Pat Spillane: Competition formats in gaelic football need to be overhauled to stop weaker counties being hung out to dry
Read Pat Spillane every week in the Sunday World
NOW that the All-Ireland final post mortems are done and dusted, the reality of the GAA’s new-look fixtures programme is hitting home.
The next meaningful inter-county GAA match, a Division 1 tie between Mayo and Roscommon, is scheduled for Saturday, January 26, 2019 – 17 weeks from today.
As I have repeatedly written on these pages, I think it’s absolute madness on the part ofthe GAA to take its top products – inter-county football and hurling – out of the shop window, allowing their rivals a clear field for five months.
Just to compound the issue,there is no inter-county activity planned for April either, even though judging by what happened in 2018,the majority of counties won’t bother starting their club championships so early.
Today, however, I want to focus on what I believe is one of the greatest failings in the GAA: its competition structures. It would be an understatement to suggest that reform is urgently needed in this area.
Let’s examine the GAA’s various championships in more detail:
ALL-IRELAND SENIOR FOOTBALL CHAMPIONSHIP
Dublin’s dominance is well documented.
They won six of the last eight titles with an average winning margin of over 12 points in the series.
However,the demise in the competitive element in the provincial series is arguably even more worrying.
This summer the average winning margin in Munster was more than 14 points; in Leinster more than 10 and in Connacht more than nine.
Dublin’s average winning margin in Leinster was over 20 points, while Kerry’s average winning margin in the Munster series was over 19 points.
Twenty-eight of the 68 games played in the championship were won by more than 10 points.
The All-Ireland championship is now the exclusive preserve of Division 1 teams. Since the league was reconfigured into its current structure in 2008 no team outside the top flight has won the Sam Maguire Cup.
Any romantic notion thatin a one-off game a Division 4 team has a chance of beating a Division 1 team was laid to rest this summer. Dublin beat Laois and Wicklow by 18 and 22 points respectively; Mayo beat Limerick by 18; while Monaghan had 27 and 13 points to spare over Waterford and Leitrim.
The structure of the competition hampers the weaker teams. By June 9, eight counties (Meath, Wexford, Derry, Wicklow, Antrim, Limerick, Westmeath and London) had exited the series, while another eight (Waterford, Carlow, Down, Tipperary, Sligo, Louth, Longford and Offaly) joined them on the scrapheap two weeks later.
These 16 counties are idle for nearly seven months and, surprise, surprise, apart from Meath, the remainder all played in Division 3 or 4 in 2018. There is an all too predictable feel about the championship now.
THE U-20 CHAMPIONSHIP
I railed against the idea of reducing the age limit by a year from the moment it was first mooted and I haven’t changed my mind.
The change now means that players who are sitting their Leaving Certificate exam are being chosen on teams. For example, on the evening Kerry played their first match against Limerick in June a number of the squad had done a paper in the exam earlier the same day. So much for player welfare!
A new directive which prohibited players on a county U-20 squad from being involved in the senior panel militated against the weaker counties.
Offaly’s Cian Johnson wasn’t allowed play with the senior squad, for example.
The Ulster, Munster and Connacht championships were organised on a traditional knockout format, whereas a round robin format was used in Leinster.
Unfortunately, however, the lopsided results abounded.
Kerry beat Limerick and Waterford by 28 and 30 points respectively (Waterford scored one point in the game) while, in the other half of the draw, Cork beat Tipperary by 18 points.
It was equally uncompetitive in Connacht. Mayo beat Leitrim by 21 points and had 16 points to spare over Roscommon in the final.
In theory the round robin format in Leinster, which meant every team was guaranteed three games was a good idea, but it didn’t prevent more heavy defeats.
Longford, for example, failed to win any of their three games and suffered six, seven and 16-point defeats, while Wicklow lost two of theirs by 12 and 22 points.
THE U-17 CHAMPIONSHIP
Again I was vehemently opposed to the decision to reduce the age limit to 17. It exposes players as young as 15 to the pressures of inter-county football, including over-the-top training regimes, long before they are physically or mentally prepared for the challenge.
