Martin Breheny: Weaker counties sceptical about restructuring plans
While 18 proposals for adjustments to the format of the All-Ireland Football Championships have been submitted to Croke Park, there's scepticism over whether there will be any significant change.
That's certainly the view among lower-ranked counties, whose role in the championship is coming under the sharpest scrutiny.
"You can trick around all you like with formats but unless you close the gap between the resources available to the big counties and the rest, it will change nothing. I doubt very much if that's going to happen anytime soon," said Wicklow manager Johnny Magee.
His Waterford counterpart Tom McGlinchey is equally sceptical.
"I do think that now is the time for a new format but I wonder is the will there among the powers-that-be.
"There's definitely room for improvement but all the stakeholders have to be involved. I wouldn't be holding my breath that there will be radical change," he said.
Croke Park has given county boards a deadline of Monday week to submit their views and state preferred options (if any) before the matter is considered by the GAA's Management Committee and Central Council on November 13/14.
Seventeen counties, plus the GPA, submitted proposals but many of them are unwieldy, poorly focused and lacking in practical detail.
All but one of the submissions wants the provincial championships retained as a key element in the All-Ireland series; six propose a round-robin dimension in some form or other; 15 favour a second-tier championship.
In effect, the latter would debar 16 counties from competing for the Sam Maguire Cup after being eliminated from the provincial championships.
Judging by the reaction of three managers from counties currently in Division 4, it's not a formula that will prove popular among players, who want to retain their All-Ireland ambitions for as long as possible.
"If there's to be a secondary championship outside the provincials, it has to offer a route back to the All-Ireland. There has to be a real incentive there. What most players need is more games," said Magee.
"Wicklow played two championship games this year against Meath and Armagh. We were away in both. That's eight months of hard work to play two championship games away against teams in higher divisions. There has to be a better way than that.
Leitrim manager Shane Ward is not a fan of a second-tier championship and doubts very much if players would fancy it either, as they would find it hard to motivate themselves.
Despite Leitrim's poor record in the All-Ireland qualifiers - one win in 15 years - Ward believes the back door should be kept open.
However, he sees merit in grading counties at the start of the qualifiers so that lower-ranked teams met in early rounds, rather than being thrown into the draw with opposition from the higher divisions.
On a broader front, he believes the only way for counties to make genuine progress is for properly co-ordinated development work to take place, involving all the stakeholders.
"If everyone is working to the same aim of providing players for the county team, it can work. It's about organisation and hard work at all levels," he said.
McGlinchey believes that the qualifiers need to be tweaked. He also sees merit in a secondary championship, but with a prize of a return to the Sam Maguire tier for the winners, at least.
He has taken the trouble to devise a detailed alternate plan for the championship, where 12 qualifiers from the League would join the four provincial winners in the All-Ireland race. His plan envisages running off the League and Championship simultaneously.
He welcomes the current debate on championship formats but fears it might end up as no more than a talking shop.
"That's the big danger. This year, we saw complaints every week about time-keeping, yet when a solution (clock/hooter) was voted in a few years ago, the decision was overturned before it was even implemented," said McGlinchey.
"It was the same with the 'sin bin' - it never got a proper chance. You just wonder is the will there to get things done. That's my fear about this championship review."
Magee insists that the difference in resources between counties is the biggest threat to a competitive championship. He wants Croke Park to examine the costs attached to running a county team properly and provide supports, as required, to the smaller counties.
"You can take being beaten by a better team but it's very disheartening when you're going against opposition that you know are better conditioned because they have more resources behind them," he said.
"That disillusions everyone, especially players, when they know they're not competing on an even footing with bigger counties. I'd like to see Croke Park get experts out to assess strength and conditioning in every county and see how they compare.
"The answers would show them why the gap is widening between counties. That's the big issue here."