I have written on these pages on more than one occasion regarding the need for reform of the All-Ireland Football Championship, writes Seán Kelly

Previously, I advocated playing the provincial championships as they are, but with a subsequent two-tier All-Ireland series involving the Sam Maguire Cup top 16 and Páidí Ó Sé Cup bottom 16 (plus London and New York, if they wish). My suggestions were well received by the likes of Dara Ó Cinnéide, Jim McGuinness, and Joe Brolly.

Recently, the GAA published its own proposal on a revised format of the All-Ireland Senior Championship. When I first heard about a group stage for the last (best) eight teams, I was dubious, wondering what this would do for the weaker, less successful counties? Nothing, I figured.

Receiving a copy of the new proposals, I vowed to read it from cover-to-cover with an open mind. I must say there was a lot of logic in the new proposals (the ‘but’ comes later!).

The entire proposal is conditional on bringing forward the dates of the All-Ireland finals from September to August. It actually makes a lot of sense and would help address the biggest problem in the GAA — more time for club championships. Three of four extra weeks would make an enormous difference to divisional and county boards and be wonderful for club players. It is not right that the All-Ireland series lasts almost five months and is allowed to strangle club fixtures and thus club players.

The playing of extra-time in drawn matches is probably necessary — even though replays have great attraction and can be a wonderful form of promotion and revenue for our games. The proposal that the eight best teams should play a round-robin series is well argued. It provides the provincial winners with a second chance which was a serious flaw in the qualifiers system. A group series would mean the two best teams will be in the final — too often, the luck of the draw has decided otherwise.

All counties would get home venues — something hugely valuable and appreciated by all counties, especially those on the periphery like Killarney, Cork, and Belfast. Revenue would be increased and redistributed where most needed and attendance numbers would improve.

The alarming drop in attendance numbers at the All-Ireland Football Championship has to be addressed — down 30% since 2003 (1,166,618 in 2003, compared to 788,746 in 2016).

No organisation can sustain or so ignore this calamitous decline.

S

o the new proposals, which on the author’s admission are not a “magic bullet” solution, do go a long way to creating a better championship from the point of view of fairness, attendance, venue, and spectacle. Thumbs up so far.

Now for the “but”.

The proposal states “the reality is that there are some counties that cannot realistically aspire to winning either a provincial or All-Ireland title” — this is absolutely true and all the evidence is that for most, the aspiration is becoming more and more remote.

So what do we do about it? Nothing? It seems so. But this is not good enough. The report also says “the so-called less successful counties have no interest in taking part in a second-tier competition”.

That is true — to a certain extent — and that is why my proposal mirrors that of the GAA in that we run our provincial championships as they are, thus allowing each county to compete.

We have to ask, though, why counties which are never going to win the Sam Maguire Cup are so anxious to be cannon fodder for the big boys year in year out? Are they masochists? Can it last? It can’t. I had a recent conversation with Waterford football manager Tom McGlinchey who said the League is now far more important to the weaker counties than the championship. Doesn’t that tell you something? Imagine Dublin, or Kerry, sating that. Great players from these counties will be attracted more to other sports, will opt out of county football, take summer holidays far more than those strong county lads with realistic aspirations of success.

Fear of the unknown and being part of a second rate second tier competition is what the less successful counties are afraid of, not the competition itself. Look at hurling — Liam MacCarthy, Christy Ring, Nicky Rackard, and Lory Meagher — we can have four tiers in hurling and not even two in football? Look at the Allianz Football League: Do all counties play on the top tier? No. We have four divisions and all are happy. And yet we can’t have two tiers in the post-provincial championships for the same players and counties that appear to have little problem with four divisions in the Allianz Football League?

Look at the clubs — Senior, Intermediate, Junior and Junior B, C, D, etc. — they all love it as they all can aspire to success. I was in Mallow for the Intermediate and Junior Munster Club Finals in recent weeks. Fabulous occasions. I did not hear one person say: “It’s no good winning Junior or Intermediate, only the Senior matters.”

In fact, it is the opposite. The elation of the small club winning a junior provincial or All-Ireland title is truly divine, unparalleled even at inter-county level. As the uachtarán who had the privilege of introducing these competitions, I am thrilled to see their continued success.

So when less successful counties say they have no interest in a second-tier competition, it is because they do not know what it would entail.

Fear of the unknown. Would it be promoted? Would it be just an add-on, or something really worthwhile in itself? If it was the latter, I am sure counties would love it and thrive on it.

A

nd here is how.

The GAA publication states “the Association is open to any proposals for changes in competition structure that might better serve these counties — this proposal does not preclude making provision for such change”.

In the spirit of this statement, I put forward the following suggestions:

Run the championships exactly as proposed but instead of having all counties in qualifiers, have two tiers — the first top 16 (eight provincial finalists and then eight according to their league position) and then all the other counties in the second tier.

Have one knockout qualifier round, after which you will have eight teams left in each tier.

Run the group stages for both tiers, exactly as proposed for tier 1, with regard to home games, no replays and such.

Then, play the semi-finals of Tier 2 as curtain-raisers to either All-Ireland semi-finals of Tier 1, or separately — but in Croke Park.

Play the Tier 2 final as a curtain-raiser for the All-Ireland final or on the Saturday of the All-Ireland final as it would only be a matter of time before the Tier 2 final would fill Croke Park on its own.

And there you have it — the magic bullet! All counties would aspire — realistically — to success. Attendance numbers and revenue would sky-rocket. And by playing finals in August, the club championships and club players would be reinvigorated. Do it please.


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