In common with the rest of the championship there was a plethora of one-sided games. Sligo failed to win a match in the Connacht round robin and lost two oftheir games by a combined total of 31 points; while Leitrim lost games by a combined tally of 35 points.
In Munster, Corkbeat Waterford 4-20 to 0-5 while Kerry had 23 points to spare over Clare – in the final.
In fairness to the Munster Council they have introduced a new format for 2019 where the four weaker counties will initially be involved in a round-robin competition with the top two before joining Cork and Kerry in another two-round series of games prior to the final.
The one downside is thatthe weaker counties will have to play six games to reach the final – double what Cork and Kerry face.
At national level, Kerry’s dominance ofthe competition has meant that in the last decade only five counties have won an All-Ireland title,though the fact that Dublin have won only one title (2012) in the last 34 years puts paid to the idea that success at this level is required to make the breakthrough at senior level.
On a completely unrelated topic, whichever committee selected the 2018 Minor Team of the Year got it badly wrong by omitting Kerry’s Paul O’Shea, who was, by some distance, the best minor footballer this season.
JUNIOR FOOTBALL CHAMPIONSHIP:
This is the ultimate exercise in box ticking. Nine counties competed in the competition this year. Ulster had no representative; they haven’t
organised a junior championship since 1981. Despite their vast playing resources Dublin failed to enter a team, while the Munster championship was a straight final between Kerry and Cork.
For the record, Kerry completed a four in a row by beating Kildare in a final watched by less than 700 fans in Limerick.
It goes without saying that this championship ought to be abolished.
But with the rejigging of the age structures I believe there is a need for an U-23 championship, which would surely have a broader appeal.
THE SIGERSON CUP
The poor relation in the GAA championship stable, it deserves far more support and respect from the GAA powers that be.
For starters, it gives players from the weaker counties a chance to play top-class football, but more importantly it gives the GAA a chance to maintain a high profile in the country’s elite universities and counter the competition from rugby, which invariably is better funded.
However, due to the timing of the competition in January/February it is becoming a victim of the dictatorial policies of inter-county team managers, who insist that Sigerson Cup players not only turn out in the Allianz League, but train with county squads as well.
It’s one of the biggest causes of player burnout and needless injuries.
Here’s a simple solution: Players involved in university championship are prohibited by rule from playing in league games so long as they were involved in the third level championship.
ALL-IRELAND CLUB CHAMPIONSHIP
In theory,this should be the fairest of all the GAA championships because it is played on a three tier system: senior, intermediate and junior.
However, regardless of the system,the strong counties continue to dominate in terms of All-Ireland winners.
This year’s All-Ireland senior, intermediate and junior winners came from Galway (Corofin), Tyrone (Moy) and Cork (Knocknagree) respectively, while overall Kerry clubs have dominated the intermediate and junior grades – winning five and eight titles respectively.
The issue here is that only senior clubs play in the Kerry senior championship; the rest amalgamate but remain eligible to play in the junior and intermediate grades.
In terms of standards the Kerry junior champions would be on par with the senior champions from at least half the other counties.
Essentially teams need to be regraded, with the senior championship sides from designated weaker counties being allowed compete in the provincial and All-Ireland intermediate club championship
THE current competition unfair and structures are gap between have fuelled the widening of the gap between the top and bottom teams.
Did Waterford football benefit from the fact their U-17 and U-20 teams scored 0-6 in total in their two championship matches this summer?
A tiered football championship – with one caveat – is urgently needed. At senior level I believe every county should continue to have the right to compete in both the provincial and All-Ireland series but after round two of the All-Ireland qualifiers the counties should be split.
The Top 16m consisting of the eight provincial finallists plus eight qualifiers, would compete for the Sam Maguire Cup and the remaining 16 counties would participate in a Tier 2 championship, with the final played as a curtain-raiser to the All-Ireland decider.