It will take a lot more agitation before GAA Championship reform becomes reality

Derek Kavanagh says he has often had to explain the structure of the GAA Championship to work colleagues from other countries before walking away thinking: ‘Why don’t we just change it?’

BEFORE the Football Championship takes off in earnest and the almost pre-determined battles commence, an examination of the structure and worth of the provincial championship is merited.

The format of the Championship is a problem not going away. It’s a tired subject, I accept. The provincial and All-Ireland qualifiers structure as it stands today is as jaded as the discussion itself. And as frustrating.

There is so much appetite for change and so little action. Many hypothetical notions have been vented. The most notable recommendation last October came directly from the players, via the GPA. The general consensus is the players want change. They want a shortened playing calendar. They want a Championship balanced for all teams.

Another strong opinion came from Jim McGuinness last summer, on how the qualifier series has run its course. A two-tier knockout All Ireland series with 16 teams competing for Sam Maguire and the rest competing for a second tier Championship was the premise of this notion. The seeding for the top-tier Sam Maguire would be based on 12 best-placed teams from the National League, along with four provincial winners. McGuiness’s argument here is the league and provincial championships could be enhanced with both feeding into the All-Ireland series.

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Jim McGuinness
Jim McGuinness

The former president of the GAA, Sean Kelly, in 2012 tabled the most feasible format in my view. Not too dissimilar from that of McGuinness, save his recommendation that all eight provincial finalists be guaranteed a place in the last 16 race for Sam along with eight best placed from the national league. This format also facilitates a second tier All-Ireland series. All three strategies propose maintaining the national league, the provincials and culminating in varying versions of an All-Ireland series.

All proposals concur in the conclusion that the current structure is not fit for purpose. Interestingly enough, I feel the league is the perfect inter- county competition in terms of structure and balance. Four divisions of eight equally weighted teams. Games played on a home-and-away basis within each division resulting in four individual champions. It’s balanced, competitive, yet undervalued by all.

The provincial championships are becoming more undervalued with every passing year. What I always find peculiar is that during the league, it is common place for it to be talked down in comparison to the Championship. Example: “It’ll be a different story by the time Championship comes around so I wouldn’t be reading too much into tonight’s league performance”.

Then, come summer time, national league position, strangely becomes the primary benchmark in analysing provincial championship duels.

Think about how many times you hear a team’s league status quoted during the Championship. The league is making furtive gains every year. If Dublin did not go flat out from February, there would be no way they would be match ready come the August weekend. The Leinster Championship is merely a means to an end for them before returning to top gear upon its completion. The same can be said for Mayo in Connacht.

Stephen Cluxton
Stephen Cluxton

Personally I would love to see the national league moved to the summer and become the primary competition. That would render the All Ireland championship, as we know it, useless. The provincial championship then could be played throughout the spring. This would afford each county an honest opportunity to address their own domestic club fixtures plight. We all know that won’t happen anytime soon.

The problem with the current structure is well documented at this stage. Provincial competitions are grossly unbalanced in terms of team ability, and the timeframe of the Championship as a whole is unnecessary long. Nearly 20 weeks are dedicated to these championships. County players want regular games in the summer. Two weeks, maybe three, between big games is ideal. The game-to-training ratio is completely out of kilter. The net result is that most of the players invest serious amounts of time training for competitions they know they cannot reasonably challenge for. Hence, many younger players from so-called weaker counties opt out of championship panels in order to play in America. All the while, the club championships limp and stutter as a result of a suffocated fixtures calendar.

All these logical suggestions from respected figures make perfect sense. So what’s standing in the way of reform? I have often had to explain the structure of the GAA to work colleagues from other countries and I always walk away thinking: “Why don’t we just change it?” The common reply from the people deflecting reform is always based around ‘tradition’.

Arguments like “provincial championships are sacrosanct to the GAA”. In addition to the ponderous championship fixtures, replays just take the biscuit. I cannot see the logic to them. Players hate replays too. Yet a motion to abolish the majority of these failed at the last GAA Congress.

World Cup finals go straight to extra-time if required. I accept I am coming at this from a retired player’s point of view. The players, the management and most of the media see the opportunity to improve the structure. I’ll admit my bias there.

Does the man holding the radio to his ear, sitting in the crowd want change? I doubt it. I remember after a few drawn games in Killarney, you’re sitting in the bus parked outside the dressing rooms, waiting for an update on the replay. You see the lads in the suits retreating to the war room and you realise, this is their Munster final, not the players’. They love the chaos, the upheaval and the power. And yer man with the radio can’t wait for the replay.

It will take a lot more agitation before GAA Championship reform becomes reality

I think it’s wrong a secondary competition, the national league, enjoys 13 unhindered weeks of fixtures when the primary club competitions are scattered across the entire calendar year. I would be very confident in suggesting the vast majority of inter-county players would prioritise a county championship medal over a national league (in its current guise) medal. In fact, it seems too basic a fact to even put on paper.

There are many reasons why such logical recommendations have not evolved past the paper they are written on. The upper echelons of the GAA are a wise bunch who must remain immune to radical alterations. I accept popular opinion at times needs to be suppressed for the greater good. I cannot accept, however, Jim McGuinness, Sean Kelly and 85% of inter-county players are wrong. The Football Championship is still the sell-out show, so the voters at Congress will take a lot of convincing before tampering with tradition.

From my standpoint, there is far too much collateral damage as a result of preserving tradition.

It will take a lot more agitation before reform becomes reality. I’m reluctant to sign off with the swanky cliché of “times they are a-changing”, but even more appropriate are the lines that precede to the always relevant proverb:

Come Senators, Congress men

Please heed the call

Don’t stand in the doorway

Don’t block up the hall

For he that gets hurt

Will be he who has stalled

There’s a battle outside and it is ragin’

It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls

For the times …….

Here’s a little extra sport: BallTalk TV look at where it all went wrong for Roberto Martinez at Everton.


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