Sunday 25 August 2019

Colm O'Rourke: 'Wanted: Men and women of substance to reform the GAA'

GAA President John Horan. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
GAA President John Horan. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

The idea of a B and maybe even a C championship is gaining traction. John Horan has at last grabbed the bull by the horns and is going to make an attempt to lead change rather than just hope it will happen.

There are now two issues which could make a massive difference to the GAA in the news. Firstly, a new fixtures committee is almost set to go and, secondly, proposals for a tiered structure are going to be discussed. Perhaps Horan has been taking lessons from Harry Truman, who was the US president at the end of World War II. One of his most famous lines was: "It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit." It is a good motto for teams going to war.

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Horan may no longer be GAA president when the full import of these decisions are seen - that is if both bodies get it right. And the two are completely intertwined. In fact, the GAA should be making decisions on three things: A complete new fixtures programme, a new championship structure and new rules to improve the game. Certainly the first two must go together, as it does not make any sense that one committee will work on fixtures when another group could be putting together a tiered championship which might not fit into the new schedule.

I think the tide in favour of major change has recently turned. It is a bit like the real politics - people's habits are changing and they are not a bit afraid of new challenges. The GAA is no more immune to these winds of change than any other organisation and whatever proposals are drafted, I hope they are circulated to every club to decide on. In general, clubs are willing to accept change quicker than county boards and the clubs must drive major new departures.

There is a cart and a horse here. The fixtures body must decide on what sort of competitions are desirable and then go about fitting them into a schedule. The other way around will only lead to further chaos.

This has been a hobby horse of mine for over 20 years. I was on the original committee that sought to reform the championship in 1999. Our radical proposals were shot down by county boards all over the country and from that train wreck a new committee came up with the present championship structure. At the time, I hoped the new system would be temporary. At least now people understand that it is a mess, but when it starts hitting hard in the pocket then it is time to change.

Putting all teams from Divisions 3 and 4 into a B championship after being knocked out of their provincial championships looks like a simple way of progressing. But it is not something I would favour unless there were groups of four to give more championship matches to these teams in the summer months. Yet even that is a cheap wallpaper job. Unless the provincial system itself is reformed then we are going nowhere. A 'bottom 16' is just a similar competition to the existing league.

Before there is any competition change there has to be certain guiding principles, chief of which is that it must be based on fairness, equality and opportunity. The present system is completely unfair. Kerry and Dublin are, to all intents and purposes, in the Super 8. How different is that for Donegal and Tyrone who play next Saturday? Or Mayo?

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So I am an exponent of the big bang approach. One which changes radically the way all competitions are run. I favour championship football in three tiers, beginning on a league basis in March with the knock-out games in each division sometime in July or August. Otherwise we are fiddling around the edges of a broken system with nothing more than sticking plaster.

And, when you think about it, how radical is it really? This is an exact replica of what happens in every county, where clubs play in senior, intermediate and junior championships according to their strength. So it is not exactly inventing the wheel. I have been saying for a long time that club fixtures can never be fixed unless and until a set fixtures programme for counties is in place from March to August with weekends free for club games - and with county players available too. It works, too. I have already forwarded my proposals to Croke Park, complete with the dates for 2020 and I will publish it in these pages in due course.

The guiding principles of my system are: playing games at the right time of year with every county having five home matches which they can promote and keep most of the gate, promotion and relegation, specific cash incentives for county boards, each county in the bottom two divisions having at least one game in Croke Park, All Stars for each division and trips abroad for winners and runners-up with perhaps a link up with London, New York and other places for further games.

To do this will take nerves of steel. It will be a test of those involved. The first test is independence. There are not many with those qualities in the GAA. I define independent people as those who love the GAA but who don't want anything out of it, like county board positions or Croke Park committees. They are people who will criticise when necessary because they see the bigger picture. They are a limited breed. These type see it as I do, a form of national service. Hopefully there are enough men and women of substance to make a difference and see that the GAA is crumbling in many places due to absolute cynicism.

There were less than 15,000 in Portlaoise last week with Dublin, Meath, Carlow and Louth playing. That is another warning. And I haven't even mentioned club players.

And by the way, if these committees ignore Dublin and their future role in the GAA then they are just blowing smoke. Staying pretty much the same is not an option for anything in the GAA at present. This is a wonderful opportunity to sort things for the next 20 years and grow the GAA into a much bigger, better, fairer organisation. We will see who is up to the challenge.

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