Wednesday 21 August 2019

Ciaran Whelan: 'The opinions those in Division 3 and Division 4 are the most relevant in two-tier talks'

Eoin Murchan of Dublin celebrates with the Sam Maguire Cup after the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Dublin and Tyrone at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Eoin Murchan of Dublin celebrates with the Sam Maguire Cup after the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Dublin and Tyrone at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Ciaran Whelan

First and foremost it was good to see the GAA taking another step towards a Tier 2 championship following last weekend’s decision by Central Council.

It has been ‘in the works’ for several years and the timing seems appropriate - it’s time for the GAA’s 2020 vision.

It’s right to formulate a clear road map for the future of Gaelic football at senior level and that needs clear, logical thinking.

Unfortunately, at times, that seems a near impossibility as a lot of what masquerades as discussion now in Gaelic games is a raucous cacophony, a ‘what side are you on’ approach.

With regard to the Tier 2 debate, the opinions of players, managers and counties in Division 3 and Division 4 are the most relevant and arguably their opinions should carry greater weight on the subject.

I see that former Down star Benny Coulter, currently a selector with the Mourne men, has urged his native county delegates to oppose the Tier 2 proposals.

We also have to park the ‘We need to talk about Dublin’ argument if we are to reach a championship structure that is better for the game overall, especially for ‘developing’ counties. Because of Dublin’s current superiority, the county dominants a lot of debates, but this is certainly one where we have to look far further down the road as we plot the route for the future of football.

There seems to be a far greater appetite for a secondary competition than existed in the past - and that’s a starting point.

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However, I’m not convinced the players/management teams/supporters/sponsors etc are best served by the proposals that are to be debated at the Special Congress in Páirc Uí Chaoimh on October 19.

The concept of a Tier 2 Championship is right in my opinion and I also welcome a rescheduling of the inter-county/club calendar.

I also think the idea of an All Star awards scheme for Tier 2 and playing the final in Croke Park are all good, but maybe somewhat cosmetic to the real issues.

One of my fears with regard to the proposals is that it is an attempt to tick a multitude of boxes, but could have unintentional negative knock-on effects.

For instance, it is quite likely the status of the league will be decreased and it is often through the league that teams make gradual progression - year-on-year improvement.

Also, if we rigidly hold onto the provincial structure as currently constituted, we have the anomaly of some teams being out of their provincial competition before some counties in other provinces have even started theirs.

Take for instance this year where the Connacht SFC commenced on May 5 with Mayo flying to New York and Galway taking on London. Yet in Munster, Kerry and Cork didn’t start their campaigns until June 1.

The possibility of the provincial divide moving towards a conference arrangement is to be encouraged.

Ultimately, however, I am not fully won over by the two specific proposals on the table for debate by delegates in Cork on October 19.

I applaud the concept and the timing of this move by John Horan as president but I feel there could be a more favourable road worthy of some consideration.

A few years back, a good few in fact, not long after I had retired from the inter-county game, I wrote at length on the matter . . .  so forgive me as I reheat some of the same argument here as it is now very topical.

At that time it was already clear that certain counties were moving away from the rest and the days of the incredible breakthrough story, the romance of the championship, like Clare (1992), Leitrim (1994), Laois (2003), Westmeath (2004) - to name but four counties - looked far less likely to happen.

So I would still argue in favour of replacing the league as it is currently formatted with provincial/conference style leagues (Leinster, Munster, Ulster, Connacht leagues based primarily, but not exclusively, on current provincial divides).

So in order to split the teams into four groups of eight teams, a tweaking of the provincial boundaries is required.

At the conclusion of the provincial/conference league, the top five teams in each league (20 counties) qualify, seeded (1) or (2) depending on their finishing positions, for the All-Ireland Championship Group Stages.

Finalists from each provincial/conference league would be seeded (1) with the three other qualifiers seeded (2). The bottom three teams in each of the four Provincial Leagues (12 counties) would proceed to an open draw All-Ireland Tier 2 Group Championship guaranteeing the weaker teams multiple games over the summer months.

I think it is important for developing counties, in particular, to link league and championship as it assists them to make progress over time.

There must be nothing worse as a player to invest so much time and emotion into your sport only then for your county’s summer season to vanish as soon as it started at the end of a hiding.

This has obviously led to footballers in certain counties not answering their county’s call or else deciding to be lured by the dollar to the States before the championship starts or, if not then, before they are in the qualifiers.

I would prefer a format that all teams begin on the same starting line in the ‘Race for Sam’ and that if you are not up to speed that season you have another tournament that helps counties develop players during the summer months with a view to coming back with greater hope and ambition the following season.

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