Martin Breheny: 'Tier 2 gaining traction but it needs to be well managed'
With the gap between stronger football counties and the rest widening, the case for a secondary championship is becoming more compelling
A cold, dark, drizzly winter evening in Duggan Park, Ballinasloe, may appear an improbable setting for the launch of something hugely significant, but it happened all the same.
In November 1991, Clare beat Longford after extra-time in the All-Ireland 'B' football final in what was the Banner's first national 'big-ball' title for 62 years when the minors were successful.
As Clare's young manager John Maughan watched captain Gerry Killeen waving the trophy in front a sizeable Banner following, his mind was already turning towards the next phase of the project.
Eight months later, Clare were Munster senior champions for the first time in 75 years, having beaten Kerry in the final.
While that day is still recalled in Clare - and beyond - for the remarkable triumph it was, relatively few make the connection with the 'B' title.
Maughan, who recently took over as Offaly manager, takes a broader perspective and remains convinced that the 'B' success was crucial in making Clare what they became in 1992.
"It was enormously beneficial - no question. Winning a trophy - any trophy - was massive for Clare. We celebrated in style and rightly so. And when we got down to the hard work in 1992, the fact that we had won something was a huge confidence booster. We had a platform and we went from there," he said.
So while there may still be widespread scepticism about how a second-tier championship (it certainly won't be called a 'B' championship) would work now, Maughan points to Clare's experience as a practical example of its value.
"Every player wants to win things. And if you can't win the All-Ireland or a provincial title, it's nice to have something else to aim at. A secondary championship can work if it's structured right and sold well," he said.
Maughan presided over a second All-Ireland 'B' title success with Fermanagh in 2000, but, by then, interest had dwindled amid discussions over a new format for the All-Ireland championships, which delivered the qualifiers a year later.
In 2007, Wicklow beat Antrim after extra-time in the Tommy Murphy Cup final, the win coming in the most dramatic circumstances imaginable when Tommy Gill scored a last-minute goal which gave them a two-point victory.
The following summer they won a Leinster Championship game (v Kildare) in Croke Park for the first time and, in 2009, they enjoyed the county's best summer, beating Fermanagh, Cavan and Down in the qualifiers.
It all happened under Mick O'Dwyer's guidance and while the qualifier run was the highlight, the Tommy Murphy Cup win may well have been the on-field catalyst for the improvement.
The 2007 final was played as the opening game in a triple bill along with two All-Ireland quarter-finals and while it had a very early start, the sight of Wicklow colours in Croke Park in August was significant.
Leighton Glynn, who scored 1-4 in a man-of-the-match performance in the final, recalls the excitement of playing in a final in Croke Park on a big day.
"Our game started so early that the seagulls were still on the pitch when we came out, but it was still a great occasion. We certainly enjoyed it," he said.
Like Maughan, Glynn believes that a secondary championship would work, provided it was well-run and extensively promoted.
"That's vital. Playing the semi-finals and finals with the All-Ireland games would be good. They (Tier 2) might not be the big ticket but having them on the same day as the All-Ireland games would appeal to people," he said.
However, A Tier 2 competition would mean that the counties involved did not feature in the All-Ireland qualifiers.
"You'd still have the provincials to aim at. Players like that - it's what happens next that's up for debate. The main thing is that for a secondary competition to work, it has to be placed correctly and implemented well," said Glynn.
Maughan believes that the reality of the modern-day game makes the secondary championship an idea whose time has come.
"The truth is that many counties haven't a pup's chance of winning a provincial title, let alone an All-Ireland. You're asking players to commit to all that goes into being an inter-county player without having a chance of winning anything, except in their own division of the league.
"Players have to have something to aim at. They could all continue in their own provincial championships and if they don't do well there, a set number could play in a secondary competition.
"You have a situation at present where players from a lot of counties have no realistic chance of playing in Croke Park.
"We have this great stadium, which means so much to everyone in the GAA, yet hundreds of inter-county players will never play there. There has to be a way of giving them a chance of getting there," he said.
Central Council will discuss the Tier 2 option on November 24, when they will also study various submissions from counties.
Wicklow are proposing that after the provincial championships, the 16 counties in Divisions 3 and 4 be excluded from the qualifiers and instead enter a secondary competition. In the event of counties from those divisions (as happened with Laois and Fermanagh this year) qualifying for their provincial finals, they would remain in the Sam Maguire Cup tier.
Placing 16 counties in the second tier appears logical but it could prove problematic.
For instance, if it applied this year, Armagh would fall into that category, a situation that would probably not go down well in the Orchard country.
The same applies to Down, who will be in Division 3 next year. They would see themselves as entitled to take their chances in the qualifiers, rather than dropping down to a secondary competition.
Confining Tier 2 action to the bottom 12 teams (eight Division 4 and four Division 3) might make more sense, initially at least.
Of course, not all players in that category are enthused by the Tier 2 idea.
Opposition has come from Carlow, who feel that their recent progress would be better served by retaining the current system.
Elsewhere, the overall mood appears to be changing. According to the GPA, a recent survey of players backed Tier 2 on a 60-40pc majority.
And while that may not be as reliable as the figures suggest since players from the stronger counties also participated, it's a marked change from two years ago when Division 4 counties threatened to boycott a 'B' championship.
The plan was dropped by Central Council. Now, it's back on the agenda, albeit without the 'B' tag, and gaining traction.
SECONDARY CHAMPIONSHIP: HOW IT WOULD WORK
Play provincial championships as normal. Division 3 and 4 teams, who didn’t reach a provincial final, would enter a Tier 2 championship instead of the All-Ireland qualifiers. More often than not, it would involve 16 counties, although not this year as Fermanagh (Division 3) and Laois (Division 4) reached the Ulster and Leinster finals respectively.
The Tier 2 campaign would run on a straight knock-out, with the semi-finals and final played in Croke Park as curtain-raisers to their Sam Maguire Cup equivalents.
That would ensure that Tier 2 counties, rather than minors, would be part of the big days.
If it applied this year the following 14 counties would have been in the secondary championship: Armagh, Longford, Westmeath, Sligo, Derry, Offaly, Wexford, Carlow, Antrim, Limerick, Leitrim, London, Wicklow, Waterford.
Same as above but restrict Tier 2 championship to 12 counties (bottom four in Division 3 and the eight in Division 4). Armagh, Fermanagh, Longford and Westmeath filled the top four places in Division 3 this year and would remain in the qualifiers rather than play in Tier 2.
If the secondary championship were comprised of 16 counties, which two counties involved in relegation/promotion in Divisions 2 and 3 would play in Tier 2 and which two would enter the qualifiers?
Down and Louth were relegated from Division 2 this year while Armagh and Fermanagh were promoted from Division 3.
Also, would the Tier 2 winners be entitled to enter the following year’s qualifiers, even if they were still in Division 3 and 4?
Allowing the Tier 2 winners to re-enter the All-Ireland race in the same season is also a possibility but that would rule out staging the semi-finals/finals with their All-Ireland equivalents.
IMPACT ON ALL-IRELAND CHAMPIONSHIP
With 16 counties (most years) in Tier 2, only two rounds of qualifiers would be required.