Martin Breheny: Over 20 counties will play just two, three or four games between now and next year
At last, a chance to pause. After 13 weeks and 190 pre-season and Allianz League games, inter-county football closes down until May 20, apart of course from warm-weather training in Portugal, weekends away in Ireland, plus all the other intensive preparations that precede the championship.
Okay, so Sligo play New York in Gaelic Park on May 7 but it will be another two weeks before Connacht begins its real business, joined by Ulster and Leinster, while Munster launches on May 27/28. So let's follow Sligo. They had three FBD Connacht League games in January, followed by a seven-game Division 3 programme, which finished on April 2.
If they beat New York, Mayo are next up on May 21, a game which, in all probability, Sligo will lose. That will be followed by a four-week wait for the qualifiers.
mystifying A defeat there would leave Sligo's season completed by June 17, having played 12 games, 10 of which came between January 8 and April 2. If Sligo were to beat Mayo, their third championship outing - a Connacht semi-final clash with Galway - will be on June 11.
Meanwhile, Roscommon won't begin their campaign until June 18. How one county could have three games before another plays one is truly mystifying. Whoever emerges from the first Connacht semi-final will have a four-week wait for the final. The same applies to the first semi-final winners in Leinster and Ulster, while there's a three-week gap between the Munster semi-finals and final.
None of this is new. What makes it different nowadays is that the intensity of preparations impacts so heavily on the club scene. Few club championship games are played while inter-county teams remain in the All-Ireland race, leaving large numbers of players so deep in frustration that it eventually led to the formation of the Club Players Association (CPA).
It's concentrating minds, but irrespective of how much goodwill exists on all sides, there can be little meaningful change while the provincials remain as the foundation for the All-Ireland championship.
Scrapping league semi-finals, playing the All-Ireland finals earlier and dropping replays will bring no more than minor improvements to the timelines.
Everyone knows that, yet there appears to be no will whatsoever to address the main source of the problem - the provincial championships. Even if they weren't responsible for making it impossible to devise a balanced, workable structure, they would still possess enough negatives to make them obsolete.
Is there any other sport world-wide where the top competition has such a deeply-flawed make-up, while the secondary event is the essence of balance and equality?
The league works well because it's self-regulating, with counties having their level decided on how they perform, rather than geography and draws.
It leads to greater competitiveness, since counties are playing against opposition in their own band. If they improve, they move up; if they deteriorate, they drop down. Simplicity and fairness win, unlike the championship, complete with its many quirks.
Take the luck of the draw, as experienced this year by Sligo, who have to beat New York, Mayo and Galway (all away) to reach the Connacht final, whereas Roscommon can qualify by beating Leitrim at home. How unfair is that?
The league provides an obvious template for the All-Ireland, scoring under many of the headings which leaves the championship system so deeply flawed. That includes timing and duration.
Virtually every county played a minimum of 10 games between January 8 and April 2 but are now guaranteed only two more. Seven counties played only two championship games last year, six had three outings and nine had four. On that basis, 22 counties will have four or fewer games between now and next January.
How many training sessions will they undertake for so little action? And what will it cost? With the average price per session ranging between €3,500 and €5,000, depending on the county, an enormous amount of money is about to be spent on a competition no longer remotely fit for purpose.
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