Keith Barr: System needs a reboot
Champions League-style groups must replace provincial format to spice up Sam Maguire
SPARE us. The annual early-season whining shows no sign of abating. The usual suspects are queuing up to tell us there's too much handpassing, too much negative play, not enough entertainment.
Managers are rightly sticking up for their players, while the fans chip in, lashing the pundits out of it.
Rival sports must be having a good snigger at us as we beat ourselves up, despite having a blank sporting canvas to play with this summer. Then again, how many sports can boast the likes of Pat Spillane as a pundit?
Does this now yearly negative assessment of the football championship not go to prove, once again, that the competition format isn't working? And surely over-analysing poor championship games in dreadful conditions merely deflects from that central issue?
Competitive sport always throws up its share of boring games, and Gaelic football is no different.
And as with many other team sports, possession is nine tenths of the law. The modern player's natural instinct is not to give the ball away, to be patient. If you keep the ball effectively and deny your opponents space, it is difficult to play against and, sometimes, difficult to watch.
There are teams who don't operate this style very effectively, which makes for particularly poor viewing, but all the top sides function this way and you would expect the others to follow suit.
However, looking at the bigger picture, one of the reasons the focus on mediocre games is so intense at this point in the season is because the competition structure has passed its sell-by date.
The championship season is too strung out and the provincial championships have long since lost their broad appeal. Next Sunday is a case in point. Why only one football fixture? We can only imagine the potential agonising over this game.
Armagh put up one of the displays of the championship so far in beating Down, but will the critics lash them out of it on Sunday if they don't entertain us again?
When I played, I can't remember myself or any of my team-mates ever going on to the field with the intention to entertain.
In response to a call by a Waterford official to stream the football championship, Spillane claimed that Carlow's achievement last Sunday confirmed the appeal of the provincial competitions. But surely this is simply a case of the exception proving the rule?
This type of comment is patronising in the extreme. It's great for Carlow to win a Leinster championship match, as long as they're not a threat to Kerry in the quarter-finals.
So, why not consider the most popular alternative to the current set-up? For many years now there has been a sizeable group of GAA people (though few officials) advocating an end to the provincial championships and a move to a Champions League-style format.
This idea has been unsurprisingly dismissed as unworkable by a number of leading GAA officials conscious of the politics involved. But it's hardly any less unworkable than the back-door system introduced a decade ago.
The qualifiers were a real success initially and served an important function in helping Gaelic football to expand its profile in the age of mass television coverage of sport.
And there is no reason why another radical change can't work again if there is enough political clout behind it. The earth must have moved with the number of bodies turning in their graves when the Queen arrived at HQ, so how would ending the provincial champion-ships (in football) warrant any greater upheaval?
Provincial councils are unlikely to support such a move, which is understandable. However, is there any reason why those adminis-trations can't continue to function perfectly well as games development bodies?
So, how would a Champions League format work? Well, here's my tuppence-worth, though it's hardly original.
The way I see it, the football competition would be divided into eight groups of four. The groups would be chosen by a draw, but counties would be seeded according to their league status -- instantly adding to the appeal of the league.
I know that there are difficulties making up the 32 counties, but surely this could be done by choosing between London, New York and Kilkenny, with the former the most likely to fill the slot.
Every county would play three group games, preferably on three weekends over a six-week period (16 games every second weekend) starting in late May, with the top two in each group qualifying for the knockout stages.
The championship would open with a serious explosion: 16 matches over the first weekend, eight on Saturday, eight on Sunday. There would be no time for the annual whine.
People would be fed on a diet of highlights, just like 'Match of the Day', which always paints a rosy picture of the quality of football.
After only three rounds of the competition we are down to the last 16 counties, instantly freeing up a month for club championships as the remainder of the competition could be finished by the end of August. And given the streamlined nature of the format, there is ample time to overlap with hurling.
To counter the claims that this would lessen the profile of the championship with a shorter time span involved, the higher intensity of the format would more than make up for that. The county season would last from January to August, plenty long.
While I'm aware the Tommy Murphy Cup was axed due to a lack of interest, in the absence of a provincial championship, a shield competition might grow in appeal for the 16 counties that don't get through the groups, particularly if they were played in conjunction with the All-Ireland knockout games.
Of course, critics of such a radical overhaul will point to meaningless group games, but I don't believe there will be many, particularly if matches are played on a home and away basis.
There is just as much incentive for a weaker county in this format. Defeat one of the seeded teams and you have every chance of qualifying for the last 16. For example, a group could be made up of Cork, Kildare, Wexford and Roscommon. If Roscommon managed to defeat Kildare, could you imagine the interest in the clash with Wexford?
Groups could be decided on points and victories over each other. Extra-time could be played until the death in all instances. Penalty shoot-outs, anyone?
Momentum in such a structure wouldn't be lost and the current situation of successful teams in the provinces spending weeks training and not playing would be done away with. Galway still haven't played yet in the championship, while Kildare play their third game next weekend.
The integrity of the All-Ireland championship would be undiminished; if anything it would be strengthened as it incorporates more of the traditional qualities of the original knockout competition.
If you doubt the validity of the argument, then consider when the championship really kicks to life -- on the August Bank Holiday weekend. All a Champions League-style approach would do is spread that buzz from start to finish.
It might be fanciful at this stage, but I'm certainly not alone in believing it needs to be put on the agenda and thrashed out properly.
And spare me the countless obstacles. Where there's a will there's a way.