'Back door' overhaul to ease fixtures chaos
A major overhaul of the All-Ireland football championship qualifiers is being proposed as part of the latest attempt to streamline the summer schedules.
If implemented, from 2014, it will give counties a clearer picture of their championship programme throughout the season, irrespective of whether they remain in the provincial race or are dispatched to the qualifiers. That, in turn, would allow more time for club activity in the summer months.
It will be discussed by Central Council on December 15. If adopted, a motion proposing the changes will be put before Congress in April.
"One of the biggest complaints we get from county boards over fixtures is that it doesn't matter how carefully they plan their club programme, the uncertainty over when the senior county team will be playing in summer makes it very difficult to run local games," said Fergal McGill, GAA's head of games administration and player welfare.
"Every county knows when their first provincial game will be but after that there's uncertainty."
The latest proposal features splitting the qualifiers into two sections. In turn, winners from each section would be paired with teams who lost in later rounds of the provincial championships in pre-ordained fashion. Under the current system, the 16 teams who don't reach the provincial semi-finals are paired in an open draw in the Round 1 qualifiers with the winners meeting the eight beaten provincial semi-finalists.
Counties beaten in the early rounds of the provincial championships can have a very lengthy wait (Westmeath, Laois, Cavan, Waterford and Roscommon had a six-week gap this year) for the first round of the qualifiers. Under the proposed new system, the wait would be no longer than four weeks and, in most cases, two or three weeks.
It would also lead to a more even spread of games as qualifier ties in a particular round would be divided over two weekends rather than cramming them all into one, as is the case at present. All-Ireland quarter-finals would also be played over two weekends, rather than one. Crucially, the new system would end the practice of forcing two of the four beaten provincial finalists into a Round 4 qualifier game six days later.
That has proved hugely controversial as very few teams who lose a provincial final on a Sunday have won a Round 4 qualifier the following Saturday.
While the proposed changes would help streamline the summer schedules, they have downsides too. Splitting the qualifiers so that counties headed in a pre-ordained direction would greatly increase the prospect of provincial re-matches, something many would see as a major disadvantage. Also, the new structure appears quite complicated.
"It's not all that easy to explain," said McGill. "The science of how it's put together is first-class but people will be wondering why certain counties are automatically going in a certain direction in the qualifiers.
"On the plus side, the system would be a big help in giving counties a clearer map for the summer. That's a big selling point because there's a lot of frustration among fixture-makers in the counties."
Among the key proposals is that in many cases, a county which loses a provincial game would have a qualifier tie on the same date as the winners had their next provincial outing. Under the existing system, there can be a wide variation between when provincial losers and winners are next in action.