Martin Breheny: Lower-ranked counties need summer boost
Turlough O'Brien knows what it's like at the lower-ranked end of the football scale. As Carlow manager, he accepts that attempting to claw up the ladder will always be a tough grind, complete with more setbacks than successes.
For O'Brien and many others operating in that challenging environment, having fingers trodden on as they try to grab a higher rung is a fact of life.
They are all driven enough to take the knocks; what they cannot accept is a system they believe to be loaded against them.
Wicklow flew over and back to London on the same day for the final round of the Allianz League last April. It required a 4am start for players, prompting manager Johnny Magee to remark: "We've a set match-day routine but it doesn't involve a 4am start."
The one-day package was undertaken as a cost-cutting measure by a county that, like so many others in the lower tiers, finds it difficult to raise revenue.
The county board would have financed an overnight stay if Wicklow had any chance of winning promotion but since fourth on the Division 4 table was the best they could hope for, a quick turnaround was agreed.
Magee understands how it works in counties like Wicklow, where resources are scarce, but having experienced the other side of life during his playing days with Dublin, the inequality of it all frustrates him.
"Players get disillusioned when they know they are not competing on an even footing with bigger counties," he said.
Last Saturday, Central Council held a special meeting to discuss reform of the All-Ireland football championship, specifically Paraic Duffy's proposal to replace the quarter-finals with a round-robin format.
There are timing tweaks too but the only proposed structural change involves the round-robin.
"That's all about the last eight counties in the championship. It makes no difference whatsoever to everyone else. What about them? Are they to just keep going as they are?" said O'Brien.
Central Council agreed to put the Duffy proposals before Congress next February and, if carried, the round-robin will be in place in 2018.
Central Council, which has representatives from every county, floated no other suggestions for the football championship.
Essentially, the second most powerful authority in the GAA behind Congress has nothing more to say on the championship, other than it's a good idea to separate the last eight counties into two groups of four, playing off in a League format to provide the four semi-finalists.
A year ago, Central Council proposed a 'B' championship for the eight Division 4 counties, only to spark a revolt among players who declared they would boycott it.
An embarrassed Central Council had no option but to withdraw the proposal on the eve of Congress.
Two other motions made it onto the Congress agenda. Roscommon proposed a Tier 1 and 2 championship (16 in each) after the provincials, accompanied by the scrapping of the qualifiers. It attracted only 17pc support, which suggests there's no mood for a secondary version of the main event.
However, a Carlow motion, proposing a tiered approach to the All-Ireland championship after the provincials were completed, was supported by almost 41pc of delegates.
Given the confusion that had existed for several weeks as various motions were put forward, plus the fact that Central Council was driving its own idea, Carlow were pleased with the vote.
They intend to submit it to Congress again in February, but first they will need to explain it in detail again to other counties.
"Central Council has the advantage of being able to call a meeting and explain their plan to all the counties. It's not as easy for Carlow but we will need to go out there and sell the idea," said O'Brien.
Basically it works like this. Provincial championships would run off as usual, with the eight finalists taking Tier 1 status for the following year, and the eight beaten semi-finals filling the Tier 2 slots.
Tiers 3 and 4 would be decided on placings in the Allianz League.
Using this year as an example, the seedings would be as follows:
Tier 1: Dublin, Tyrone, Kerry, Galway, Westmeath, Donegal, Tipperary, Roscommon.
Tier 2: Mayo, Sligo, Meath, Kildare, Clare, Cork, Cavan, Monaghan.
Tier 3: Down, Fermanagh, Derry, Armagh, Laois, Kildare, Offaly, Longford.
Tier 4: Limerick, Antrim, Louth, Wexford, Carlow, Waterford, Leitrim, London.
Round 1 would feature Tier 3 v Tier 4, with the winners playing Tier 2. The eight winners would then play Tier 1 teams to provide the All-Ireland quarter-finalists.
The plus points of the Carlow plan are that it rewards counties who reach provincial semi-finals while also making the leagues more competitive as they play a role in deciding Tier 3 and 4 seedings.
In addition, by playing Tier 3 v Tier 4 and so on up the line, it increases competitiveness, something that's not always there under the current structure when a top team beaten early in the provincials could be drawn against opposition from the lower end of Division 4.
Carlow's blueprint would also enable provincial and All-Ireland championship games to run at the same time, thereby freeing up dates.
"This proposal ticks a lot of boxes. There is no perfect system but I think the objectives and the strategy of Croke Park are off target," said O'Brien.
"They need to consider fairness, merit, equality, the greater good, a better deal for clubs and support for dual players."
O'Brien fears that unless some productive changes are made, players will walk away from the inter-county scene, having grown disillusioned.
"They see the latest proposals where the only counties involved are those that reach the last eight. They aren't the ones who need new thinking," he said.
O'Brien also believes that the Carlow proposal should be circulated and explained by Croke Park so that counties were made fully aware of how it worked.
"It's easier for them to do it than Carlow. The biggest obstacle to this is counties' understanding of the proposal," he said.
"If Croke Park were to brief counties on it, as they have done with own proposal, I think it would be easily accepted."
As with the Central Council proposal, Carlow would need a two-thirds majority to have it passed.