Saturday 21 April 2018

Winds of change blowing hard in demand for major Championship shake-up

Antrim’s Owen Gallagher celebrates his team’s qualifier win over Laois
Antrim’s Owen Gallagher celebrates his team’s qualifier win over Laois
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Substantial changes to the format of the All-Ireland senior football championships could be on their way if submissions received by Croke Park are a reliable guide to the nationwide mood.

No fewer than 18 proposals were forwarded for a document entitled: "Football Championship Proposals - Towards 2017 and Beyond", which was circulated to senior county board officials yesterday.

It comes at a time when there's growing unease at the existing system, which has been in place since 2001, when the qualifiers were introduced.

Uncompetitive provincial championships, except in Ulster, followed by lacklustre early qualifier rounds, have been a feature of recent championships, leading to calls for a review of the formats.

It has resulted in a wide-ranging document, which points to dissatisfaction with the qualifiers, coupled with a view that there should be a secondary competition for counties in the bottom half of the rankings.

There is only one call for the scrapping of the provincial championships, but their pre-eminence as the base for the All-Ireland campaign is challenged on a number of fronts.


That approach was outlined by the Gaelic Players' Association (GPA) in their detailed proposal, published three weeks ago, and it finds support in many of the submissions from various counties, albeit in different formats.

The GPA wants the provincial campaigns to run as usual, prior to dividing 32 counties into eight groups of four on a seeded basis. The provincial winners would be top seeds.

The groups would be played off on a round-robin basis, with the winners in each section advancing to the last 16 and the bottom eight dropping out of the championship.

The second- and third-placed teams across each group would play each other to provide the opposition for the eight table-toppers.

Only two other of the proposals received from the counties include a round-robin element.

One seeks remove the provincial championships from the All-Ireland equation altogether. Instead, counties would be separated into two groups of 16, competing in separate championships.

Each would consist of four groups of four, played off on a round-robin basis, to clear the way for the knock-out stages.

The other round-robin proposal relates to the provincial championships, where Leinster would split 6-5, Ulster 5-4, and Connacht and Ulster 3-3 each.

Each county would be guaranteed at least three games with the top two in each group meeting in the provincial finals. The winners would progress to the All-Ireland quarter-finals and be joined by the four NFL divisional winners.

The most consistent thread running through the proposals, whose county of origin is not included in case it influences others, features a division of counties into two groups of 16.

Only the top group would be eligible to compete for the Sam Maguire Cup, while the remainder would play off for a secondary championship, with the final taking place in conjunction with one of the glamour occasions in Croke Park in August.

There's a strongly held view that while lower-ranked teams want to compete for their own provincial championships, they are not nearly as interested in re-grouping for the qualifiers.

This year's first-round qualifiers were especially disappointing, with six of eight games won by margins of over eight points.

A seventh (Wexford v Down) was won by five points, leaving Antrim's two-point win over Laois as the only close game.

Several counties propose running the provincial championships as usual, prior to splitting the counties into a top and bottom 16, competing for separate honours.

The top 16 would remain in contention for the Sam Maguire Cup, with the rest competing in a secondary championship.

Winning the latter would carry automatic promotion to the Sam Maguire tier in the following season, irrespective how a county fared in its provincial championship.

The Tommy Murphy Cup was run as a secondary championship competition for weaker counties in 2004-08. However, interest waned and it was scrapped. The latest proposal envisages the bottom 16 counties competing in the secondary competition, rather than the qualifiers, once they are eliminated from the provincial campaigns.

Opinions differ on the details of how to separate the counties into two groups of 16, but there is near-unanimity that the provincial winners would automatically qualify for the top group.

Linking League placings to the Championship to decide on the other 12 places in the Sam Maguire tier is the most popular method proposed.

No proposal has emerged to re-locate counties, so as to create four groups of eight in each province - only four counties would have to switch province to make it workable.

The fact that 18 proposals for change, most of which envisage scrapping the qualifiers, have emerged doesn't mean that the current system will be altered.

For, in addition to the fact that many counties made no submission, which may suggest that they are happy with the current system, others have come up with proposals which don't impact on them directly.

Some of the suggestions will be seen as self-serving, especially those that call for only 16 teams, including four provincial winners, to be eligible to compete for the Sam Maguire Cup.

The main points

Only one of the 18 proposals for change to the All-Ireland SFC calls for the  removal of the provincial campaigns as an integral part of the race for the Sam Maguire Cup.

The majority insist on retaining the provincial championships but they are not enamoured with the qualifiers, which are heading into the 16th season in 2016.

There's a view that they have run their course.

Instead, there's strong support for scrapping the qualifiers and dividing the Championship into two groups, with the top 16 counties competing for the Sam Maguire Cup and the bottom 16 entering a secondary competition.

Irish Independent

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