independent

Saturday 19 April 2014

McGee defends radical proposals

Provincial SFC overhaul fair despite 'third chance' for preliminary round losers, FRC chief tells Colm Keys

Uachtarán Chumann Lúthchleas Gael Liam Ó Néill, left, and Football Review Committee Chairman Eugene McGee at the launch of the Second Report of the Football Review Committee

The chairman of the Football Review Committee (FRC) has defended the creation of a 'third chance' for four counties as a small price to pay for numerical equality between the provincial football championships.

Eugene McGee was speaking as his committee released the second part of its findings from a comprehensive review of football, this time focusing on competition structures.

The findings are nowhere near as radical as might have been expected, but the creation of four 'eight-team' provincial championships (Connacht will be nine if New York are retained) is the central plank in a series of recommendations aimed at giving the club player a much more balanced season.

Rather than imposing a new province on a county on a permanent basis, the FRC have come up with a novel way of balancing the numbers based on the four preliminary fixtures that take place in Leinster (three) and Ulster.

McGee said the committee was pragmatic enough to know that imposition, like placing Fermanagh and Longford in Connacht, for example, wouldn't work.

Instead, the preliminary rounds in both provinces would be based on lowest league placing from the previous year.

Based on the most recent league placings, Cavan and Antrim would feature in the Ulster preliminary round, with Meath, Wexford, Longford, Offaly, Wicklow and Carlow contesting three preliminary games in Leinster.

The Ulster loser would go directly to the Connacht championship, while the Leinster draw would determine the other 'Connacht' team heading west. Two other Leinster preliminary losers would switch to Munster.

If they lost a second provincial match in their new province, the teams would still have recourse to qualifiers which, under this document, will be retained.

Effectively, they can lose twice and still be alive in the championship, a new departure which is sure to be highlighted in respect of provincial champions, who have no such safety net.

"We don't see anything wrong with getting three chances or losing three times because we can't get perfection. We think it's the fairest and the word fair is an important word here," said McGee.

IMPOSING

"There's very little about this which is unfair. The provincial champions, one would feel, would be strong enough to look after themselves."

McGee said imposing change to balance the provinces was a step too far in the committee's opinion.

"The difficulty in doing that would be immense because it would mean certain counties would have to be picked out and designated.

"I was warned by some very wise people in recent years that you can't pick out a county and say 'you have to do that'.

"We consider this to be a fairer method. Any changes involved would be based purely on match results, so it's as fair as can possibly be."

His FRC colleague Tim Healy pointed out that improving standards would help counties to avoid a provincial transfer.

"If counties don't want to be in that situation, they just have to improve their league position and not finish in the bottom six in Leinster or two in Ulster," he said.

"We think there was a demand to link league and championship, but that was the only way we could see that being used. We believe it could be an incentive for teams not to be in the lower end of the provincial ranking in terms of the league."

McGee said it was "the first realistic proposal that would allow Ireland to be divided up into four provinces of eight. The fact that it's slightly convoluted at the start, I don't think should be a deterrent."

The FRC took soundings from over 4,000 people through consultation and an online questionnaire, and the overwhelming sense of respondents was for the provincial championships to be retained but balanced accordingly, McGee pointed out.

They found that some club players went five months without a meaningful game, and 2013 county champions were forced to play four 'top-grade' games in just 13 days. In 2012, one club team played five championship games in 15 days (including replays).

The report clearly references Donegal when it says that their decision to shelve their 2014 county championship until after Donegal business is complete "represents a fundamental and potentially disastrous development."

Under the proposals, in what is effectively a 'white paper' on fixtures at all levels, the FRC is looking for a more regular stream of games in all counties from April through to July so that the semi-final stage can be reached in all counties by early August.

A key component of their proposal is to switch the All-Ireland club final to December, thereby concluding it in the same calendar year.

This McGee said, was a "necessity" if everything else is to work.

"We feel it's not just an aspiration, we feel it should be a necessity because the starting point for improving the club situation nationally would be that the date is set for the All-Ireland club final," he said.

"If it were yesterday (Sunday), which would probably be the normal day, then everything works back from there and all the relevant parties involved in the All-Ireland club championship, the clubs who are in it, the county boards who are attached to the clubs, the provincial councils and the Central Council, it would be their job to make sure that the All-Ireland final takes place on that date.

"It would be an incentive to do what we're doing in the summer time, to get more matches played. So many things would reverberate on that."

As part of their package, the FRC propose a condensing of the time-frame so that all stages of each provincial competition can be played over two successive weekends.

This has the potential to 'free up' four weeks between May, June and July, which would allow those club games to be played, but the cost of that would be a reduction in the size of the promotional footprint across these very important months for the GAA.

As expected, the recommendation already being explored that sees minor becoming U-17 level instead of U-18 has been supported to minimise clashes for Leaving Cert students. This year there were 25,254 Leaving Cert students aged 18. By comparison there were just 5,810 who were 17.

Significantly, the dates for the conclusion of third-level competitions were not touched, but it is proposed that U-21 players still involved with their counties could not train or play with senior teams.

The document rebrands weaker counties as 'less successful' and pinpoints those counties who have won just one or no provincial titles in the last 50 years.

The FRC propose a strategy to help these counties, but ultimately declare that these counties "must, in the long term, help themselves."

The possibility of looking at a separate championship for 'less successful' counties was considered but not carried through on.

These proposals are not going to Congress next year but are expected to be discussed at a Special Congress later in 2014.

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