Let's get regional for balanced play
Martin Breheny presents his proposals for a restructured Championship in a bid to eradicate unfair fixture lists and boost the club scene
A streamlined structure, which retains most of the elements of the existing All-Ireland format, but which comes with the added advantages of making the system fairer for all, could be implemented with the relocation of just four counties to new regions.
Crucially -- and perhaps most importantly of all -- it would open up the summer for much more club action than is currently the case. The four counties proposed for relocation in our sample carve-up are Donegal, Longford, Carlow and Wexford.
The experiment would involve replacing the existing provinces with four regions -- North, South, East, West -- each comprising eight counties. All four regions would play off in a knock-out system, similar to the current provincial championships, with the existing trophies awarded to the winners.
Instead of being crowned Ulster/Munster/Leinster/Connacht champions, they would become Northern/Southern/Eastern/Western champions.
They winners would qualify for the All-Ireland quarter-finals. The losers would play in the All-Ireland qualifiers, so all counties who lose in their regional championships would get two chances, similar to what prevails at present.
In fact, other than the re-drawing of provincial boundaries, the system would be the same as the current one -- but the impact would be dramatic.
The big advantage of the regional system is that all four would have the same number of counties, making the arrangement of the championship programme much easier and more regulated than under the provincial structure which operates off varying numbers.
The lop-sided nature of the current situation is perfectly illustrated in the contrasting schedules facing several counties this year. Galway enter the Connacht football championship against New York on May 2 and (assuming they live up their favourites' ranking and win) will then have to wait eight weeks before they play Mayo or Sligo in the semi-final on June 27. How conducive is that to club action?
Derry, Armagh, Wicklow, Carlow, Kerry and Tipperary enter the provincial race on May 16, five weeks before Leitrim set sail in Connacht against Roscommon or London on June 20.
The Leitrim/Roscommon/London winners will have a further four weeks to wait for the Connacht final. Meanwhile, it will take Ulster nine weeks to play eight games, while Derry and Armagh will have entered the race four weeks before Cavan and Fermanagh.
Given the different entry dates of various counties to both the provincial championships and All-Ireland qualifiers and the long delays between some games, it's virtually impossible for county boards to work a meaningful club programme into the calendar, leaving hundreds of players idle and frustrated for long periods of the summer.
Indeed, as pointed out by Paraic Duffy, that's one of the biggest problems facing the GAA as clubs becoming increasingly disenchanted by the long barren spells and the lack of certainty which surrounds their fixtures.
In fairness to the provincial councils, it's difficult to integrate inter-county schedules into the existing system, especially in Leinster and Munster, where major hurling championships have also to be accommodated. However, it would be much different if all four regions were run off the same number of football teams.
Now for the difficult part of the plan. Firstly, provincial councils would be re-designated as Northern/Southern/Eastern/Western councils, after which it becomes necessary to switch some counties from their traditional heartlands.
In order to provide eight counties in each region, the east would have three fewer than Leinster (Kilkenny don't compete in the football championship), the north one fewer than Ulster, the south two more than Munster and the west two more than Connacht (New York could no longer compete, but would be recognised in some other way).
So which counties move? Wexford and Carlow switch south, while Longford and Donegal move west. Other variations are possible, but, by way of example, let's go with that proposal. It means that the northern championship would have eight from the current Ulster championship and the east eight of 11 from Leinster. The south and west each have two new additions to bring their quota up to eight.
Why switch Longford and Donegal to the west? Longford is an obvious choice since much of it is nearly as far west as Leitrim, while Donegal is on the western seaboard. An alternative is to leave Donegal in the north, move Cavan into the east and Westmeath into the west.
A move west could actually be beneficial for both Donegal and Longford. Donegal have won only five Ulster titles -- the last in 1992 -- a return which would almost certainly be a lot higher if they were competing in the west. Longford's sole Leinster title came 42 years ago so it's not as if they have been doing especially well under current arrangements.
Both Donegal and Longford would have better prospects of making progress in a region that included Leitrim, Sligo, Roscommon, London, Mayo and Galway than they do at present.
As for Carlow and Wexford competing in the south, there's no reason to believe it would be any tougher for them than the east. Indeed, the freshness element could be invigorating.
Yes, they would be in with Kerry and Cork, but the south also features Clare, Tipperary, Waterford and Limerick, counties with whom Wexford and Carlow would feel quite comfortable.
Duffy has championed the importance of provincial competition, complete with local rivalries, attractions which would be retained under the new proposal.
The only difference would be that the provinces would be re-designated into regions, while a few counties would be meeting different opposition than in the past.
Obviously, there's room for manoeuvre in terms of how counties divide into regions, but the core issue is that once it's settled, there's equality for everybody in terms of when their championship season starts, the gap between rounds and how many games it would take to win a regional title.
Add in the easier scheduling, leading to more room for club action and there's a lot to recommend the idea. Crucially too, it would not involve disbanding the provincial councils which, given the history of the GAA, would be difficult to sell.
Instead, the four existing provincial councils would take over a region each in a seamless transition. That would help in administrative affairs too, as each area would deal with the same number of counties as opposed to the current lopsided 12-9-6-5 breakdown between Leinster-Ulster-Munster-Connacht.