'Let's be bold and imaginative' - Dublin great O'Leary wants major revamp of 'flawed' football year
John O'Leary, former Dublin All-Ireland-winning captain, has urged the GAA to undertake a radical overhaul of the football championships, rather than continuing to tweak a system that "we all know is seriously flawed and will always remain so."
His call comes at a time when counties are considering their response ahead of a vote by Congress on a Central Council plan to replace the All-Ireland quarter-finals with a 'round robin' series to decide who reaches the semi-finals.
O'Leary, who played 70 successive championship games for Dublin in 1980-'97, claims that the time for minor adjustments is over, and it must be replaced by the need to be bold and imaginative.
"Let's go with something different - it's worth a try, even if only on an experimental basis. You won't find many people who are happy with what we have, so why not go with something else," he said.
His blueprint would see the provincial championships scrapped - certainly as part of the All-Ireland series - and a separation of the 32 teams into two groups of 16.
Only the top 16 would be allowed compete for the Sam Maguire Cup, with the other 16 playing for a new trophy. The Sam Maguire tier would be comprised of the top 16 (Divisions 1 and 2) in that year's Allianz League, with seedings based on where they finished on the tables.
Counties in Divisions 3 (including the two relegated from Division 2) and 4 would play in the other competition, where the winners would have the right to be promoted to Sam Maguire level in the following season.
Proposals to interfere in any way with the provincial championships have, in the past, met with implacable opposition. O'Leary accepts it's a hard sell but queries the logic behind such loyalty.
"When you strip it down, Ulster is the only province where you have a properly functioning championship. The Leinster Championship is no longer a real competition.
"Who's going to come close to challenging Dublin any time soon? If anything, the gap between them and the rest is widening.
"Connacht is between Mayo, Galway and Roscommon nearly all the time and Kerry and Cork dominate Munster with the very odd exception. Yet despite all that, the provincial championships continue to be the basis for the All-Ireland championships.
"Then you have the qualifiers where the first round has become a bit of a joke. Some counties have to wait a very long time between being knocked out of the provincial championship and the qualifiers, players lose interest and so do the public.
"On top of all that, you have the problems for club players in most counties being left without games for months. We've seen how annoyed and frustrated they have become," he said.
Confining the Sam Maguire Cup tier to 16 teams would, he argues, greatly increase the competitiveness of the four groups of four, which would play off in round-robin format, to produce eight quarter-finalists.
However, instead of leaving the other 16 counties in what might be regarded as a downgraded competition, he would insist on it being promoted to the very maximum, with the final played on All-Ireland weekend.
"Every round would run alongside the Sam Maguire championship up to the final. That could be played in Croke Park on the same Sunday as the All-Ireland final or on the day before. The important thing would be to market and promote it properly and very definitely not to call it a secondary or 'B' Championship.
"We're just after the 1916 Rising anniversary and coming towards the anniversary of the War of Independence so why not call the Pearse or Connolly Cup, or something like that," said O'Leary.
Under his plan, the groups in 2016 for the Sam Maguire 'round robin' would be along the following lines:
A: Dublin, Cavan, Cork, Meath.
B: Kerry, Monaghan, Fermanagh, Kildare.
C: Roscommon, Tyrone, Galway, Derry.
D: Donegal, Mayo, Down, Clare.
The remaining 16 would be divided as follows:
A: Armagh, Sligo, Wexford, London.
B: Laois, Tipperary, Limerick, Leitrim.
C: Offaly, Louth, Wicklow, Waterford.
D: Longford, Westmeath, Antrim, Carlow.
O'Leary accepts that there would be complaints from counties who just missed the top 16 but points out that the need to avoid the cut would add to the competitiveness of the league.
"Trying to avoid dropping out of Division 2 would make those games championship qualifiers and the same goes for those trying to get out of Division 3. In any event, counties would know how to get into the Sam Maguire tier - make sure they were in the top 16. It would make for a great league because as well as deciding which championship competition you were in, placing would also decide your seedings," he said.
The big advantage of O'Leary's plan is that every county would know the date of their 'round robin' games well in advance, allowing them to organise a better club programme.
"The 'round robin' games could be run off at two-weekly intervals, followed by the quarter-finals in both competitions, followed by the quarter-finals two weeks later.
"That's just eight weeks to cut the number of teams down to four in both competitions. Imagine the benefit that would bring to clubs," said O'Leary.
He accepts that under his plan, Tipperary, who last year beat Cork in the Munster semi-final and later reached the All-Ireland semi-final, would not have been eligible for the Sam Maguire Cup tier because they would have needed to get out of Division 3 but argues that exceptions don't make for good systems.
"It was great to see Tipperary reach the semi-final but how often does that sort of thing happen under the system we have now? It's rare enough, certainly not often enough to justify staying with it.
"Anyway, counties would know what they have to do to have a shot at the Sam Maguire - get into the top 16."
O'Leary is adamant that the current system is serving football badly, both at county and club level.
"What not change it, even for a year or two and then review how the new format is going. Messing around with what we have won't fix anything - that's pretty obvious," said O'Leary.