Time to rethink the Championship
THIRTEEN years after allowing beaten teams back into the All-Ireland hurling championship for the first time and 10 seasons after doing likewise in football, there's growing unease over whether the current systems are fit for their purpose.
We asked the public for their views on the issue and got such a large response, that it would be impossible to carry all of the proposals for change which emerged.
However, it's clear that there's dissatisfaction on a number of fronts, especially in football, where there are several anomalies. Chief among those is the contention that while the All-Ireland qualifiers offer all counties who are beaten in the provincial championships a second chance, there's still an underlying unfairness which arises from the provincial make-up.
The stronger counties in Munster and Connacht have an in-built advantage in that (A) they have an excellent chance of reaching the provincial finals, which automatically carries a place in the All-Ireland quarter-finals for the winners and in the last 12 for the losers (b) they are unlikely to find themselves in Round 1 of the qualifiers which are confined to counties that don't reach the provincial semi-finals.
It's more difficult to reach the Ulster and Leinster finals because of the larger numbers in those provinces -- hence a basic inequality based on geography alone.
Former Down star, James McCartan, has made an interesting intervention into the debate in his new book, 'The King of Down Football' where he describes the football championship as "undemocratic and inequitable".
He calls for a dismantling of the provincial system and the introduction of eight groups of four, run off in a round-robin system with the top two qualifying for the last 16, at which stage it would become a straight knock-out. The bottom 16 would play off in a secondary knock-out competition.
McCartan's plan, which was broadly mirrored in many of the other suggestions we received, also involves linking the League and Championship. The eight Division 1 sides would be the top seeds in the Championship draw, with Division 2 teams as the second seeds and so on down the line. This, he contends, would provide a major boost to the League as it would become very important for teams to be promoted, in order to move up the seedings, while avoiding relegation would be crucial too, so as to avoid dropping down the seedings.
"No county will progress satisfactorily in a situation where players, officials and supporters have a mentality that tends to ignore the importance of the league and concentrates only on the championship. This thinking is contrary to all accepted norms in team sports in other codes," writes McCartan.
He is unhappy that under the current system, Kerry, Cork, Galway and Mayo have a distinct advantage as they are the strongest counties in the two provinces with the least counties. Records show that they win the vast majority of Munster and Connacht titles, allowing them easier access to the All-Ireland quarter-finals. Meanwhile, the runners-up are in the last 12 in the All-Ireland series.
"Unfortunately, some of the so-called weaker counties in all provinces, cling to the understandable, though romantic and unrealistic notion, of winning a provincial title. They remain powerful advocates of the current system that is curtailing their own development," writes McCartan.
An equally radical proposal emerged from Wicklow where Fine Gael TD, Billy Timmins, a man who played in a key role in bringing Mick O'Dwyer to the county in late 2006, believes it's time to scrap the National Leagues, play off the provincial football championships as stand-alone competitions in February-April and re-structure the All-Ireland series in a round-robin initially, involving six groups.
The top two teams in each group (12 counties) would qualify for the last 16 and would be joined by four others which would come through a special competition, comprised of those which finished third and fourth in the various groups.
This, he argues, would lead to a more equitable competition, provide a regular number of games for counties, maintain competitiveness and enable county boards to structure their club fixtures without leaving long gaps between games.
"The GAA is losing out to soccer and rugby at an alarming rate because of a certain staleness, a lack of clarity about competition fixtures and, in an effort to satisfy club/county, hurling/football, different age groups are falling between two stools.
"Due to the non-availability of county players, many clubs drift from April to July and never recover the early sense of enthusiasm. It gets worse if club fixtures are further delayed through success by the county team," said Timmins.
His proposal to scrap the leagues and play the provincial championships in February-early April with the All-Ireland series starting later in the month is certainly radical. However, it could lead to a serious drop in revenue. The leagues are still relatively good income generators while the provincial championships are very much the driving engine for the provincial Councils.
If, as Timmins proposes, the provincial championships had no bearing on the All-Ireland series, attendances would drop. However, he believes that the round-robin series, followed by the All-Ireland knock-out games, would be lucrative, while also providing a far more streamlined programme which would benefit clubs.
"A change in the system is definitely worth a try. The current arrangement does not treat all teams equally, just as the provincial system doesn't. The fact that none of the provincial finalists made it to this year's All-Ireland semi-finals provides further proof of this," he said.
That has led to further calls for a change in the system which would restrict the number of qualifiers who could reach the All-Ireland football semi-finals to two, while also ensuring that at least two provincial winners would reach the last four.
That was envisaged by Dublin and Tyrone, who proposed that the four provincial winners played off for places in the semi-finals with the two losers playing two qualifiers for the other places. However, it was rejected by Congress much to the disappointment of, in particular, Mickey Harte, who has been advocating this change for several years.
However, the bigger issue is whether the provincial championships should be disbanded in favour of a national system, whether in round-robin format or a knock-out with re-admission via qualifiers. Judging by the submissions we received, the GAA community remains split on that question.
Some want change on the basis that the provincial championships are losing their appeal, while also retaining an inequitable element because of the varying size of provinces; others believe that they remain essential and point to the joy in Roscommon this year when they won the Connacht title after a nine-year wait and to the devastation in Louth after coming so close to ending a 53-year run without a Leinster crown
It's also argued that while the concept of a 'Champions League' group system looks good in theory, it would lead to several meaningless games, while also robbing the championship of the excitement which the provincials still generate.
There's some support for scrapping the Leinster and Munster championship in hurling too, but the success of the latter makes it most unlikely to happen. Besides, the arrival of Galway and Antrim has improved the Leinster championship, so there appears to be little appetite for serious change in the immediate future.
However, there are those who believe that the longer term interests of hurling would benefit from ending the provincial championships and devising a format which provided more games among the big powers via a group arrangement. Even Brian Cody, who has always expressed pride when Kilkenny won the Leinster championship, believes that abolishing the provincial championships has considerable merit.
He holds that the time to introduce fresh thinking is when things are going well. And he also believes that if the various Hurling Development Committees were in a position to make real change, as opposed to what they reckoned would be accepted, they would have come up with some very exciting proposals which did not include the retention of the provincial championships.
That now seems to be off the agenda, for the present at least, but given that the first 'backdoor' was opened in hurling rather than football, the small ball could again be the trailblazer if the current system is seen to go stale over the next few years.