The Gaelic Players Association has welcomed Croke Park’s proposals to shake up the structure of the All- Ireland football championship, although reaction across the wider GAA community has been predictably mixed.

Damned if they do and damned if they don’t, GAA officials have moved the never-ending debate as to what exactly is the best format.

Replacing the quarter-finals of the All-Ireland series with two round-robin groups containing the country’s top eight sides is their main gambit.

There is more to it than that, of course, but the discussion document released yesterday — the brainchild of director general Pauric Duffy after months of consultation with counties, provinces, and central committees — is at least an attempt to breathe new life into a stale space.

“We would broadly and warmly welcome the proposals,” said GPA spokesman Sean Potts last night.

“And the intervention of the director general is a progressive step. Any attempt to improve the structures has to be welcomed.”

The GPA had their own Champions League-type proposals all but ignored last year, ones which would have done away with the provincial championships, but Duffy’s take is unashamedly more practical and has aimed at the championship tree’s lower hanging fruit.

“This is a modest enough proposal,” said Duffy at HQ yesterday. “There is no magic bullet, no easy solution to this. We are not making any great claims that this is absolutely radical. It is a modest and, we think, sensible proposal.”

Consultations with the various sub-units of the association over the last year or so made a number of things painfully clear.

Most obvious was that, one or two exceptions aside, there was simply no appetite to dispense with the provincial championships.

That downgraded any intervention from revolutionary to evolutionary.

With every county insistent that nothing be introduced at inter-county level to further impinge on the club scene, while simultaneously singing the praises for the back door, it left Duffy little wriggle room with which to work.

Pragmatism was key.

If passed, the structure would still make for a convoluted mess — a knockout competition with a back door and a group stage plonked in the middle — but it would right one obvious wrong in ensuring the country’s top teams play each other more often at a time of year that counts.

It would also move the focus of mid-to-late summer away from Croke Park and back to the provinces where stadiums, redeveloped at some expense, stand all but idle. Dublin in Killarney. Mayo in Omagh. And with a place in an All-Ireland semi-final on the line. It has merit. Other benefits are envisaged besides.

The hope is that such a tweak would increase interest in the Championship and create a more exacting pathway to the final and make the competition more attractive to commercial entities and broadcasters.

The new format would add eight championship matches to the roster but there was a determination to focus on potential plus points for clubs, with the point made that 24 teams would be eliminated from the championship two weeks earlier than is now the case.

“The strong desire in Central Council was that we would condense, not lengthen, the playing season,” said GAA president Aogán Ó Fearghaíl. “And this proposal does condense it. More games yes, but within a condensed time-frame.”

It really shouldn’t be all that difficult to manage.

Duffy presented a hypothetical calendar yesterday that was based on the elimination of Allianz League semi-finals (already agreed) and one which thus allowed the league football final to be dragged forward by two weeks and the hurling by one.

Even with just one other tweak — playing the preliminary tie and one first-round game of the Ulster football championship on the same weekend — the schedule demonstrated how the All-Ireland hurling decider could be played as early as August 21.

“That’s not a proposal,” said Duffy. “I’m making that clear, I’m just using that to show how the calendar would work. In fact, if you spend enough time on it and you have agreement of provincial councils, you could tighten that calendar up no end.”

Other suggestions included the adoption of a rule that every provincial and All-Ireland game should go to extra-time and an agreement that some of the additional monies generated by the round-robin stage should be ringfenced for the weaker counties.

If there is a worry, it is that the proposed format would make it harder for a Tipperary to punch through to the last four and there is also the risk that the extra games for the stronger counties would exacerbate the tiered system already in place between the haves and have-nots.

“Three Division Three teams were in the last 12 this year,” Duffy pointed out. “Two were in the quarter-finals and one is in the semi-final. As far as those counties in (the lower divisions) are concerned, we are always open to proposals.

“But you have to accept the reality that in any competition there comes a point where the better teams will come through. This simply reduces 32 down to eight and then those best eight play together, which we believe is what people want to see.”

The proposals have already been embraced by the GAA’s Management Committee and will go before Central Council in November. Get the green light there, which is expected, and the proposals will appear on the clár at the next Congress in 2017.

Jump through that hoop and we would have a whole new ball game come 2018.

Or a slightly different one anyway.

The reforms

The big change would be the replacement of the All-Ireland quarter-final stage with two groups of four. They would contain the four provincial champions and the four round 4 qualifier winners, with each county playing three games each.

Each team would play one game at Croke Park and other two home and away. This creates the prospect of Dublin playing in Killarney, Tyrone in Castlebar and Mayo in Ballybofey. The top two from each group would progress to the semi-finals.

Home venues would be subject to approval by the Central Competitions Control Committee and would need to meet the criteria set down by the National Facilities/Health and Safety Committee.

Provincial championships would remain untouched.

Two teams tied on points at the end of the group stage would be separated by (i) result of the game between the sides (ii) highest score (iii) goals scored and (iv) a play-off.

‘Weaker’ counties rejected the notion of a ‘B’ C’ship after the provincial championships, which means 24 sides would be eliminated by the third week of July. Semi-finals would be played the same weekend.

Qualifiers would be largely the same, but, a Div 3 or 4 team drawn against a side from a higher tier in rounds 1, 2, and 3 would have home advantage. The current ‘A’ and ‘B’ format would also be discontinued.

Extra-time would be played in the event of a draw in ALL provincial and All-Ireland championship games. Only when teams are level after extra-time would a replay take place. Though not a part of the proposal, it was noted “there is clearly scope to further condense” the inter-county fixture schedule at provincial and All-Ireland level. A test schedule showed Aug 21 as a date for the All-Ireland hurling final.


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