Tuesday 23 January 2018

Radical reform gets green light in bloodless Congress victory

GPA laments disconnect with players but Duffy insists format changes are just on a trial basis

Uachtarán Chumann Lúthchleas Aogán Ó Fearghail during his Presidential address at Annual Congress at Croke Park yesterday. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Uachtarán Chumann Lúthchleas Aogán Ó Fearghail during his Presidential address at Annual Congress at Croke Park yesterday. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

The All-Ireland senior football championship faces the most radical reform since the qualifiers were introduced 16 years ago, after delegates endorsed a new round robin format for quarter-finalists at GAA Congress in Croke Park yesterday.

An impressive 76 per cent majority agreed to trial the Central Council proposals on a three-year basis, beginning next season. Motions requesting to move the All-Ireland senior hurling and football finals from September to August, and to utilise extra-time instead of replays for all senior championship games outside of provincial and All-Ireland hurling and football finals, were also sanctioned.

From next year, the eight teams who reach the All-Ireland senior football championship quarter-finals will be split into two round robin groups, with each county to play three matches, one at home, one away and one in Croke Park. The top two finishers in each group will then proceed to the semi-final stages. Fifteen delegates spoke in support of the proposal, though Cork and the GPA outlined their opposition, citing concerns over an overload of games for county players and a lack of proper consultation. In spite of these reservations, and vehement opposition from the new Club Players Association which was denied a request to address Congress, the motion was carried.

In advance of the vote, the GAA's director-general Páraic Duffy told delegates that they needed to take stock of falling attendances and said that changes relating to the All-Ireland final dates and using extra-time instead of replays would benefit club players by shortening the inter-county season. He quoted attendance figures averaging 18,670 in the first year of the football qualifiers in 2001, falling to 13,146 in 2016. "If that isn't a wake-up call," said Duffy, "it certainly should be.

"Irish society is changing very fast. We have to be aware of that and adapt to that. Falling attendances is an issue we have to address. We have to try something."

It proved a fairly bloodless victory, with 14 speakers supporting the round robin motion and only two offering a contrary view. After the result, Duffy said that they were not wedded to the new format forever and could review it once the three-year period had elapsed. "We have had a good eight months' debate on this," he said. "Look, we are flying something new; if it doesn't work out, I'll be the first to say let's move on to something else."

Duffy also rebutted claims by Dermot Earley, chief executive of the GPA, that inter-county players, the constituency his body represents, were not adequately consulted. "I was very disappointed at that comment. This document has been in circulation since last August and all clubs have been consulted. That doesn't stand up."

In response, Earley said that 70 per cent of county players were opposed to the round robin format, though they supported the other proposals on the All-Ireland dates and use of extra-time instead of replays. He said weaker counties saw the round robin's introduction as a negative development, diminishing their prospects and suiting stronger counties. Earley talked of a "disconnect" because county players were not consulted directly, although all clubs and county boards were canvassed for their views. The Club Players Association, which has recruited 20,000 members, had asked that the proposals be parked, on the basis that they did not offer a satisfactory solution to haphazard club fixture schedules.

Donegal delegate and GAA trustee Niall Erskine told Congress that the proposals would reduce the inter-county season by three weeks. He also pointed out that since the qualifiers were introduced 23 counties have reached the quarter-finals, emphasising the benefits of structural change. The ratio of training sessions to games would also be altered. On average it took seven games for a team to win an All-Ireland senior football championship over 21 weeks. The new system would have nine rounds over 18 weeks.

Once that element of the reform proposals gained backing, it was expected the other aspects would also follow. A huge 78 per cent of delegates voted for a proposal to play the All-Ireland senior hurling and football finals on or before the last Sunday in August, again on a trial basis beginning in 2018.

Cork's Frank Murphy expressed concerns that condensing the championships would create problems for dual counties in completing their local championship programmes especially where there was a strong dual presence. He said their clubs had unanimously voted against the proposal. But Duffy sought to reassure him by saying that pre-season county games might start before Christmas and the National Leagues could begin earlier in the year to free up more time in early summer for clubs.

An even more comprehensive majority, 91 per cent, voted in favour of the proposal to introduce extra-time to reduce replays which often caused havoc for fixtures planners. John Prenty, Connacht Council secretary, claimed that "nothing disrupts our fixtures calendar more than a replay". He said replays could still happen if extra-time did not resolves matches, but that the proposal aimed to reduce the number of replays during the trial period.

During his address, GAA president Aogán Ó Fearghail said that the reforms that had been agreed came after a process that involved "the most open and democratic discussions you could possibly imagine". He reiterated the point that members had shown no appetite to abolish the provincial championships, in spite of a glaring lack of meaningful matches in Leinster and Munster in particular. There was also strong feedback showing a desire for a shorter inter-county season and no appetite for a second-tier football championship. The proposals that followed were based on those sentiments which followed widespread consultations across all strands of the GAA.

Ó Fearghail and Duffy moved to ease fears that hurling was being overlooked. "Hurling cannot and will not be forgotten," stated Ó Fearghail. "But, the hurling championship was not and is not in need of the same reforms that the football championship was. Hurling was, and remains, the jewel in the crown. Can it be improved? It has already been said by some counties that there are changes that will help.

"There are always improvements required and the limbo-like state for some counties - counties we and the game need - needs to be addressed and will be immediately after Congress. Hurling, from the foundation of the GAA, has always been largely confined to the limestone rich flatlands. Some counties removed from this heartland find it difficult and with our various committees, management and ard-stiúrthóir we will bring to Central Council proposals designed at ensuring that the game is in no way eclipsed by football."

A motion from Wexford seeking to have the Club Players Association officially recognised was later withdrawn, on the recommendation of Kilkenny's Nickey Brennan. After some delegates had opposed the motion, claiming the GAA wasn't certain of its agenda as the CPA was a relatively new arrival, Brennan intervened to say that it was important that Congress did not send out a hostile signal to club players. He proposed that the motion be withdrawn subject to discussions being held between the GPA and CPA in the coming months to cover issues of mutual concern. Wexford obliged, withdrawing the motion.

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