five ways the GAA calendar could be reshaped in 2021

Tom Ryan: 'We’ve all manner of contingency plans but three or four of them have already been torn up and thrown out since the start of the year'
Thinking outside the box: Five ways the GAA calendar could be reshaped in 2021

A general view of Croke Park ahead of the 2020 All-Ireland SHC semi-final between Limerick and Galway. While the hurling championship has few enough teams to give every county a second chance, in the football equivalent, it may have to be straight knock-out again in 2021. Picture: INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

Increasingly pressed for time and by players and managers for clarity about the season ahead, the GAA don’t have answers, only scenarios. “We’ve all manner of contingency plans but three or four of them have already been torn up and thrown out since the start of the year,” said director general Tom Ryan on Saturday. “I genuinely don’t know.”

Ryan has good people working on all the permutations. Below are five proposals that might be on their table.

Premise

As things stand, the plan is to go county first even if club championships has been upgraded from a Level 2 exempted sport to Level 3 (inter-county is Level 4). In that regard, former GAA president John Horan and the games administration arm of the organisation were of the same mind. With the county-first split season endorsed by Congress for next year, there will extra determination to imitate it this year.

Proposal A — Retain original 2021 schedule

“The GAA will function and will function fully if we get inter-county games going on May 5,” Horan said last Wednesday.

The intention remains to play all the competitions as they are sequenced — leagues, inter-county championships, club, provincial, and All-Ireland club championships. Commencing the leagues on the weekend of May 8/9 would mean they will start 10 weeks later than had been originally planned.

Shift the 21-week inter-county window, the exclusive 12-week club championship window, the seven weekends for provincial club championship and the two All-Ireland club semi-final weekends all due to take place this year and there would be an overflow into February. As a result it’s probable, the first complete and uninterrupted split season won’t be experienced until 2023.

Proposal B — Lose the Tailteann Cup and something else

What Ryan indicated at the weekend wouldn’t make too much difference in terms of saving time unless it indicated that the football championship was returning to a knockout and/or the league structures were changing. Apart from Cavan and Tipperary, teams who finish in Division 3 and 4 at the end of this year’s campaign will go into the Tailteann Cup and not the qualifiers should they fail to reach a provincial final. But given there would be so few league games to avoid the secondary championship, it may be considered unfair on counties in Division 3.

As it is planned, every team in the football leagues is guaranteed four games but that includes promotion/relegation semi-finals. It may be that after the three rounds the top north and south team simply face off in a final and the bottom county in each section are relegated. Otherwise, a second successive knockout Sam Maguire Cup could be on the cards — the Liam MacCarthy Cup comprises a small enough number of counties to allow them two bites of the cherry.

Proposal C — Lose the leagues

The Tailteann Cup is the easiest fall guy but the leagues aren’t far behind it although it remains the most meaningful competition for many counties and if an opportunity is lost to avoid the 2022 Tailteann Cup as a result, there will be a kickback to such a move.

There would also be a demand for the minimum number of championship games to increase to three or four (see proposal D). Teams might need more than challenge games to get the season up and running and if the leagues are jettisoned, it may come in the form of some provincial activity (see proposal E).

Proposal D — Combine Allianz Football League and Championship

Just as the split season presented itself as a solution in the pandemic, might there be an opportunity to test drive one of the football championship proposals due to be debated at Special Congress with a mind to coming in next year? 

Sponsors would have to be on board never mind the provinces, especially Ulster, although they would see it as the lesser of two evils of the two national fixtures review taskforce’s options.

But in the interest of saving time as well as looking to the future, it could be an option to amalgamate the competitions. With each provincial conference split into two groups of four, each team would have three games before the All-Ireland series and the Tailteann Cup could also be played. Combining the two would not just save time — it could be run in less than 15 weeks, five less than the original inter-county programme for this year — but may also provide a taste of the future.

Proposal E — Flip the league and provincial championships

A radical one but new GAA president Larry McCarthy has already indicated a strong level of interest in it.

One of the options put forward for 2022, provincial round-robin championships would commence the inter-county season followed by a league-based All-Ireland championship. However, it wouldn’t appear to be as time-friendly as proposal D and Ulster counties need time to digest what they would consider the downgrading of a successful championship.

Also, a Special Congress would likely be required for proposal D or E, though this a time of necessity has already spawned invention.

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