Thursday 12 December 2019

Self-interest and a fear of change block progress in vital areas

Martin Breheny examines the big problems bedevilling football and concludes that most of them could be eradicated if so many units of the GAA didn't put their own interests first

Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Here's an irony which should not go unnoticed as the competitive football season gets underway.

There are very few complaints about the structure of the Allianz Leagues, which bowl along nicely until the end of April, whereas the much higher-profile All-Ireland Championships remain swamped by complications, leading to deep dissatisfaction and frustration.

The latest outbreak is in full torrent as the proposal to launch a 'B' Championship for Division 4 counties heads for an inevitable zapping at Congress next month.

That will leave the GAA back at base with a format which the leadership acknowledged was in urgent need of review.

"Many of the counties are not comfortable with the qualifiers and we will take note of that. We will listen to people and look for good proposals to work on," said Aogán O Fearghaill on the day he took over as president last February.

Yet, if the 'B' championship plan, plus a few others suggested by counties, are rejected, the All-Ireland series will continue as before.

How daft is that? Eighteen calls for change were submitted by counties and the GPA, underlining a general mood of unhappiness. Yet, in all probability, nothing will change.


Effectively, the GAA will have conceded that while the format is flawed, there's nothing that can be done about it. A truly awful admission. It all stems from the difficulty in getting agreement on how best to re-shape the Championship in an organisation where most of the component parts are driven by self-interest.

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The reality is, of course, that there can't be a fair or balanced Championship while it continues to be based on an unfair and unbalanced provincial system, working off four regions, each with a different number of counties.

It doesn't matter how many expert minds examine the issue: there can never be equality of opportunity while dealing with the four provinces as currently constituted.

Now, if four counties (that's all it would take) were to switch province in order to have eight in each region, it would not only banish the unfairness element, it would also have a hugely beneficial spin-off for fixture planning, both at county and club level.

Of course the chances of getting four counties (example: Longford and Fermanagh into Connacht; Wexford and Carlow into Munster) to switch provinces are beyond remote.

Yet, in hurling, it was regarded as a sensible move when Galway and Antrim switched to the Leinster Senior Championship. Kerry will also compete in Leinster this year, rather than in Munster.

The alternative in football is to scrap the provincials altogether. Indeed, it might appear the obvious solution but it's not that simple since they are so deeply ingrained in the GAA psyche that abandoning them is risky.

Plus, of course, there is a practical matter. Provincial councils, which play a huge role in the overall administrative system, would release the hounds of hell if a proposal emerged to effectively make them redundant.

So there you have it. Football's showpiece competition will continue to be run on a seriously flawed system.

And if that weren't bad enough, it has a damaging knock-on impact on clubs, whose summer programmes are badly disrupted by the lopsided inter-county action.

Another area of concern is the apparent joylessness of the inter-county game. This extended to hurling too, but appears particularly prevalent in football, especially at this time of year when young players are pressurised to breaking point in their attempt to serve several masters in different grades.

It extends beyond that too, as will become apparent on League finals weekend in late April, when the winners in all four divisions can't be seen to enjoy the successes.

The winning captains will barely raise a smile when they accept the trophies, while their colleagues applaud politely, after which the managers will immediately launch into the familiar mantra about how the Championship will be so much more difficult. Sure, but what's wrong with enjoying the moment?

Displaying signs of satisfaction at winning the League would, you see, be a sign of weakness. Opponents, who were training at 6.0 that morning and who are now sitting at home with their diet sheets and psychology manuals, might point at their TVs and remark: "Look at those eejits celebrating a League win. Wait until we get them later on."

Contrast that with last Tuesday night when Liverpool beat Stoke on penalties after extra-time, whereupon the players celebrated enthusiastically.

The dramatic manner of the victory added to their exuberance. Manchester City players were equally high-spirited after winning the other semi-final against Everton on Wednesday night.

The wins didn't clinch the Premier League title or indeed take Liverpool or City any further in the FA Cup - instead they qualified for the final of the League Cup, which was fourth on the target list for the two clubs at the start of the season.

Nonetheless, the players responded as players should do by showing their delight. They had qualified for a final in Wembley and while the prize for winning might be modest, it will still be a bonus for the season.

So while professional soccer players can show their excitement after winning the semi-final of the lowest competition in which they compete, GAA players must keep their emotions in check until well into the Championship.

How unhealthy is that? But then, it's part of a culture that has grown up over the years in the GAA. Lots of other fads have crept in too, gathering momentum as they go.


Early-morning sessions, 12/13 training spins per game, warm weather work overseas, season-long alcohol bans, 25-strong backroom teams (many of whom are paid), plus, of course, the obligatory ban on players talking to the media.

As with the problematic Championship format, all of all those issues - which are making involvement at the top level less enjoyable that it should be - could be corrected, not by Croke Park but counties themselves.

Instead, they complain incessantly, as if they have no role in sorting out the difficulties.

As for the competitiveness issues in Gaelic football, where the gap between top, middle and bottom appears to be widening all the time, there's no easy solution.

However, an intervention is possible. The capacity of the super-powers, led by Dublin, to generate huge revenue for use on inter-county teams while weaker counties struggle, needs to addressed.

It's yet another challenge where the appropriate response rests in the hands of the GAA itself.

In fact, with the exception of the population differences which obviously militate against small counties, all the answers are out there, waiting to be harvested.

The trouble is that in an over-democratised organisation like the GAA, the consensus required to apply them can't be found. Football is losing out as a result.

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