Sport Gaelic Football

Saturday 24 February 2018

Eoin Liston: Great football minds must get thinking caps on to fix flawed system

Eoin Liston

Eoin Liston

On Monday, I touched upon the need for change in the structure of the football championship. This week has proven that it appears to be a position nearly everyone involved in Gaelic football is adopting.

However, there is a very fine line between constructive debate and knee-jerk reaction. There is little doubt that there are flaws in the current system. But this isn't a new phenomenon, nor is it something that hasn't been looked at already. What needs to be decided is whether small steps are required or if the time has come for radical overhaul.

No matter what system is in place, there will be some hidings dished out. That is just the reality of sport. But there could be a more level playing field.

Tradition plays a major role. I can only speak for Kerry, but the norm here is to have youngsters kicking a football from the time they can walk. Gaelic football is a way of life for so many and other sports struggle to compete. It means that the playing population remains plentiful and skill levels are always high, because of the knowledge and commitment of under-age coaches. With this comes success and that, in turn, brings money.

With more financial resources comes greater coaching and back-room expertise. Dieticians, psychologists, video analysts and personal gym instructors are now the norm. No stone is left unturned to ensure squads are prepared to the optimum level. Players themselves will respond when they know they have every available resource for them to realise their full potential.

Donegal are the perfect example. There was never a question about the talent in the county. However, it took Jim McGuinness to bring in a level of professionalism and expertise that had been lacking for some time. Cork beat them by 14 points in 2009 – three years later they were All-Ireland champions.

If someone like McGuinness was to go into a county such as Carlow, they wouldn't win All-Irelands straight away, but I can guarantee over the course of three or four seasons, there would be steady progress, because he would demand the highest possible standards from his players. Just as crucially, however, he would need to be provided with the greatest possible resources.

Interestingly, three counties in action this weekend are recent examples of what can be done with the right man in charge. Wexford made enormous strides under Jason Ryan and became a real force in Leinster, while Louth were robbed of a Leinster title with Peter Fitzpatrick at the helm. Seamus 'Banty' McEnaney's Monaghan side became one of the toughest to play against in the country and Kerry were very lucky to come through two massive battles with them in Croke Park.

But realistically these men are few and far between. The GAA, therefore, should maybe look more at how they could financially assist some of the less traditional counties. This would allow every county to at least have the correct structures in place from the ground level up and give them realistic long-term prospects for progression.

There has been talk of scrapping the provincial championships. But they still represent a major target for a lot of teams. Again, we'll take Donegal as an example. Despite their success over the last two years, the Ulster championship still means a lot to them.

I do think that automatic home advantage for Division 3 and 4 teams when they are drawn against counties from a higher tier should be introduced. If nothing else, it would be good for the promotion of the game to see the likes of Kerry and Dublin travelling to Dungarvan or Mullingar on a regular basis.

GOAL

The key to any change, though, must be to ensure each county would have an achievable goal. With this in mind, Sean Kelly's proposal for a two-tier system is worth serious consideration.

The provincial finalists would be guaranteed entry to the Sam Maguire with the remaining places allocated based on league positions. Any team who did not gain qualification would be in the Tommy Murphy cup, the finalists of which would play for Sam the following season.

It would mean the gulf between top and bottom in each competition would be much smaller, while the league would take on new meaning with counties knowing it would have a direct impact on the championship.

There would have to be a number of issues ironed out, but I would be very much in favour of experimenting with a new structure. However, should any changes be implemented, they must be given time for proper evaluation.

The work done by Eugene McGee and the FRC was phenomenal when they looked at the playing rules of Gaelic football. It's time for those great football minds to get their thinking caps on once more and start gathering ideas.

Irish Independent

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