Tuesday 24 April 2018

Colm O'Rourke: Address real issues or weaker counties will just give up

‘Surely every county player, for a start, should be guaranteed at least one game in Croke Park every year?’
‘Surely every county player, for a start, should be guaranteed at least one game in Croke Park every year?’
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

The author of the proposal on the format for the All-Ireland football championship is unclear. Whether it is Paraic Duffy alone or a joint initiative from all the main officials in Croke Park is not set out in the document, but it has been sent around to reputable people - and probably quite a few disreputable people - to get their views.

In many ways the die has been cast already with yesterday's decision of Central Council to put it to Congress next year. In quite a few respects this same Central Council behave like sheep: they have strong opinions on important matters like the Sky deal, until they go to these meetings. Then all these same strong opinions disappear on the wind and there is no dissenting voice.

I have yet to come across one GAA person who thinks that it is right that supporters of a county team should have to pay a TV subscription to watch their team in a live game, yet that is the expressed view of Congress.

When the president says that GAA supporters cannot assume that they should see all GAA games live, then nobody would disagree. It is entirely different, though, to asking the young, the old and the sick to either pay to watch on the telly or go to a local pub. As it is, the supporters are voting with their feet: they are not watching on Sky at all. And if the GAA really wanted to promote both the league and the club championship, they would give RTE some of these games. When people ask why there is no football on the national station for seven or eight months, the GAA should tell them that is a strictly GAA decision to freeze out RTE, when RTE have actively sought to get some of these matches.

With average attendances in the football championship plummeting from 20,000 in 2007 to 13,000 in 2016, there is a need for a radical move, hence this new discussion document. It is not very radical at all and basically only envisages the quarter-finalists playing in two groups of four to produce semi-finalists rather than straight knock-out quarter-finals.

Along with this is a tightening up of the provincial championships. The idea behind it is that it will allow more time for club football. I seriously considered putting the next few sentences in bold print because I am so fed up with GAA officials and others who should know better making stupid statements about club football: the problem in any county I know is not a lack of club football, it is a lack of club football with the county players. That is what frustrates club managers, of which I am one, so I do know what I am talking about in this regard.

The main problems arise in spring, so these proposals do not alleviate this issue then. The worst thing to have in a club is a lot of players on county panels - minor, under 21 and senior; you could end up having no team at all in secondary competitions, and there is often frustration with some of these players sitting on the bench with a county side and getting no club games either. And when the county team go out of the championship in early summer, you would need a wild west-style posse to man the airports before half the team are in America.

Anyway, back to the discussion document. The round-robin format for the last eight would create a bit of extra interest by having each county playing three games to get to the All-Ireland semi-final - especially as it would bring big county sides to provincial venues while guaranteeing them at least one game in the series in Croke Park. No argument against that at all.

In some ways, though, this is an attempt to treat a symptom rather than the underlying cause. At least part of the reason why attendances are falling is because football as a spectacle varies between absolute muck and total rubbish. That is a rules issue, not fixtures.

Secondly, those who need more games are the worst teams in the country, not the best. Do Dublin, Kerry, Tyrone or Mayo need more matches every year? Of course the GAA at central level can always say the weakest counties have come out strongly against a Tommy Murphy-type competition. Yes they have, but were they ever promised games in Croke Park, a financial bonus for the county board and some type of attractive package for the players? No they were not, so it is no wonder they have declared that they do not want to be treated like second-class citizens.

That is where the real issues are arising, and soon a lot of counties might feel that they would be better off focusing exclusively on club football rather than wasting hundreds of thousands of euro on the charade of county football.

Maybe it will take a few teams in the third and fourth divisions of the National League to pull out to bring everyone to their senses.

One thing these counties can look forward to under the new proposals is a shorter season. It will save the county board a shed-load of money from training costs and so on but will mean the season will end in early June and won't start again until the following February. I would have thought that trying to promote football in these counties was more important than killing it.

Now having a competition for the elite is not incompatible with promoting football in weaker counties. In fact they should go together but it has to be marketed properly, and surely every county player, for a start, should be guaranteed at least one game in Croke Park every year? Last year, instead of looking for every vested interest submitting proposals for the championship, there should have been one high-powered committee formed to look at a format to benefit every county, not just those who play in Croke Park every August.

I would love the opportunity to chair such a committee, and it would also have to work in tandem with a rules revision group because without changes there the people will still stay away. A dynamic group could report back in a couple of months and then put the whole package to Congress. This latest championship proposal is a bit like Sky coverage: nobody has much interest in looking at it. There is a better way.

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