WITH the 2012 All-Ireland Football Championship decided in Croke Park last Sunday, reviews of the Championship in general won't be too far behind.
While individual counties' performances will be analysed with fine toothcombs both outside and within, a look at the structure of the championship is something that is bound to crop up in discussion too. For all the talk back in 2010 of the demise of the provincial system, when none of the four provincial champions made it to the All-Ireland semi-finals, the last two years have seen the four provincial winners make it straight through to the final four.
What has given us such different extremes in such a short space of time? It's hard to say, but certainly by going through the front door it does provide a degree of structure and organisation to the winning provincial counties' set-up not just the senior team, but also at club level where prearranged club fixtures (if any) can go ahead without the disruption of either a replay or a trip through the 'back door'.
The last two years will certainly put back any attempts to remove the provincial system from the All-Ireland series, but certainly the time frame in which they are played is open for discussion. For example, it takes seven weeks to play a minimum of five (barring replays) games in the Munster Senior Football Championship judging by this year's calendar. Connacht takes nearly nine weeks to play off their competition involving the seven counties (depending on whether you consider New York's participation serious or merely ceremonial) and it may only take two victories in either province to win the Munster Senior or Nestor Cups depending on the draw.
Leinster and Ulster as the larger provinces can be given more dispensation with the time to play their Championship, but there is a discrepancy in that an aspiring county in those provinces has to win a minimum of three games to win either Delaney or Anglo Celt Cups – in Munster counties can and regularly do win having played just two games. Attempts to make a more uniform and equal four regions of eight for provincial based competitions are likely to meet with strong resistance on grounds of history and tradition from the provincial councils and the individual counties forced to change province in particular.
Down secretary Sean Óg McAteer made a valid point two years ago when he said the GAA would be giving a huge advantage to rugby if they were to abandon the provincial system, but while rugby, as a professional setup, can put in structures and methods to make the four provinces roughly equal with relevant funding and so forth, the GAA, as an amateur association, can't quite make all the provinces equal in its present form.
Returning to the championship structure, perhaps it's time pressure was brought to bear on the provincial councils to have their competitions finished by the end of June to allow for a open draw of all the teams entered in the championship with the usual proviso that the provincial winners are kept apart until the All-Ireland semi-finals.
Replacing the current qualifier format and with an open draw of 32 teams starting in July, the GAA could look at using the system it uses for the lower graded Hurling Championships in the race for Sam Maguire.
Firstly all 32 teams are thrown into the hat and with the proviso that repeat provincial pairings are not allowed until the quarterfinal stage, 16 matches would be drawn on a home-and-away basis (up until the quarter-final stage) with the provincial champions getting a home draw as a reward for their victory in their province. The 16 winners would go into a ' winners' section and the 16 Losers into a ' losers' section.
The eight winners of the 'winners' section advance to the last 16, while the losers of that section getting a second chance against the winners of the 'losers' round with the counties that lose both their games gone entirely from the competition. The winners of the Third Round of games would then go on to complete the last 16 line-up. From here it would be straight knock-out until the winners of the Sam Maguire were determined with Croke Park the venue for all games from the quarterfinal stages onwards.
It would be conceivably that such a format could be finished by the end of August giving the month of September back to club fixtures for the participating counties in the All-Ireland final. The advantages of such a system would be that it would guarantee each county a minimum of three games as opposed to the present two taking both the provincial and All-Ireland elements.
It would create more opportunity for the country's provincial grounds to be made more use of in running the competition on a 'home and away' basis until the quarter-final stage and it would close up a lot of the gaps that can exist for the provincial winners in waiting for their next game (using the four week break for the Munster Football champions in the present system as an example).
By bringing the completion of the competition back to August it would give fixture planners in each county the advantage of having definite and rigid dates by which to set club fixtures for and not fear about being 'emotionally blackmailed' into calling off club fixtures to suit inter-county needs which despite denials otherwise really is the basis on which fixture programmes have been made in recent years.
At present there is a growing demand for more intercounty GAA coupled with a valid argument about the amount of training that is being put into so few intercounty matches by some teams and with a more condensed a streamlined intercounty season it can cut costs for County Boards on the price of funding training sessions and allow more recovery time for injuries in the off season.
In conclusion, this observer believes the format proposed above satisfies a lot of the present demands that are out there for the GAA's premiere Football competition, maintaining the provincial championships' relevance, giving counties more competitive games and keeping the tradition of 'knock-out' and the cut and thrust of Championship Football very much to the fore.