As he nudged the GAA towards a tiered football championship with his last annual report as Ard-Stiúrthóir of the GAA, claiming there were “compelling arguments” for such stratification, Páraic Duffy also accepted that that the association couldn’t keep altering its competition structures.
While he personally conceived the Super 8s in football, which in turn triggered the advent of the round-robin provincial championships in hurling, yesterday he made it clear that towards the end of those respective three-year trials, the GAA would have to look for something more permanent.
“It is not in the best interests of the GAA to go through constant short-term experimentation with our championship formats,” he’d write in his annual report, published yesterday. “So I hope that… the current three-year experiments are simply a step towards what will be agreed long-term solutions.
“Getting that agreement will require a committed, reflective engagement over the next three years by all the relevant stakeholders.”
Duffy, of course, is right, but you have to wonder: Why is he leaving it his successor to oversee and facilitate such a “committed, reflective engagement”? Why didn’t such a consultation with “all the relevant stakeholders” take place on his own beat?
This day last year, this column and the newly-formed Club Players Association simultaneously called on Duffy to park his Super 8 proposals which he was about to unveil in motion form in his 2017 annual report. Too many people had concerns about it. Too few stakeholders had been consulted.
The CPA were at the top of that list; they’d only been formed a couple of months earlier, to fix the fixtures, so naturally they wanted an audience with him.
The GPA were just after appointing a new chief executive, Dermot Earley, who had made it clear the biggest issue for him would be helping to devise a significant change to the football championship structure. He wanted to first canvas the players for their opinion but his own view was that Duffy’s proposal didn’t go far enough, having little to offer county players further down the food chain.
“Clearly,” this column wrote this day last year, “Earley and the body he represents want to revisit the championship format, regardless of what happens at Congress. So surely it would be better for them to have some more time to consult or be consulted instead of Duffy’s proposal being pushed and rushed through and institutionalising another ad-hoc measure for them and all of us to be burdened with?”
Because the other key point we made in that column was that the football championship couldn’t just be altered in isolation. It would have a knock-on effect on everything else. Like hurling. Like the league. Like colleges GAA.
Yet Duffy just ploughed on, bulldozing the Super 8 into existence.
When Tipperary’s Tim Floyd pointed out at Congress about the possible ramifications it would have on the importance and timing of the league, Duffy instantly said sure you could start it at the end of January. When only weeks earlier Derek McGrath had floated the idea of no inter-county hurling in February, to relieve the demands on players involved in Fitzgibbon and Sigerson.
Now McGrath, with all his players still involved in colleges hurling, has said the league will be seriously diluted in significance. Which would be fine, if the function of the league was it was “only the league”. But is it? It’s one of the great paradoxes of the upcoming football league.
The same applies to the football league with the advent of the Super 8. A county like Duffy’s own, Monaghan, will be conserving energy and rotating their panel for championship instead of going all out to preserve their Division One status as they did so manfully in 2017, only to feel and fall so flat by the time they reached Croker.
It’s actually the great paradox of this year’s football league. While it will mean little in the division that will be scrutinised the most, it matters almost as much as championship — in some cases, even more so — in the three divisions that will be scrutinised the least.
Again, it’s an unintended— but very predictable — consequence of the lack of consultation conducted by Duffy. In that column 12 months ago we called for him to establish a wide-ranging, high-powered committee looking at all GAA competition structures and challenging all assumptions.
“Ask basic questions. Can we reform the football championship without also looking at the league? What is the purpose of the league [now]? Are we still working off the assumption it is basically warm-up for championship or that for many counties it is just as important as championship? Can we guarantee a better series of meaningful games for all county players?”
Duffy’s contention would be that there was plenty of consultation. The new football and hurling championship formats were passed by Congress. The counties approved.
But the truth is, too many stakeholders still felt disenfranchised. The CPA got an audience with Croke Park but felt it was merely tokenistic. Management teams, while aware their players largely love the prospect of more games, still feel this was hoisted upon them; it wasn’t as if Duffy consulted some respected high-performance inter-county backroom member approved by his competitors on the likely demands of playing four Munster championship games in four weeks.
We are currently on the eve of what should be the most exciting year ever for followers of GAA. For the general spectator 2018 will be a feast of GAA like no other, especially come the championship.
And yet why doesn’t it feel that way? Why has it been another winter of discontent?
Because of that lack of consultation. If people feel heard, they feel empowered. Instead this feels like all this was landed on them, not something they agreed to.
The pity is it could tarnish the legacy of Duffy, a venerable man as the GAA has known. Almost every day now there’s a column about how Duffy’s successor needs to realign the aims of Croke Park with grassroots. That it lost its way, its soul, on Duffy’s watch. While that perception may not be reality, if you hear that perception often enough it can feel as if it is the reality.
And yet history could well be kind to Duffy and something like the Super 8. Maybe — indeed, very likely — he devised the Super 8 to establish the principle of a quasi-tiered championship and round-robin games featuring the big guns. That certain units of the GAA wouldn’t have been ready in 2018 for a fully-fledged round-robin, tiered championship but by 2021, after the success of the Super 8, they might. A bit like Collins viewed the Treaty as both a stepping stone and his own personal death warrant, maybe Duffy made a similar calculation about the Super 8 and was willing to take the proverbial bullet for the greater and long-term good.
Either way, the next time, under the next Ard-Stiúrthóir, any “agreement will require a committed, reflective engagement by all the relevant stakeholders”. Even Duffy has conceded that.