Wednesday 28 September 2016

Comment: New fixture proposal has merit but loss allowance is drawback

'Modest' reform proposes eight extra games in more condensed calendar

Published 05/08/2016 | 02:30

GAA president Aogán Ó Fearghail and director general Paraic Duffy at Croke Park yesterday. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
GAA president Aogán Ó Fearghail and director general Paraic Duffy at Croke Park yesterday. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

When the GAA's Central Competitions Controls Committee was asked to distil the 18 submissions for football championship reform down to an acceptable three for closer attention late last year, it took the decision to remove the Gaelic Players Association proposal for a number of reasons.

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One of those reasons was a concern for round-robin competition in the GAA, especially on the scale that the GPA were proposing with eight qualifier groups of four after the provincial championships.

In a note that explained the GPA motion's exclusion, the CCCC pointed out that "knockout or near knockout is the real jewel in the GAA crown. Once you toy too much with this you pay the consequences for attendances bite."

Admittedly, the scale of the GPA's proposal was greater in the context of what CCCC were cautioning about. And it can be argued that they are not 'toying' too much here.

But it is somewhat ironic that the dilution of straight knockout competition at arguably the most critical juncture of the championship season is now the bedrock of the GAA's latest attempt to bring some reform to the championship calendar.

Ironic too that the policy of 'less games, not more', which was being stressed when the GAA brought out their own paper on player burnout and the fixtures calendar and even when Leinster Council sought to introduce rule changes that would allow them to have a round robin series for weaker counties at the 2015 Congress, is now being reversed, however slightly, with the addition of eight extra championship games.

But that aside the proposals to introduce two four-team groups for last eight teams instead of straight knockout All-Ireland quarter-finals is an imaginative move at a time when there is no consensus for any other reform. The plan succeeds is condensing the calendar while still retaining a strong presence through the month of August.

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GAA director-general Páraic Duffy and GAA president Aogán ó Fearghail are among the architects of the new proposal with Duffy describing them at their announcement yesterday as "modest." They believe it can help club players, not disenfranchise them even more.

The key to the proposal succeeding is revisiting the issue of extra-time in all championship matches with the exception of All-Ireland finals, a motion that gained a majority but not the required two-thirds at Congress in February. Without this it can't succeed.

A requirement to tighten up the provincial championships will also be paramount to its success. Ulster, for instance, continue to play just one match per weekend, requiring an 11-week period to complete its championship.

"The big thing is to play more games over a weekend. You don't need to drag the provincial championships out," said Duffy.

Attention

"The big point for me is if you're a club player, you won't see your inter-county colleagues as long as the county team is involved. You just won't see them. Clubs get no value out of their inter-county players, they might play the odd league game in some counties but a lot of them don't play much.

"The time when clubs want their players back is when the county is over and those players can give their full attention to the clubs. The earlier the inter-county season finishes, the better it will be for the clubs.

"This is a modest enough proposal. There is no magic bullet, no easy solution. We are not making any great claims that this is absolutely radical," he added.

Under the terms of the proposal the provincial championships and qualifiers would not change and the 'last eight' would be arrived it through the current pathway.

ó Fearghail said it was clear from last year's submissions that counties wanted to retain the provincial competition structures.

But those eight teams would then divide into two groups and play three games over three weekends, one in Croke Park and one home and away.

Duffy stressed the importance of using provincial stadia for games of this magnitude said it wasn't about extra revenue generation.

"The eight extra games - none of them are in Croke Park. If this was supposed to be a revenue-generator for the GAA, all of the games would be in Croke Park.

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"The only games in Croke Park are the first four, the other eight are in provincial venues and that is hugely important.

"You talk about Dublin not leaving Croke Park and all of that, every team would have to play outside Croke Park here, Dublin going to Donegal to play a championship game or Clare going to Castlebar or Tipperary going to Galway.

"If it came down to the final day, and there are semi-final places at stake and all of the games start at the same time, that would create tremendous excitement."

The prospect of both All-Ireland semi-finals being played on the same weekend (Saturday/Sunday) is also an enticing one.

On that basis the proposal has its merits but on the downside the romantic prospect of counties like Wexford, Fermanagh and Tipperary all making All-Ireland semi-finals would be diminished.

Having to play two extra games would inevitably suit the counties with bigger squads better equipped to deal with the attrition that such a schedule throw up.

The facility for a county to lose three games (one provincial, two group) and still win an All-Ireland title is a further drawback.

If the top county in one of the groups finished with six points and the other three counties all beat each other the second team to make the semi-finals would be decided on score difference.

And an Ulster county winning a preliminary round but then losing a provincial quarter-final would then have to play 11 games to win an All-Ireland title - quite a toll.

Some advantages of the new proposals

A change, short and simple. One that can breath new energy into a tiring format with the strongest teams meeting on a much more regular basis.

The strongest teams, like Kerry and Dublin, will have a more taxing journey to an All-Ireland semi-final than they've had in recent years.

Goes a long way to guaranteeing that the best four teams will make semi-finals, the principle of most sporting competitions.

Eight more championship games at high level that will generate more revenue through gates and media rights.

A more compressed fixtures schedule can set aside more time for the 24 counties who don't make the 'last eight' group stages with their interest ending potentially three weeks earlier.

All-Ireland semi-finals on the same weekend would create some interest and increase attendances.

Disadvantages

A county could lose three championship matches, One in the province, two in the group stages) yet can still potentially win the All-Ireland title.

THE prospect of counties like Fermanagh, Wexford and Tipperary, who have all reached All-Ireland semi-finals in the last 13 years, would be greatly diminished.

Little or no prospect of club activity in July and August for provincial final losers who make it through the group stages to an All-Ireland semi-final.

Round-robin format has had a chequered history on the fixtures calendar in the past. Prospect of a meaningless game at such a crucial stage of the season would not sit well.

It could take 11 games to win an All-Ireland title for an Ulster team that wins a preliminary round in the province but then loses a quarter-final and has to play its way through four qualifier rounds to get to the group stages.

While change is admirable, why start at the top? Changes at the bottom are essential to football's development as the rich are getting richer while the poor get poorer. Big, powerful squads will continue to thrive in this system whereas smaller pools of players in weaker counties hang by a thread.

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