Monday 20 November 2017

Qualified success?

MICHAEL Delaney has really stirred it. Not for the first time in his long career as Leinster's chief administrator he has called it as he sees it in the starkest possible terms.

Comparing a man from Camross to Margaret Thatcher might be regarded as about the biggest insult one could reasonably hope to get away without drawing serious retribution, but, in fairness, there were certain similarities with the 'Iron Lady' in the unequivocal tone of Delaney's 'Out, Out, Out' declarations this week.

Delaney was in no mood for sugar-coating pills which he believes should be swallowed whole and often until they have the desired effect in clearing out the toxins accumulated over the last decade.

His two essential claims are that the GAA is facing a revolution among club players unless it provides a more even games programme and that county boards are facing financial ruin unless spending is brought under control.

As with the rest of the economy, the boom times are over for the GAA. There was a phenomenal growth in gate receipts, sponsorship and TV money over the last decade while the renting of Croke Park for soccer and rugby yielded €36m in four bountiful seasons.

That tap will be turned off at the end of the current Six Nations Championship, three weeks from today.

Croke Park has also been the only player in town for major outdoor concerts but will face opposition from the redeveloped Lansdowne Road once it reopens next autumn.

Gate receipts held up well last year and while Dublin were able to secure a lucrative sponsorship deal with Vodafone, other counties have found it much more difficult to find new backers or to retain existing ones.

"It's more difficult to find sponsors and, even then, they're paying less than before. Race days and golf classics were always great fund-raisers, but they're being hit too. It's the way of the world at present," said Delaney.

He has no doubts that unless they bring costs under control, many counties are heading for insolvency. As for the principal source of the problem, he is adamant that much of it is due to the number and structure of inter-county competitions.


He also attributes the unrest among action-starved club players to the inter-county scene which, when combined with training, has a voracious appetite for precious playing time.

Hence his proposal that the All-Ireland junior football and intermediate hurling championships be dropped; that all so-called special competitions be abandoned and, most controversially of all, that the football qualifiers be scrapped altogether. He also wants major changes in hurling, suggesting that only the Leinster and Munster finalists be allowed into the All-Ireland semi-finals.

Basically, Delaney is promoting a return to old values where the provincial championships were the only way of qualifying for the All-Ireland series. He argues that as well as restoring the integrity of the provincials, the shorter campaigns would leave much more time for club action.

Specifically, he wants the provincial and All-Ireland hurling and football championships played off in June, July and August, with the club scene taking over from September 1. He also wants May left clear for club action.

That would lead to a loss of media profile for Gaelic Games, but Delaney argues that the club situation is so critical that the GAA has to decide where exactly its priorities rest.

His proposal to scrap the All-Ireland qualifiers -- which have been in place since 2001 -- is certain to evoke mixed reaction.

He insists that, ultimately, the big winners from the second-chance system are the stronger counties, a claim supported by the fact that five of the last nine All-Ireland football titles have been won via the 'back door'.

Delaney also asserts that the public are losing interest in the earlier rounds of the qualifiers. Then, there's the cost of keeping teams in training.

"In many cases, it's a matter of the qualifiers leaving teams facing two defeats instead of one. That's never going to change. It's very expensive running big squads for what is very often just one more game. In the meantime, the club scene is being decimated."

It will be interesting to see if Delaney's diagnosis of the financial problems looming ahead for counties and his prediction that club players are on the verge of revolt elicits much reaction over the coming weeks and months.

He can certainly expect a response to his calls for the scrapping of the qualifiers, which have now become an integral part of the summer scene. Their introduction was never going to result in a football utopia where traditionally weaker counties grew to match the established powers on a consistent basis.

However, the qualifiers have produced some great adventures for counties, the most recent of which was enjoyed by Wicklow, who last year won four championship games in the one season for the first time in their history.

That's the joyful, romantic side of the qualifiers but, on the other hand, there is the reality that the big powers will always benefit most from a second chance.

Many will argue that the function of the All-Ireland championship is to find the best team in the country, a target which is more likely to be achieved if one defeat doesn't lead to elimination.

Delaney, and indeed others, counter-claim that the second-chance system has removed the soul from the provincial championships while carrying the added virus of contributing to club chaos and financially imperilling county boards at a time when income streams are decreasing.

Clearly, there is a need for serious debate on all the issues as there is no longer any degree of unanimity among the various stakeholders as to how the complicated area of fixtures -- both for clubs and counties -- should be negotiated.

If Delaney's provocative intervention does nothing more than fuel the debate, he has done a good day's work.

Irish Independent

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