Wednesday 28 September 2016

Players' time is too precious to be squandered

GAA must reorganise the championships to favour clubs

Published 17/05/2015 | 13:00

The football and hurling championships have become an incredibly powerful brand in Ireland Photo: Getty Images
The football and hurling championships have become an incredibly powerful brand in Ireland Photo: Getty Images

Barring replays, it will take 60 games to decide this year's All-Ireland football champions. By this evening, there will be 54 games left.

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Also by this evening, six teams will have departed their provincial championship, leaving them free to organise many, many training sessions and challenge matches and to generally continue disrupting clubs while they wait another five weeks for the first round of the qualifiers. For some, that will be the end of the road.

The football and hurling championships have become an incredibly powerful brand in Ireland. They are a valuable commodity which businesses want to be associated with. The GAA has been able to use the UEFA model by having multiple title sponsors for the football and hurling championships, and if one drops out there is always a company waiting in the wings only too delighted to be identified as part of the story.

The narrative, and particularly the community emphasis, is perfect for any corporation looking to reach out to consumers and present itself in the best possible light. Of course the biggest attraction to business - and the irony shouldn't be lost here - is that the players are amateurs. And so all the epic themes play right into their hands: heroism, dedication, skill, toughness, mental strength . . . it's no wonder the championships are so attractive.

Although the championships started before this weekend, the fact that there are five games has been latched onto as the signal that - and you will have heard this phrase over and over in the last few days - the summer has begun.

So powerful now is this brand known as The Championship that the fundamental flaws which lie at the very heart of both the football and hurling models continue to be overlooked.

The first is the inequities in both. In football, an Ulster title is arguably as hard won as the All-Ireland itself - there are certainly almost as many live contenders. Dublin will most likely waltz through Leinster again but it is hardly their fault that Meath, Kildare, Offaly, Wexford or Laois - counties with big reputations - can't mount a decent challenge. Dublin will still have to play three games to win a Leinster title, and in years gone by, and in years to come, the province can be a proper test of a side's mettle. Munster and Connacht, by comparison, are generally easy for the dominant team of the day.

The issues in hurling are of course more deeply rooted, given the game's smaller concentration. But even allowing for that, while what looks like a hot Munster Championship is unfolding this year, it will be in stark contrast to the stroll in the park for All-Ireland champions Kilkenny, who will play one game to get into a Leinster final and will not meet either of their strongest rivals, Dublin or Galway, before then.

The provincial system no longer makes sense. Times have changed, and the Ireland of today has been dispensing with those traditions which have outlived their usefulness. It makes no sense for counties who, for a variety of reasons like size, population and so on, will always be also-rans, forever doomed like Sisyphus to push a boulder up a hill and watch it roll back down. And yet the myth prevails. In this weekend's five games, the favourites were priced at 1/8, 1/2, 5/6, 1/16 and 1/2. In next weekend's three football games, you can back the favourites at 8/15, 8/13 and 1/20. These are supposedly two-horse races. Is it any wonder that only three out of the first 12 football championship games are being televised?

The Football Review Committee's suggestion to tweak the provinces so that there would be eight teams in each should have been explored further. If the GAA is to persist with the provincial championships rather than moving to a more open format, then the suggestion deserved more scrutiny. It should be revisited.

Then there is the schedule of games, which also belongs to a bygone era. Both championships take too long to run, and this is primarily caused by the fact that each of the provincial councils has autonomy over its own fixtures and can run them off to suit themselves. So in football, the 60 games require five months to complete. This is what frustrates clubs so much.

The Connacht championship consists of just six matches and yet from the first game, which was played two weeks ago, to the final is a gap of an astonishing 11 weeks. In Munster the first game is on Saturday evening, when Clare host Limerick, and it then takes another six weeks to complete the remaining four games.

The current championship model is not sustainable. It is time for tradition to give way to common sense because there are just too many pinch points now. There was a time when the frustrations and complaints of clubs could be ignored. Not any more. The modern club player will not commit blindly, because in an age when time is precious, there has to be some return on his investment, and this boils down to having a regular supply of meaningful games. There are a lot more well organised sports now than in the past to which a player can turn.

It's not just about the clubs - it's no longer sustainable for inter-county players either. There is too much time and effort devoted to training for it to be reduced - as it will be for some - to two games before you are pushed to the side to let the main event continue. It's like the warm-up act being called off stage when the star attraction is ready to go on.

The Championship captures the public's imagination. It is attractive to business, it is seductive for supporters and despite the problems the majority of players still love it. There will be storylines which will entertain and provoke, there will be joy and tragedy and for five months many of us will be glued to it every weekend. But think, too, about how much better it could be.

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