Wednesday 21 August 2019

Why is football too proud for a second tier?

Carlow’s Sean Murphy was a revelation in 2017
Carlow’s Sean Murphy was a revelation in 2017
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Here's what Aogán ó Fearghail said about the football qualifiers on the evening he took over as GAA president in February 2015.

"Many of the counties are not comfortable with the format and we will take note of that. I don't have a white rabbit to pull out of a hat on this one but I certainly think it is an area where we will listen to people and look for good proposals to work on."

And here's what he said last week: "It's (qualifier system) one part of the jigsaw I admit I wouldn't be fully comfortable with.

"I believe that, if you're in Division 4, and have been for a number of years, and you have a record of losing your first round championship match, you should go into a separate competition.

"I think you should play for Sam Maguire in your first game but if you're beaten in that, you should enter a (separate) meaningful competition."

The football qualifiers will be exactly the same as they were in 2015 when ó Fearghail hands over the presidential reins to John Horan next February. Nor are there any proposals to change them - or even discuss them.

Fundamental

That's despite the president having had the same reservations at the beginning and end of his term.

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He is in constant contact with counties in his travels around the country and, judging by his comments, is still hearing complaints.

Yet, nothing has happened. It's not because ó Fearghail has failed to drive change.

Presidents have various powers but ordering adjustments to competition structures is not among them.

Of course, there are those who still back the qualifiers, arguing that the concept of every county competing in its provincial championship and, if unsuccessful, getting another chance in the All-Ireland series has a certain logic.

However, it does not address the fundamental issue of fairness and equality, which should be at the heart of any system.

Given the imbalances between counties in terms of size, population, football/hurling pre-eminence and tradition, it's very difficult to find a championship structure that treats everyone equally but that doesn't mean the search should be abandoned. In fact, it requires an even greater effort.

Unfortunately, that does not appear to be high up the agenda right now. It's easy to blame Croke Park for the failure to offer alternatives but that's an over-simplification. Counties have a responsibility, too.

The 'Super 8' proposal emerged from Croke Park, giving rise to the reasonable question - why change the latter stages of the championships, which were running smoothly, while ignoring the earlier part, where it is problematical?

Central Council and Special Congress backed the 'Super 8' proposal but ignored the rest of the championship.

The Central Council, the body charged with running day-to-day affairs, should be ashamed of itself - not for supporting the 'Super 8', but for being so unimaginative when it comes to providing a better range of options for all counties.

Its sole contribution in this area in recent times was to propose the removal of Division 4 counties from the qualifiers and instead divert them into an All-Ireland 'B' championship.

Incredibly, the motion which was due to come before Congress last year included the 'B' reference.

It was almost as if Central Council wanted it to fail by adding such a loaded tag.

The motion didn't even get to Congress. The GPA opposed it and once it became clear that players from Division 4 counties would boycott a 'B' Championship, Central Council abandoned the idea.

Central Council haven't revisited the possibility of a secondary competition since then and, as far as we know, there are no plans to do so.

Hurling has settled on a championship format which includes no fewer than five tiers, with promotion/relegation between all of them.

It's accepted within the hurling community that counties operate to different standards and that the aim should be to provide each of them with a chance to win a title at their level.

Logical

It's simple and logical. Yet, when something similar is mooted for football, opposition mounts rapidly.

Nobody is suggesting any exclusions from the provincial championships but, once a lower-ranked team is beaten, surely there's a case for them entering an imaginatively-styled and named secondary competition rather than head into the qualifiers where their stay is usually short-lived.

Of course, a secondary competition could only work if it were properly structured and marketed. The first essential would be for the final to be played on the same day as the All-Ireland final.

That would necessitate ending the minor/senior double-up but would that be such a bad thing?

The minor final usually features the stronger counties anyway so even their youngsters enjoy a privileged position, perpetuating the sense of entitlement among strong counties that All-Ireland final day is all about them.

With the minor age limit reduced next year, the privilege will pass to U-17s, while senior players from many counties will go through their entire careers without playing in Croke Park at any time, let alone on All-Ireland final day.

There's no reason why a skilfully-marked, well-resourced championship for the bottom 12 finishers in the Allianz League, culminating with the final in Croke Park on All-Ireland day, could not be a success.

If it applied this year, the counties involved would be: Offaly, Longford, Antrim, Laois, Westmeath, Wexford, Carlow, Limerick, Leitrim, Waterford, Wicklow, London.

Between them, those 12 won just five qualifier games, with only Carlow winning twice. They beat fellow Division 4 travellers, London and Leitrim, before putting up an excellent performance against Monaghan.

Reaching Round 3 and playing championship football in mid-July provided Carlow with a real boost but would it not be even better if they were in Croke Park on All-Ireland final day contesting a secondary championship final?

Carlow felt that they should have been represented on the All-Star nominations this year, with Seán Murphy and Paul Broderick as their top contenders.

Prospering in Croke Park on All-Ireland final day, albeit in a secondary completion, would have greatly enhanced their prospects and the same goes for players from many other counties.

Quite why there appears to be a stigma attached to competing in a secondary football championship remains a mystery.

It's no reflection on anyone but instead merely recognising the reality that while some counties have less playing resources than others, their players should not be denied the chance to feature in Croke Park on the big days.

Counties are happy to play in the league according to their standing, so why the different attitude to the championship?

The GAA made a poor job of selling the 'B' championship (1990-2000) and the Tommy Murphy Cup (2004-2008) but that's no reason to abandon the concept of a secondary championship forever.

It's evident that the gap between the stronger counties and the rest is widening all the time in terms of exposure, expenditure and how squads are looked after. And that's without off-field opportunities for players, now a lucrative source of income for some.

The divide will widen unless something is done to make all players feel that they are an important part of the summer schedules, rather than warm-up acts for the big attractions. They deserve a lot more.

Irish Independent

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