Sunday 15 September 2019

Change may be good - but not all at the same time

Next year's inter-county fixture programme will look different to anything previously witnessed in the GAA's 134-year history

GPA chief executive Dermot Earley believes that voting in the ‘Super 8’ was a “slap in the face” for players. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
GPA chief executive Dermot Earley believes that voting in the ‘Super 8’ was a “slap in the face” for players. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

The GAA's management committee will this weekend sign off on the 2018 master fixtures plan, a schedule which is completely different to anything ever previously framed by the association.

The broad parameters have been known for quite some time but it's only when all the details are brought together that the extent of the change will come under close scrutiny from the membership.

As the season progresses and the difficulties involved in adhering to the schedule become apparent, the wisdom of applying so many adjustments in the one year will come under serious question.

Who would have thought it? Twelve months ago, the odds against the All-Ireland football and hurling championships undergoing the most radical overhaul in their history in the same season would have been sufficiently high as to attract very few takers.


It happened though, with annual Congress in February backing the introduction of a 'round robin' for the last eight in football and a special Congress in September supporting a similar format in both the Munster and Leinster hurling championships.

And that's not all. Next year will bring a whole lot of other adjustments too, including lowering the minor age limit to 17, replacing U-21 football with U-20, starting the Allianz Leagues in January, leaving April free of inter-county activity, increasing the number of games in the senior championships and playing the All-Ireland finals earlier.

Some pre-season competitions are scheduled to start in Leinster on December 30, followed by two more games in the following week.

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It's a lot to take in. Opinion remains divided on many of the changes, especially the 'Super 8' in football and the 'round robin' provincial hurling championships.

The GPA opposed the 'Super 8', but Congress ignored the players' view, voting it in on a 74-26pc majority.

GPA chief Dermot Earley described the decision as "a slap in the face for the players", and complained about a lack of consultation.

"We surveyed our players, got down to each and every county panel and they came back quite unanimously that they were against this (Super 8). They (Croke Park) might have consulted with everyone but they didn't consult with the players, which is what we did," said Earley after the Congress decision.

Some players and managers used social media to vent their irritation.

Director-general Páraic Duffy was not impressed, pointing out that the proposal had been on the agenda for a long time and that players could have gone through their clubs and counties if they were as opposed to the change as the GPA claimed.

"This has been debated for six months and was passed on a 74-26 (per cent) majority. That's democracy," said Duffy.

As for the objections raised on social media, he issued a withering retort: "We're not going to run the GAA by Twitter."

The GPA's objections to the 'Super 8' have receded into the background but that was always going to happen since the issues involved won't become live until next summer.

However, if the new format doesn't prove as successful as hoped - and there's always the possibility of meaningless games in Round 3 - the GPA will, no doubt, point out that 'we told you so.'

It's unfortunate that a system which had the support of the majority of footballers could not be devised but then the same applies to the hurling changes.

In this case, the objections came from county boards with no fewer than five top counties (Cork, Tipperary, Waterford, Kilkenny and Dublin) opposing the plan.

Indeed, Laois, Offaly and Meath would probably have voted against it too if a compromise had not been reached which provides for Tier 2 finalists entering the Liam MacCarthy Cup race via preliminary All-Ireland quarter-finals.

The vote (62-38 per cent) in favour of the Central Council proposal for reform of the Leinster and Munster Championship was swayed by support from many counties not impacted by the changes, something which may never have happened before in a matter of such significance.

Essentially, it meant that Cavan, Leitrim, Sligo, Monaghan and Donegal had as much influence on the shape of the Munster and Leinster Championships as the counties directly involved.

That's democracy but it's not right. In fact, it's ridiculous. Still, the decision will now stand for at least three years.

It's the same with the 'Super 8'. Why it was deemed appropriate to stitch the changes into the championship for three rather than two years is unclear but, having done it, there's no way back irrespective of how the new systems work out in practice.

Even the smallest adjustment in an already crowded schedule has an impact elsewhere. Launching the leagues in January brings pre-season activity forward, just as starting the provincial championships earlier than usual has implications too.

April is supposed to be left free of inter-county activity in order to give clubs an opportunity to work their way into the season but does anybody seriously believe it will work?

With the provincial championships starting earlier, inter-county managers will demand full access to the players for most, if not indeed all, of April. It will result in few counties starting their club championships, knowing that they will be able to complete only one or two rounds before putting them in to abeyance until after the All-Ireland campaign is completed.

In some cases, that will be as early as the second weekend in June, when the first round of the football qualifiers are due to take place. Effectively, that means that eight counties will be finished for the year well before mid-June, having completed their pre-season, Allianz League and All-Ireland campaigns in just over five months.

There are other changes too which will only become apparent when the full fixtures list emerges.

The indications are that the Leinster and Munster hurling finals will be played on the same day, which isn't exactly good from a promotional viewpoint.

But with so many strands to be pulled together, it's all but impossible for the fixture-makers to satisfy everybody.

Efforts were made to ensure that counties were not doubly engaged in football and hurling on the same day, but it's not easy to achieve that, given the busy hurling schedule in May-June.

It's understood that All-Ireland hurling champions Galway will begin their Leinster 'round robin' against Offaly on Saturday, May 12, the day before Galway play Mayo in the Connacht football championship.

The earlier finish to the All-Ireland championships (hurling on August 19, football on September 2 for next year only and then on the last Sunday in August) also impacts on the overall shape of the championship.

Removing the finals from September will have a detrimental effect from a promotional viewpoint but that argument was lost on the basis that anything that leaves more room for club action has merit.

It's a debatable point, since only four counties were involved in September under the old arrangement. Despite that, many who exited the All-Ireland race quite often took until October to complete their local championships. Will it any different when the All-Ireland finals are played in August?

Supporters of the new formats argue that they must be given a chance to see how they work out in practice. It's a reasonable standpoint but the difficulties faced by the fixture-makers suggest that too much was changed too quickly.

There was no demand for an overhaul of the hurling championships until fears emerged that the introduction of the 'Super 8' in football would swamp hurling in July/August.

That will still happen, since hurling's busy period will be in May-June.

All is calm on the inter-county scene now but one suspects that tricky times are ahead when the many changes which have been agreed get their first run next year.

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