Time for change, says Delaney
BANKRUPT county boards accompanied by club players revolting in frustration is the grim scenario predicted by Leinster Council chief executive Michael Delaney in an early-season assessment which will shock the GAA world.
And, in a hard-hitting response to the problems, he proposes a serious overhaul of the inter-county scene as the only means of preventing a major crisis.
Delaney gave a broad outline of his concerns in his annual report and yesterday went into extensive detail on the measures which he regards as crucial in building a healthy future.
They include scrapping the All-Ireland qualifiers plus the All-Ireland junior (football) and intermediate (hurling) championships, dropping National Leagues for weaker hurling counties and all shield and special competitions.
He even questions the value of the All-Ireland U-21 championships, but accepts that it would be virtually impossible to convince counties to scrap them.
He would also favour taking the humane killer to the ailing inter-provincials, but said that since their future was currently being examined at the highest level, he would await the outcome of those findings.
"Mind you, I think everybody knows where I stand on the inter-provincials," said Delaney, who has previously recommended their abolition.
His blueprint also includes leaving May free of senior championship activity and finishing the All-Ireland senior hurling and football championships by the end of August, three weeks earlier than at present.
"It's as simple as this. Unless we do something quickly for club players, we'll have a revolution on our hands. It's a feeling I have been getting for quite some time and, if anything, the situation is becoming more serious. It's all very fine saying that club players get 15 to 20 games a year, but, in many cases, they can go months without any games and then face a fixtures glut over a short period. There's a serious level of anger out there among club players," he said.
He believes that a multiplicity of inter-county competitions, spread out over a long period, are making unreasonable demands on scarce finances, leaving many county boards facing major problems.
"The financial pot is getting smaller. It's more difficult to find sponsors and, even then, they're paying less than before. Race days and golf classics were always great fund-raisers, but they're being hit too. Gate receipts held up well last year, certainly in Leinster, but we can't be complacent. We're always conscious that we need Dublin footballers to do well to keep our numbers up," he said.
Delaney's proposal that the All-Ireland football qualifiers be scrapped completely and that hurling be altered significantly will prove controversial, but he believes it would be of major benefit to the clubs, while restoring the provincial championships to their original stature.
"The football qualifiers were exciting in the early years because they were new. But we've now had nearly 10 years of them and it's clear that they benefit the stronger counties most.
"In many cases, all it means is that many counties are beaten twice instead of once. Meanwhile, it costs county boards a lot of money to keep teams in training, while club fixtures are also badly hit.
"It's also the case that the attendances at many of the early-round qualifiers are quite small, which shows what the public thinks of them. I'd favour returning to the original system where it was winner-take-all in the provinces and, if you were beaten, that was the end of it.
"In that situation, we could wait until June to start the senior championships and finish them off by the end of August. That would benefit the clubs, save counties money and, in my view, make the championships more exciting."
Scrapping the qualifiers would end fairytale stories where weaker counties made progress through the 'back door', but Delaney argues that it doesn't happen often enough to merit building a whole structure around it.
"It was great to see Wicklow do so well in the qualifiers last year. Fermanagh reached the semi-finals in 2004 on the qualifier route and there have been a few other examples of counties with no great championship tradition making some progress, but, in the main, it's the strong counties who benefit most," he said.
In hurling, he would favour allowing only the beaten Leinster and Munster finalists back into the championship. They would play the champions from those provinces in cross-over All-Ireland semi-finals, ie Munster champions v Leinster runners-up; Leinster champions v Munster runners-up.
Asked if he thought that that reducing senior championship action and confining it to three months in summer would be dangerous in terms of reducing the GAA's national media profile, he said it might be a risk worth taking.
"I talk to a lot of club players and the one thing that's really annoying them is the lack of a proper fixtures schedule. It's the clubs who provide the county players, but they're being ignored in the rush to have so much inter-county action. This is a really serious situation," said Delaney.
He believes that it makes little sense to have a league for weaker hurling teams, followed by the Rackard/ Meagher Cup competitions, which give teams second chances. He would prefer an integrated system which would cut down on costs and leave more time for club activity.
"We need to tighten up the season," he said. "We need most of May to be left for club games and then give clubs a clear run from the first of September. What's happening at present benefits nobody, least of all the club players who are left totally frustrated."