Friday 9 December 2016

Tired system needs reform

Why is there such opposition to secondary football championship for lower-ranked counties?

Published 09/11/2016 | 02:30

Carlow boss Turlough O'Brien is one of many managers from lower counties who fears that players will leave the inter-county game as they see the gap between the elite and the rest widening. Photo by Ray Lohan/Sportsfile
Carlow boss Turlough O'Brien is one of many managers from lower counties who fears that players will leave the inter-county game as they see the gap between the elite and the rest widening. Photo by Ray Lohan/Sportsfile

Early this year, footballers from eight counties threatened a boycott, bluntly declaring that they would not participate in a 'B' championship.

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After months of consultation, which included asking for new ideas on how to run the All-Ireland championship, Central Council proposed that Division 4 counties would play in a secondary competition, rather than in the qualifiers. No plan for making it attractive in any meaningful way was put in place.

Rain failed to dampen the spirits at the Dublin Cumann na mBunscol finals yesterday, not least among players from St Brigid’s NS Castleknock who are pictured celebrating their victory over Drimnagh Castle. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Rain failed to dampen the spirits at the Dublin Cumann na mBunscol finals yesterday, not least among players from St Brigid’s NS Castleknock who are pictured celebrating their victory over Drimnagh Castle. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Always going to be a hard sell in that bland environment, the task was made all but impossible once the competition came with a 'B' tag and was confined to eight counties.

When this was tried before, the GAA at least had the good sense to call it the Tommy Murphy Cup, rather than lumber it with the depressing 'B' sign.

Central Council will have a new motion before Congress next February, only this time it's confined to how to complete the All-Ireland series.

Impact

The proposal is for the quarter-finals to be scrapped, replaced by a round-robin format to provide the semi-finalists. It will impact on eight counties only, the majority of whom reach that stage every year.

Central Council has, it appears, no more to say about the rest of the championship, despite acknowledging a year ago that it needed a revamp. But then, they couldn't see it any other way, since few believe that the current system is working satisfactorily. Instead, it comes under the 'best of a bad lot' heading.

The difficulty is this: counties want to retain the provincial championships, making it impossible to devise a streamlined All-Ireland system that's fair to all, while also providing as many incentives as possible to lower-ranked counties. The qualifiers give them a second chance but, in many cases, it's box-ticking only as they make an early departure.

Carlow boss Turlough O'Brien is one of many managers from lower counties who fears that players will leave the inter-county game as they see the gap between the elite and the rest widening. He has no issues over the proposal for the latter end of the championship but is concerned over the message it sends out to the rest.

He has a point. If an overhaul was deemed necessary a year ago, why not now? Nothing has changed, yet Central Council appear happy to leave it to individual counties to devise fresh ideas. Carlow are doing that, albeit within the confines of the existing provincial championship/qualifier structure, but is anyone else?

Even if the Carlow plan (it received 40 per cent support at this year's Congress) were accepted, it wouldn't alter the fundamental structure that has been in place since 2001. Therein lies the dilemma. For reasons that nobody can quite explain, there's a reluctance among many counties and players to even contemplate a secondary championship competition.

Roscommon brought that idea to Congress this year, proposing that the provincial winners and runners-up and the eight highest league finishers play for the Sam Maguire Cup, with the remaining 16 entering a Tier 2 competition. It was beaten on a 84-16 per cent vote.

Almost uniquely in sport - either locally or internationally - the concept of tiering the championships seems to horrify Gaelic football people.

Even when it comes with a guarantee that all counties be allowed to compete in the Sam Maguire tier, via the provincial championships, there's still a dogged resistance to a secondary competition for the lower-ranked.

The tiered system works well in hurling, where counties happily play at their own level, with promotion and relegation ensuring a natural balance. European rugby runs off two tiers, as does soccer everywhere. So why is there such opposition in Gaelic football, where are hundreds of players who never get a chance to play in Croke Park, let alone on All-Ireland final day.

A well-run, imaginatively promoted secondary competition, complete with the final as curtain-raiser to the Sam Maguire decider, could change all that.

That would involve taking the minor final out of its usual slot but would that be such a bad thing? Minor finals are almost always contested by the stronger counties, which merely perpetuates the sense of inequality. From 2018 on, when the minor age is reduced, U-17s can look forward to playing in Croke Park on the biggest day while long-serving senior players from the lower tiers pay their way in.

Take Carlow and Wicklow for instance. They played in a Round 1 qualifier on June 18 last with Carlow winning, before losing in Round 2. Would both counties - and several other too - not be better off in a Tier 2 competition, rather than the qualifiers?

No, I'm not talking of a half-baked championship for Division 4 counties but rather a well-resourced, incentive-driven competition for at least 12 counties.

If sold properly, it could work. It's worth a try because the current format has become jaded and unfit for purpose.

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