Martin Breheny: 'Football lost in time warp as hurling formula thrives'
One has fairness at its core while the other continues with gross inequality
Four days to the start of the football championship - can you sense the excitement? Not exactly, but then New York v Mayo and London v Galway are more about the occasions than the games.
Hosting Connacht action is very important to the people who work so hard at promoting Gaelic games in New York and London, so nobody begrudges them their big days.
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Indeed, New York came tantalisingly close to causing sensational upsets in 2016, when they ran Roscommon to a point, and last year when they forced Leitrim into extra-time before again losing by a point.
And 2013 will never be forgotten in London GAA, having delivered wins over Sligo and Leitrim, thus earning a place in the Connacht final for the first time. Despite all that, it's unlikely that Mayo and Galway will be over-stretched next Sunday, but at least the games serve a valuable purpose in New York and London.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for much of what follows for several weeks after that. Leinster will trundle on to the inevitable conclusion of a ninth successive title for Dublin, while Munster won't road-test Kerry. Connacht and Ulster will be more interesting, although not to anything like the same degree as Munster and Leinster hurling.
This is not a hurling v football comparison as actual sports, but rather in terms of championship organisation. Hurling fans can't wait for the action to begin on the weekend after next, whereas football folk know the real drama is much further away.
Hurling will completely overshadow football for much of the summer, despite having only 12 contenders in the All-Ireland race. Of course, it's because they have such a restricted field that the excitement levels zoom so high.
It's like v like as the top contenders play each other on a 'round robin' basis before heading for knockout. Meanwhile, football staggers on, tumbling top, middle and bottom into one pot and hoping there won't be too many mismatches. The slavish adherence to the provincial system makes it impossible to organise a balanced structure that's fair to all and time-efficient for counties and clubs.
Hurling clings to the Munster and Leinster campaigns, nominally at least, as the latter is actually a 'Rest of Ireland' championship, hosting Galway on a permanent basis and ready to welcome Antrim if they win the Joe McDonagh Cup. The even standard among five Munster counties makes it viable from a competitive viewpoint.
A Tier 2 football championship is on its way, catering for the 16 counties in Divisions 3 and 4. However, there are no plans to even discuss a more radical overhaul, which would make it fairer and more interesting for all.
All it takes is a brave decision to suspend the provincial championships on a two-year trial basis. That opens the way for a number of possible formats. Eight groups of four are regularly suggested, but I don't think that would work, either for overall competitiveness or as a boost to lower-ranked counties.
My preferred format features the top 20 counties in the Allianz League the Sam Maguire tier in four groups of five, with the remaining 12 divided into four groups of three in Tier 2.
Balancing the top 20 from this year's league standings would create four groups as follows:
GROUP A: Mayo, Cavan, Donegal, Clare, Westmeath.
GROUP B: Kerry, Roscommon, Kildare, Armagh, Laois.
GROUP C: Tyrone, Galway, Fermanagh, Cork, Louth.
GROUP D: Dublin, Monaghan, Meath, Tipperary, Down.
Teams in the five groups have four games, with the top two in each qualifying for All-Ireland quarter-finals, which would revert to straight knock-out. Every team is guaranteed two home games, which does not happen now. Also, all eight would play the same number of games, unlike the lopsided provincial championships.
Tyrone, Derry, Meath, Offaly, Kildare, Wicklow, Louth, Wexford need to win four times to reach the quarter-finals via the provincial route this year, whereas Cork or Kerry can get there by winning two games. How ridiculously unfair is that?
Tier 2 (four groups of three) would be played 'home' and 'away', thereby guaranteeing every county four games. The winners of each group would qualify for the semi-finals.
GROUP A: Longford, Antrim, London
GROUP B: Offaly, Leitrim, Limerick
GROUP C: Carlow, Derry, Wexford
GROUP D: Sligo, Waterford. Wicklow
The outright winners would be promoted to the Sam Maguire Cup tier for the following season. An additional option would be to allow the two finalists into a preliminary quarter-final against two of the eight top teams in Tier 1. That currently applies in hurling where the Joe McDonagh finalists enter the All-Ireland race.
As a boost to the Tier 2 football semi-finals and finals, they would be played with their Sam Maguire Cup equivalents, replacing the minor games. That's how a real championship should look, instead of the current hotchpotch, which is riven with unfairness. It won't happen, of course, because provincial councils fear it would dismantle their power bases.
Two-point line ball? No thanks!
Séamus Callanan is the latest to back the idea of awarding two points for a sideline cut. The Tipperary captain said that its execution comes from “hours and days, maybe years, of work down in your local club hurling field when nobody is watching”.
Quite true, but does it deserve a two-point reward? Not in my book and here’s why.
A sideline cut arises for a number of reasons, none of which involves foul play. It usually comes off a misdirected clearance or pass (a technical thing) or a deflection (a matter of luck).
It can also result from a well-executed blockdown So why should a team be hit for two points when a nasty, cynical foul is usually punished by one?
On another issue, isn’t it time to add 20 metres to ‘65s’ in hurling and 10 metres to ‘45s’ in football?
Modern boots/hurleys/footballs and sliotars make it much easier to get greater distance, effectively handing the attacking team a point for a minor technical glitch.
Rules should reflect changed times, not remain in the past.
Hey ref, need some more help?
Recently retired football referee Rory Hickey has backed the concept of having two refs in hurling and football, a proposal that has been tossed around for quite some time without getting any traction at official level.
The Clare man points to the enormous challenge for a referee in getting calls right in fast-moving games on very large pitches.
He’s right, of course. Expecting one man to patrol nearly three acres for 70 minutes is unreasonable, especially in hurling where the ball can travel 120 metres in a matter of seconds.
Paul Earley, former Roscommon All Star and International Rules manager, has been banging the two-ref drum for a long time, but there seems to be no appetite to even discuss it at the highest level.
And here’s another interesting dimension.
Referees who are still active at the highest level always say they are happy on their own, a case perhaps of not letting on that they need help in case it reflects badly on them.
Which, of course, it wouldn’t.