THERE is growing pressure on the GAA's Football Review Committee (FRC) to devise an improved structure for the All-Ireland championship, as frustration with the haphazard format increases.
While the football championship – which start next Sunday when New York take on Leitrim at Gaelic Park in the Connacht quarter-final – continues to be the biggest draw in the Irish sporting summer, concerns over the inequalities, anomalies, expensive time lags and the negative impact on club activity prompted GAA chiefs to mandate the FRC, chaired by Eugene McGee, to propose changes to the structure as part of an overhaul review of the games programme.
The FRC brought a package of measures for rule changes to Congress in March and will issue the fixtures element of their evaluation in the autumn. It is expected to offer a variety of options in response to mounting criticism of the current system.
As Leitrim fly out to New York today for Sunday's launch of the 2013 championship, the uneven structure of the competition is brought into focus by the wildly contrasting timetables facing the counties over the next few months. It will take 20 weeks to complete the 60-game (barring draws) programme.
Today, we highlight some of the many anomalies that apply in both the provincial championships and All-Ireland qualifiers, resulting in long gaps between games for some counties, while others face six-day turnarounds.
Several counties, including 2012 All-Ireland winners Donegal and runners-up Mayo, have early starts to the championship while Meath, Fermanagh, Roscommon and Clare won't have their first games until mid-June.
The haphazard scheduling is caused by a combination of different-size provinces, a desire to provide a reasonably consistent split of games throughout the season and the need to dovetail with the hurling championship.
It is an impossibly complex compromise and leads to inequality, frustration and huge expense as counties are forced to keep squads in training for long periods between games. In addition, it creates significant problems for club players, many of whom are left with little action until their county is out of the championship.
The simmering resentment among club players is a serious issue, one which will be central to the FRC's deliberations.
The review committee has much to address in a championship format which combines provincial championships and qualifiers to produce eight teams for the All-Ireland quarter-finals in early August. They face a difficult task but an analysis of what rests ahead this summer underlines the urgent need for change, both in the provincial campaigns and the All-Ireland qualifiers.
It will take 11 weeks (May 5-July 21) to run off a six-game (barring draws) programme, where the difference between first (Leitrim and New York) and last (Roscommon) into action is six weeks. The first game, involving New York, is always played in early May because it involves one squad travelling to America but, following that, it will still take nine weeks to run off five games. The Connacht final will be on July 21, leaving the beaten finalists heading for a Round 4 qualifier six days later.
The 10-game programme is run off over eight weeks (May 19-July14). The gap between the first and last sides into action is four weeks. Leinster play two games on the same day up to the semi-final stage. In terms of the schedule, they run a tighter ship than any of the other three provinces.
The five games will be run off in six weeks (May 25-July 7) but there is logic-defying timing to two rounds this year. Kerry play Tipperary on Sunday, May 26, with the winners playing Waterford in the semi-final six days later.
It seems utterly bizarre to ask players to play twice in six days with the winners of the second game facing a five-week wait for the Munster final, while the losers have a six-week wait for the Round 2 qualifiers on July 13.
Their championship will run for nine weeks (May 19-July 21). The eight-game programme is played over eight separate weekends, rather than doubling up on any of the rounds. The Ulster Council point out that it is a formula that has served them well – both in financial and promotional terms – over the years and they have no intention of changing it, even if it leads to lengthy delays between games for some counties.
Now in their 13th season, the concept has been an unqualified success across every area except for club fixtures, which have been hit by the busier inter-county programme. GAA Congress voted in a complicated new arrangement for the qualifiers from next year, which involves pre-ordained groups being paired off across provincial boundaries. It will lead to a shorter gap between provincial and qualifier action. However, it comes with a downside as the novelty value of the qualifiers will be restricted.
The FRC already have a number of proposals before them, arising from the various surveys conducted some months ago and now face the tough task of compiling a blueprint which will win majority support. It won't be easy but there is now a general acceptance that the current structure is no longer fit for purpose.