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MY BLUEPRINT FOR CHANGE

THE 2012 All-Ireland Football Championship is on the horizon and in fact for those of you who missed it, it commenced last Sunday with Sligo's visit to the Big Apple to take on New York winning out with ease.

But, it's on Sunday week when the real business will begin in earnest as all the contenders for Sam Maguire embark on the road to victory.

Since Liam O'Neill has taken over the reins of the GAA presidency he has publicly declared that the GAA faces a significant challenge this summer from other sporting codes and there are plans in place to invest heavily in the marketing of Gaelic games throughout this summer.

He also raised concerns about the standard of Gaelic football and labelled some aspects of the modern game as "boring" and has asked a committee chaired by Eugene McGee to carry out a detailed analysis of the game.

Yes, it's hard to argue against the fact that there are aspects of the game that need to come under review but in my opinion it's the structure of the Gaelic football championship rather than the quality of football that has become "boring".

The provincial championships have gone stale with repetitive fixtures every year that do not carry wider appeal for the GAA neutral anymore.

For too long we have been hostage to tradition, history and geographical divide.

The time has come for some innovative thinking to restructure the championship in order to to inject fresh impetus into it and as a powerful sporting and cultural association the GAA now needs a leader with a brave vision for change.

Hopefully Liam O'Neill and Ard Stiúrthóir Pádraic Duffy have the vision, bravery, determination and nous to drive such radical change.

Radical surgery is required -- a new roadmap and a clear vision for the future.

Whilst it is widely accepted that any change comes with pros and cons, I am outlining my proposal for a restructured League and Championship.



NEW STRUCTURE

Both the League and Championship should have more than just a symbiotic relationship - they should be directly linked to each other.

Such an interconnection would broaden the importance and appeal of early season games providing a 'level playing field' to all competing teams.

Firstly, abandon the National Leagues as they are currently constituted and replace them with Conference style Leagues (Eastern, Southern, Northern, Western Conferences based primarily but not totally on current provincial divides and run over an eight -week period (February/March).

However, this is no act of self-serving gerrymandering - it's a redrawing of the traditional boundaries for the good of the game and to put it on a stronger footing in the very challenging sporting environment that we now live.

In order to split the teams into four groups of eight teams, a redrawing of the provincial boundaries is required.

London and Wexford will join the Southern Conference and Westmeath, Donegal and Longford will join the Western. Kilkenny may be included, if there is any ambition at county board level to develop football any time in the future.

After establishing these new groupings a league -- sponsored by Allianz -- would be contested under the control of the existing provincial councils and with the support and marketing backing of Croke Park. For illustrative purposes the groupings would be as detailed below (New York are not included):

EASTERN CONFERENCE: Dublin (1), Kildare (1), Louth (2), Meath (2), Carlow (2), Wicklow, Laois, Offaly.

SOUTHERN CONFERENCE: Cork (1), Kerry (1), Waterford (2), Wexford (2), Limerick (2), Clare, Tipperary, London.

WESTERN CONFERENCE: Galway (1), Mayo (1), Longford (2), Sligo (2), Donegal (2), Leitrim, Roscommon, Westmeath.

NORTHERN CONFERENCE: Tyrone (1), Armagh (1), Fermanagh (2), Derry (2), Down (2), Monaghan, Cavan, Antrim.

NB: Teams above allocated/seeded (eg 1 and 2 in brackets) for reference and illustration only - explained below.

All Allianz Conference Leagues would be run on a round-robin basis over an eight-week period with counties playing four games on Saturdays or Sundays and three games (where possible) played midweek under floodlights.

Obviously this would require some counties to upgrade their county grounds to include modern floodlighting - a lot of counties have already undertaken such development.

This initiative will free up additional weekends early in the calendar for clubs games and the U21 Championship.

The top two counties in each Conference qualify for their Conference final to be played on the first weekend in April with the existing provincial cups awarded to the winners.

The top five teams in each league (20 counties) qualify seeded (1) or (2) depending on their finishing positions for the All-Ireland Championship Group Stages. Finalists from each Conference League would be seeded (1) with the three other qualifiers seeded (2).

The bottom three teams in each of the four Conferences (12 counties) proceed to an open draw All-Ireland 'B' Championship Group Stage.



