Dick Clerkin: 'GAA must learn from Super 8s' good, bad and ugly to improve championship'
The Super 8s have reached a crossroads, and events in Castlebar and Omagh last weekend provided stark contrasts of both the good and bad of the new format. As a spectacle, what happened in Omagh was an affront to the core ethos of All-Ireland championship football. While in MacHale Park we caught a glimpse of a potentially great future, where the top teams collide in sold-out provincial venues in the white heat of championship football.
Two years in to its three-year trial, let's take a look at what we have learned so far, in terms of the good, bad and ugly of the Super 8s . . .
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You are blinkered by your own prejudice if you cannot acknowledge the success the Super 8s has had in bringing big games to provincial venues.
Last year, Clones, Omagh, Galway, Newbridge, Ballybofey, and Killarney all hosted entertaining contests in front of big crowds at a time of year when they'd otherwise be dormant. This year, Castlebar, Roscommon, and Navan got in on the act. A return to the old knockout format would likely spell the end for such occasions - one of the Super 8s' successes - as would the likely return to a neutral Croke Park.
Roscommon, Cork and Meath will have hugely benefited from the game-time they have experienced as part of the Super 8s.
In order for the likes Andy McEntee or Ronan McCarthy to make meaningful progress with their teams, they need to get them exposed to high-level contests as often as possible.
Not just in February and March, but in July and August also. Even though they both finished the year without a win, they will head towards 2020 with a great deal more hope and focus for continued development based on credible showings over the past few weeks.
A difficult circle to square in any format that contains a round-robin system. Improving the overall standard of the lower-ranked teams is the only way to overcome meaningless fixtures that blight the final rounds. To do this, they need more games and exposure to a higher level of opposition.
Cork, Roscommon and Meath got two points between them but will benefit from taking on the big guns. Dublin's dominance is a major factor but we can't have a championship structure based around one team and it won't last forever either.
The 'Croke Park' round
Swathes of empty seats and a cavernous stadium echo certainly don't evoke a sense of real championship football.
The 'Croke Park' round should be redefined as the 'Neutral Round' and only appropriate games should be held there.
It shouldn't be bypassed either for the sake of it, as our world-class stadium can't be sitting idle just to satisfy a few critics.
Dublin in Croke Park
Originally, I was indifferent to this issue; however, the increased need for balance and parity between all teams means Dublin should only have one game in Croke Park. This one will stick in the craw of everyone and continue to be a stain on the image of the Super 8s until rectified. While it might have little material difference to Dublin's fortunes, it is a sacrificial lamb that will have to be offered up if the Super 8s are going to improve on an increasingly fragile brand.
Falling attendances at Dublin's early games in Croker also means the financial argument is marginal. The Dubs seemingly love their day trips out of the capital so it isn't necessarily something to be feared.
Only allowing a week between the last round and the semi-final is a complete own goal and needs to be immediately changed for next year. Any knock-on implications that this may have in terms of the broader fixture schedule need to be stomached as the negative impact this is having on the current system is substantial.
Games promotion, player welfare are two obvious beneficiaries of a two-week gap and it would have certainly reduce the chance of weakened teams being fielded in the final round.
Other sporting organisations are constantly changing and tweaking their competition structures in an effort to come up with the right fit for the demands of today's world.
The GAA should be no different. Amidst all the voices calling for the immediate disbandment of the Super 8s, there is middle-ground solution here somewhere.
To find it, all voices need to be heard - not just those that check what way the wind is blowing and then shout the loudest.