Friday 19 January 2018

Joe Brolly: I thought Jim McGuinness had peaked with the All-Ireland, but I was wrong

His plan to link the championship with the league is ingenious

Rory Gallagher and Jim McGuinness
Rory Gallagher and Jim McGuinness

Joe Brolly

Every year, the whales eat the plankton in the early rounds of the football championship. Dublin sleepwalk through Leinster, Kerry and Cork forwards surge up the top-scorer leaderboards, while the Ulster teams beat each other's brains out. Worst of all, the weaker teams in the country are gone, having played just one championship match and one qualifier. Everything is wrong and nothing is right.

To sustain this wholly dysfunctional system, the GAA relies on the continued subservience of its members. Like all of the big issues confronting us, it's easier for the hierarchy to pretend that everything is fine. Enough for them to remind us at every turn that we are the lifeblood of the nation and the last great amateur sporting body.

Firstly, a vibrant second-tier championship is absolutely critical to our long-term well-being. We are the only comparable sporting body in the world without one.

The Tommy Murphy Cup was a fiasco. It was born with a whimper in 2004 and died without a whimper in 2008. Participation was optional and in 2004, its inaugural year, only four teams entered.

In 2007 and 2008, I helped out with Antrim. In both years, the team reached the final, losing to Wicklow in a minor classic in 2007 before beating them in 2008. The competition was treated as an embarrassment by the GAA. The final was played on All-Ireland quarter-final day at 12.15. The seagulls squawked and flew off at the throw-in.

Only the teams playing in the quarter-finals were allowed to drive their coaches inside the stadium, dropping off and picking up the squad and kit at the door of their dressing rooms. The Tommy Murphy Cup finalists had to park outside and carry all their gear in. The teams occupied a single page of the programme and were set out in small print, exactly like the mini-sevens played at half-time.

The finalists were allocated the juvenile dressing rooms, where it was a squeeze. Meanwhile, the main dressing rooms were reserved for the four quarter-finalists. These are very large state-of-the-art rooms with a huge warm-up area and all manner of facilities. The All-Ireland finalists each receive over €100,000. The Tommy Murphy Cup finalists got zilch. No wonder it was labelled the Tommy Cooper Cup.

Secondly, the provincial championships must be retained. These are in our blood.

The GPA proposal to replace the provincial championships with a cold Champions League style format merely illustrates how removed they are from GAA people. Up here, an Ulster Championship is as prized as an All-Ireland. Each year, we go to war. Each year, the attendances increase. For Donegal v Armagh today, there will not be a spare seat in the Athletic Grounds. The tickets sold out in a day.

The third truth universally known is that the current system is loaded in favour of teams like Cork, Mayo and Kerry. Tipperary last beat Kerry in 1928. In that same year Amelia Earhart was the first woman to cross the Atlantic by plane, the first television set was sold, Mickey Mouse made his debut and, thankfully for the human race, Bruce Forsyth was born. So, any new system must correct this imbalance.

Last week, Jim McGuinness unveiled his solution. Under the headline, 'How I would reinvigorate the championship', his proposal brings together many ideas previously put forward. What sets it apart is the way it meticulously weaves them together into a coherent whole. Before I started studying it, I got the knife out. Before long, I had put it away. His plan is ingenious.

The basic idea is to link the league, provincial championships, and All-Ireland series, and within that, to establish a vibrant second-tier All-Ireland championship. The 16 top teams would compete for the Sam Maguire. The bottom 16 would compete in the second tier. Jim doesn't suggest a name for this, but I'd give it one with a bit of oomph, a bit of street cred. The Páidí Ó Sé or The Bomber Liston maybe, not The Pat Spillane. The top six teams in Division One and the two promoted from Division Two would make up the top eight seeds. The two relegated from Division One would be seeded 9 and 10. Number 11 would be the third-placed team in Division Two. Number 12 would be the winner of the second-tier All-Ireland from the previous year. The final four places in the top 16 would be reserved for the provincial championship winners. If the provincial winners are already seeded in the top 11 via their league position (a likely enough outcome), then the top 15 league teams plus the previous year's tier-two winners would make up the 16 teams in the race for Sam.

The way it would all work is this: The provincial championships would be stand-alone tournaments run off quickly. At their conclusion, the All-Ireland series would begin. It would be knock-out, starting with eight games in each tier. Seed one would play seed 16. Seed two, seed 15 and so on. From the quarter-final stage on, the second tier (or if you like, Páidí Ó Sé) games would be curtain-raisers to the Sam Maguire games, ensuring big crowds. The finals would be accorded equal respect, played one after the other in Croke Park. Same perks. Same razzmatazz.

The prize for the Páidí Ó Sé winners would not only be the trophy bearing that fabled name, but also the team holiday and a guaranteed place in the following year's Sam Maguire. The league would become ultra-competitive, with the option of drifting through it gone, since you could drop out of, or make it into the top tier for the All-Ireland series and/or the lower your position, the more difficult your opponent in the first knockout game.

Finally, Jim suggests a toss of a coin for home venue in the first round. Imagine Kerry coming to McHale Park. Or the Dubs to Ballybofey?

The proposal touches every base. It incentivises every team at every level. It preserves the provincial championships, the beating heart of the GAA. It ends the unfair, imbalanced qualifier system. It provides a vibrant second-tier championship.

I thought Jim McGuinness had peaked when he brought Donegal an All-Ireland. I see now I was wrong. He is in the process of completing his soccer coaching badges. It is only a matter of time before he is managing Barcelona . . .

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