Saturday 22 October 2016

Would Champions League format boost the football championship?

Jack Cahill - says yes

Published 05/06/2015 | 02:30

Diarmuid Connolly celebrates scoring the first Dublin goal with team-mate Bernard Brogan
Diarmuid Connolly celebrates scoring the first Dublin goal with team-mate Bernard Brogan

Champions League? You're having a laugh. Or maybe not. Think about it for a little while: 31 of the 32 counties on this island compete in the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship, Kilkenny the notable exception.

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If you chuck London and New York into the mix, you're looking at a 33-team competition.

The bottom line is that something has to change. We've just endured a weekend that saw Dublin hammer Longford by 27 points, with Tipperary annihilating Waterford by 22.

Laois have already battered Carlow in Leinster and while the back door is open, the season is effectively over for Carlow and Waterford. But if those counties had two more group fixtures to look forward to, and the prospect of a novel road trip thrown into the equation, players would remain stimulated.

At the start of the season, managers could set realistic goals because success means different things in different counties. For the superpowers like Dublin, Kerry, Donegal and Mayo, the target is an All-Ireland title, but Carlow and Waterford could target winning a game, or maybe even two, in a four-team group, and qualify as the second-placed team.

Ensure that every one of the groups contains a team from all four National League Divisions and go from there. It couldn't be more straightforward.

It's a fair and equitable system and while the cream will still rise the top, with Division 1 teams naturally favourites to top their groups, the race for that coveted second spot would have a genuinely competitive feel to it.

The best thing of all is that the Champions League-style format would guarantee each competing team at least three matches.

And with New York involved, ensure that they are in a four-team group and grant them home advantage for two of their three games.

This would provide their opponents with the chance to travel to the Big Apple and fund-raise while they're over there, while also ensuring that the Exiles become a stronger force.

Using the four League divisions this year as an example of a proposed group, it contains Dublin, Westmeath, Clare and Offaly.

Being honest, Dublin are guaranteed table-toppers but as the highest-ranked team, the Sky Blues would play two of their three games away from home, generating bumper gates for their hosts.

But could you call the second-placed team in the group based on 2015 form?

Westmeath, Clare and Offaly would all fancy their chances of reaching the last 16 and in doing so, ensure a fourth Championship outing of the summer.

It's so simple, we're surprised nobody has thought of it before.

Oh, wait.

Martin Breheny - says no

Basing the All-Ireland Football Championship on eight groups of four, with each county playing three games on a league basis, has long been the contingency measure proposed by those who argue that the provincial system is dysfunctional.

They are correct up to a point, since the provincials, as currently arranged, lack logic and fairness.

But it's misguided to suggest that scrapping them altogether and introducing eight groups of four, with the top 16 qualifying for the knock-out stages, would energise the Championships.

So here's my favoured approach. Streamline the four provincial championships into four groups of eight (North, South, East, West). That would involve one Ulster and three Leinster counties re-locating to areas West and South in a 2-2 split.

Effectively, only four counties are impacted upon. Most likely, Longford would be one of them, moving west. After last Sunday's wipe-out by Dublin, would that be a bad idea?

After all, the last time Longford played a Connacht county in the Championship they won, beating Mayo, no less, in a Round 1 qualifier in 2010. No Connacht county has beaten Mayo since then.

A realigned regional series balances the number of counties in each area, retains the prize of a provincial title, ensures that each winner plays the same number of games and makes it easier for club fixture planners.

The All-Ireland qualifiers would continue to apply.

Would that system result in blissful times where regional and All-Ireland titles were won by an increasing number of counties?

Probably not, for the simple reason that whatever system is in place, the strong, the weak and those in between will always be with us. But at least it has the advantage of maintaining the provincial Championships, which remain the only attainable goal for many counties, while also retaining the local rivalries that the public still love.

Eight groups of four, played on a league basis, would require 48 games to complete. How many of them would be meaningless, with places already decided before Round 3?

Can you think of anything more damaging to the Championship than games where the result didn't matter?

It was bad enough to have Dublin trimming Longford in Croke Par last Sunday, but imagine if the counties were clashing in Round 3 of a round-robin with nothing at stake?

Where would be the point? And how many Longford players would pick up mysterious bugs the week before the game?

The current system is flawed but replacing it with a Champions League format would turn a difficulty into a disaster.

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