A majority of chairpersons are keen on revamp, but they must find a way to negotiate the hard part – finding consensus
Our nationwide poll of county board chairpersons has thrown up some fascinating insights into one of the great GAA conundrums of our time: what to do with the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship?
The results are, we should stress, anything but straightforward.
But emerging from the fog of contradictions is one relatively unambiguous message: a majority of the 25 chairpersons who answered our six-question survey favour change to the existing championship structure.
There is a thirst for SFC reform; it’s just that they can’t quite agree on the best model to reinvigorate a provincial system that, in the words of Offaly chairman Michael Duignan, has “gone stale” and no longer works.
Not everyone, of course, concurs with the former Offaly hurler. Four counties emphatically rejected any alteration to football’s status quo; a fifth was leaning strongly that way.
But 14 chairpersons either directly supported one of the two proposals emanating from the Fixtures Calendar Review Task Force – or, in the case of Longford, championed something more radical still. That equates to 56pc in favour, with 20pc opposed.
Of the remaining six county chiefs, four expressed no firm opinion pending an internal debate; another two rejected one of the proposals while remaining undecided on the other.
Our two survey questions on the subject of the inter-county football season come against the backdrop of a potentially seismic Special Congress decision later this year. County chairs were asked the following:
*Do you favour retaining the provincial championships as the basis for the All-Ireland football championship, or is the option of a summer-based league, as proposed by the Fixtures Calendar Review Task Force (FCRTF), more preferable?
*Is it feasible to ask counties to switch provinces to create four regions of eight counties (another FCRTF suggestion)? If not, why?
The answers supplied vary in length, from the pithiest of sentences to several hundred words. Likewise, what emerges is a dichotomy of opinion on the best way forward.
“We’ll be sticking with the best provincial championship that there is,” declares Cavan’s Kieran Callaghan, perhaps no surprise after the Breffni claimed their first Ulster SFC title in 23 years last November.
And yet, even though his county ended 85 years in the Munster wilderness that same day, Tipperary’s Joe Kennedy prefers the “summer-based league format”.
Down’s John Devaney supports this approach, under which the National Football League moves to summer and becomes a qualifier mechanism for the All-Ireland SFC knockout stages, with Division 3 and 4 teams who don’t make those play-offs entering the Tailteann Cup.
But what about our provincial championship shibboleth? Under this league championship model, they would revert to spring and be run off as standalone competitions.
“The challenge now is to reimagine the provincial championships,” the Down chairman says. He is less enthused by the ‘four regions of eight’ option, which “won’t alter the lack of dynamic that exists within some provincial championships.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, given Ulster’s status as the most fiercely contested of all the provinces, Devaney’s is the only northern voice in favour of the summer league option (five others, from Cavan, Antrim, Armagh, Donegal and Derry, support either the existing or tweaked provincial model, while there was no response forthcoming from Tyrone, Fermanagh or Monaghan).
And yet, among those 14 counties favouring change, a majority prefer this more ambitious version.
Nine counties offered either decisive or qualified support for the league championship model, if you include Roscommon whose chairman, Brian Carroll, believes it has a “lot of potential” while stressing that they haven’t made a decision.
A tenth county, Wexford, likewise haven’t discussed the FCRTF proposals but are “open to both” as matters stand.
We’ve included Kildare in the ‘league championship’ camp although Lilywhite chief Mick Gorman has proposed his own unique blueprint. Gorman’s inter-county football season would embrace three distinct competitions: standalone provincial championships; then an open draw All-Ireland competition (with a shield for first-round losers); and finally the ‘Premier’ competition, comprising four divisions based on the current league format, giving every county at least seven games in their own division at the height of the season.
Kildare are one of many Leinster title wannabes who have been cast adrift by Dublin over the past decade. Again, given this backdrop, it’s probably no surprise that six chairpersons from the eastern province are leaning towards change, while another two are weighing up their options.
In the traditionalist camp are Louth’s Peter Fitzpatrick and Wicklow’s Martin Fitzgerald, even though the status quo has scarcely worked in their favour. Eleven years ago, Fitzpatrick almost managed Louth to a first Leinster SFC title since 1957 only to be denied by an infamous Meath goal. Wicklow, meanwhile, are the only Leinster county never to have conquered their province.
As for opinion in the capital, we are none the wiser after Michael Seavers declined to give specific answers to our six-question survey before the topics had been discussed by Dublin’s management committee.
Longford’s Albert Cooney proposed a “graded system of senior, intermediate and junior, incorporating relegation and promotion, all counties playing at their own level. This way there is real hope for the weaker counties to win trophies.”
Cooney wants the provincial championships retained, but not as part of the All-Ireland race. He believes they work well in three provinces, but Leinster has become “a farce”.
As for counties switching provinces, he admits: “If Longford were moved into Connacht or Ulster, chances of winning a trophy would not be enhanced greatly, and it is the same for all weaker counties.”
Of the nine chairpersons who state explicitly that they want the provincial championships retained as a basis for the All-Ireland, three support the ‘four groups of eight’ model whereas Donegal are “undecided” on this and another Ulster county has mixed views. “My number one preference would be to leave as is,” says Armagh’s Mickey Savage, but he isn’t “100pc against” some counties moving “on the proviso that everyone starts off in their own province”.
This alludes to the proposal that lower-ranked Leinster and Ulster counties would still get to play a preliminary round in their home province, only moving to Connacht or Munster if they lost.
The overall reaction to the concept of province-hopping was pretty lukewarm, from both sides of the debate. Eleven chairpersons were not in favour; and even of the eight potentially open to the idea, three preferred a league-based championship.
A further sign that this conflicted debate has a long way to run.