ALL-IRELAND CHAMPIONSHIP: RACE FOR SAM

The 20 qualifying counties from the Conferences are entered into an open draw -- four groups with five teams in each group.

When doing the draw the top 8 (Seeded 1 ie first and second in each of February/March Conference Leagues) counties go into one pot with the other 12 counties (Seeded 2) into the other pot - there will be two seeded 1 counties in each group.

Again for illustrative purposes see below:

GROUP A: Kildare (1), Kerry (1), Sligo (2), Limerick (2), Fermanagh (2).

GROUP B: Dublin (1), Galway (1), Meath (2), Down (2), Waterford (2).

GROUP C: Cork (1), Tyrone (1), Derry (2), Louth (2), Longford (2).

GROUP D: Mayo (1), Armagh (1), Donegal (2), Wexford (2), Carlow (2).

Each county plays four matches on a round-robin basis commencing at the beginning of May with group games taking place every two weeks and on alternative weekends allowing for four championship matches every weekend played on Saturday and Sundays ie two matches in both Group A and B and two matches in both Group C and D on alternative weekends with one resting team in each group

The administrative body for this competition and these games would be Croke Park and the responsibility for marketing etc lies with central powers and the competition's multi-sponsors.

This system allows for four championship games each weekend to be played over Saturdays and Sundays and every team will have four championship matches over a ten-week period from May to mid-July.

The top team in each group qualifies for the All-Ireland SFC quarter-final. The teams in second and third place are drawn against each other to play for an All-Ireland quarter- final berth.

To assist with framing the developing picture of this Championship we will go with the following examples to fill out the counties to make it to the last eight in the race for the Sam Maguire.

Play-offs for teams finishing second and third in each Group

•Galway v Armagh. Winner: Galway

•Wexford v Cork. Winner: Cork

•Meath v Kildare. Winner: Kildare

•Sligo v Derry. Winner: Derry

So these winners (Galway, Cork, Kildare, Derry) progress to the quarter-final where the group winners (Dublin, Kerry, Mayo, Tyrone) away on the opposite side of the draw.

We will continue with our 'notional' championship and the quarter-final draw throws up the following pairings: Dublin v Galway, Kerry v Cork, Mayo v Kildare and Tyrone v Derry.

We've gone with Dublin, Cork, Kildare and Tyrone as the winners meaning the semi-finals will see Dublin v Cork and Kildare v Tyrone coming face-to-face.

To complete the picture the magic results predictor says Cork and Kildare will meet in the All-Ireland SFC final - you can ask Larry Tompkins, Shay Fahy or even Brian Murphy who captures Sam!



ALL-IRELAND 'B' CHAMPIONSHIP

This championship would consist of the 12 counties that finished in the bottom three positions in the four Conference League system.

The 12 counties would be split into two groups of six and play a round-robin system with five championship games each.

GROUP 1: Wicklow, London, Leitrim, Antrim, Tipperary, Cavan.

GROUP 2: Roscommon, Monaghan, Westmeath, Clare, Laois, Offaly.

The top county in each group qualifies for the All-Ireland 'B' semi-final. The teams in second and third place are drawn against each other to play for a place in the All-Ireland 'B' semi-finals.

As with earlier we will use notional results to illustrate.

Round of Qualifiers (second v third): Laois v Cavan, Roscommon v Tipperary.

All Ireland 'B' semi-finals: Monaghan v Laois, Wicklow v Roscommon.

All-Ireland 'B' Final: Roscommon v Laois.

The winners of the 'B' championship get a 'team holiday' to play New York in October.



WHY IT'S TIME FOR ACTION

Radical change in any organisation can be slow and will always present its own problems.

The GAA has shown in its past that any change to core values and principles can sometimes take considerable time and heated debate.

However, change is achievable with the right individuals at the helm. Who would have ever envisaged the playing of soccer and rugby in Croke Park ten or 20 years ago?

As someone who played championship football for many years pre and post backdoor system, the intensity of the provincial championships are dead on their feet.

The GAA can no longer rely on a season that lasts from August to September only and the must begin to open the doors to change.

Here's hoping .... let the debate begin!


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