GAA must loosen its grip on the lop-sided and outdated provincial football championships

October 13th, 2021 9:00 AM

By Tom Lyons

Cork forward Daniel Dineen battles with Kerry’s Brian Ó Beaglaoich during the Munster SFC final in Killarney in July. Kerry won to make it eight Munster senior football championship title wins in the past nine years.

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LATER this month, on October 23rd, a special GAA Congress will be held in Croke Park to debate ten different motions. Two of those motions concern the structure of the inter-county senior football championship and could have serious ramifications for the entire GAA for the foreseeable future.

For almost 100 years, since the national leagues were introduced in the mid-1920s, the GAA followed a basic playing pattern at inter-county level: leagues in the Spring followed by championships in summer and All-Ireland finals in September.

Club leagues and championships were squeezed in along the way, frequently ending in November/December before the introduction of provincial club championships, which meant an October finish for county finals. A simple enough system to follow, but how satisfactory?

Modern-day players were no longer satisfied with one single knockout championship game after long months of training, and understandably so. The mystery was how players endured the knockout system for so long. Nobody seemed to question the fact that a championship which guaranteed only one game should always get priority over a league that guaranteed at least four or five and even to this day the leagues at all levels of the GAA are very secondary to championships.

Twenty years ago, the move was made to address the single game issue and qualifiers were introduced, guaranteeing every team two championship games. This improved matters but still didn’t solve the problem of imbalance in the single championship that did exist, for the Sam Maguire. While hurling took a major step forward by grading counties and introducing different cups, football stuck rigidly to every county playing in the All-Ireland senior football championship.

Eventually, it was decided to separate the chaff from the wheat a little bit by introducing the Super 8s in football and running them off on a round-robin basis. Whereas other sports have round-robin first, followed by knock-out play-offs, the GAA went the opposite way, a strange decision which, no doubt, was heavily influenced by financial matters.

During the past two seasons, the inter-county football championships have reverted to the old-fashioned knockout system because of Covid restrictions on time available to play them. But the hurlers were treated differently and got extra qualifier games. Undoubtedly, the hurling will return to the round-robin groups for the Liam McCarthy Cup, when matters return to normal, maybe even next season, but what kind of football championship will we have?

There are two different championship systems being proposed at the special Congress and if neither gets a 60 percent majority of the delegates’ votes, they both fall by the wayside. Where would that leave the championship for 2022? Delegates would then have to decide whether to return to the qualifier system or the Super 8s system for 2022. Surely a major step backwards.

What are the two football proposals that will be put to Congress? Like most GAA solutions they are unnecessarily complicated. The big fly in the ointment, of course, are the lop-sided provincial championships. The world and his mother knows that the provincial system in the GAA is totally unbalanced, lop-sided and antiquated. Why does the GAA, after 136 years, still insist on sticking to a provincial system, that dates back to 1610, to decide its national champions? Because of the clout and power of the provincial councils, who refuse to let go of their nest eggs.

Here in Munster, the provincial hurling championship is definitely a title worth winning, much less so in Leinster, non-existent in Ulster and Connacht. In football only the Ulster championship retains any trace of real competition and level playing field. Kerry have long since made a mockery of the Munster championship, likewise Dublin in Leinster, while Connacht is down to Galway, Mayo and Roscommon.

Even the numbers make a mockery of using the provincial system to determine All-Ireland winners. What other sport would countenance groups of 12, nine, six and five and call it a level playing field? It would be easy to say get rid of the antiquated, lop-sided provincial championships altogether but tradition, governance and pride are huge obstacles to disbanding them.

While one of the proposals down for decision does make an effort to address the imbalance in numbers by proposing four groups of eight in each provincial championship, can we really see the die-hards accepting some counties changing allegiance? The counties that would shift from one province to another would be based on league positions each year and that would certainly lead to unnecessary instability in the championships. It certainly seems at present that whatever system will be brought in will still have to maintain the present provincial championships in some way or other, to satisfy the power-lords at provincial council level.

Our own simple solution would be to drop the leagues as they exist to be replaced by provincial championships played on a round-robin basis, guaranteeing every county five games in the Spring. In order for the provincial championships to retain their status, the finalists from each province would then be seeded in an open All-Ireland championship during the summer. Those eight finalists would not meet each other in Round 1 of the All-Ireland championship and, if they progress through Round 1, the four provincial champions would be in different groups subsequently. The winners from Round 1 of the 32 county championship would go forward in the Sam Maguire Championship and the losers enter the new Tailteann Cup championship. The 16 teams in each championship would then be divided into groups of four, guaranteeing another three championship games. Top two teams in each group to go forward to All-Ireland quarter-finals in both championships.

That system would guarantee each county at least nine inter-county games each season and retain the provincial championships into the future.  The entire system would require 13 weekends to run off and could be scheduled from February to the end of June, approximately 20 weeks. The club system could then begin on the first weekend in July, free of interference from inter-county games, and run until the end of November, approximately 20 weekends. December and January would be off-season months for player recuperation and preservation of pitches. All inter-county secondary competitions to be abandoned. Club leagues, without inter-county players, may be played from February to June.

The two proposals being put forward by the Special Review Committee at congress are –

  1. That four provincial conferences of eight teams each be formulated for the All-Ireland championship, but that the provincial championships be retained as well.
  2. That an All-Ireland league/championship be formulated and played in the summer, with the provincial championships being played early in the year.

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