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Six weekends, novelty pairings and fairness for all - Crisis offers opening for creative championships

Martin Breheny



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Monaghan’s Conor McManus shoots past Evan Comerford in the Dublin goal during their February league match.Imagine the excitement a first-round championship match between the two would generate. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Monaghan’s Conor McManus shoots past Evan Comerford in the Dublin goal during their February league match.Imagine the excitement a first-round championship match between the two would generate. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

Monaghan’s Conor McManus shoots past Evan Comerford in the Dublin goal during their February league match.Imagine the excitement a first-round championship match between the two would generate. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

John O'Leary recalls it as the day Kevin Heffernan didn't speak a word but said a lot. He was disgusted after watching Dublin, the reigning All-Ireland champions, producing a dismal effort when losing to Westmeath.

It wasn't in regular championship or league, but in something unique - the first competition in GAA history which featured all 32 counties in an open draw for the Centenary Trophy.

Introduced to mark the GAA's 100th anniversary in 1984, it generated lots of excitement, mainly because the format ignored provincial boundaries and wasn't based on league standings. This was straight knockout, with no restrictions on pairings.

Mind you, it did hit an early controversy when, three months before its launch, sponsors Ford announced plans to cease manufacturing cars in Cork with the loss of 800 jobs.

The GAA, who were still merely dipping wary toes in the sponsorship pool at the time, suddenly found themselves facing calls to cancel the deal on the basis that they were being cynically used by Ford.

They opted against it and the competitions ran from the second week in April until the third week in May when Meath (football) and Cork (hurling) won the finals.

Notorious

Dublin had exited in the first round, beaten by 0-7 to 0-5 by Westmeath. And no, it wasn't a case of the Dubs disregarding the competition as its unique nature ensured that every county wanted to win it.

'Heffo' played no fewer than 11 of the team that beat Galway in the notorious 1983 All-Ireland final, but they couldn't match the drive and passion the special occasion drew from Westmeath.

O'Leary recalls Heffo's furious reaction, starting with an unprecedented instruction that the dressing-room door be left open so that the players could hear the shrieks of delight from the Westmeath supporters. All the better when a few of them poked their heads inside to jeer.

"We sat there feeling like right eejits, with 'Heffo' glaring around the dressing-room at a bunch of big reputations who had played like juveniles. He said nothing, which said just about everything! We knew what he was thinking. And he was right," O'Leary recalled.

Westmeath hadn't beaten Dublin in the championship since 1967 and wouldn't do it again until 2004 so this was a big success for them. They weren't even going especially well at the time (they lost the next round to Wexford), but on this one day the novelty of the occasion sparked something within them.

It was one of four same-province ties in Round 1. Not a particularly high ratio, but there were those who thought they should have been avoided as much as possible, especially after Mayo were paired against Sligo and Galway against Leitrim.

So here's a suggestion for this year's football championship if, as seems highly probable, it will have to be run off over a much tighter timescale - that's if it goes ahead at all.

Drop the Tier 2 plan and the provincial championships, which cannot be run in total unison because of the different numbers, and replace them with a national mix.

Round 1: Sixteen games, with pairings drawn so that as far as possible, teams do not meet opposition from their own province. That can be achieved for 30 counties, leaving one all-Leinster pairing.

Round 2: Sixteen first-round winners play off in eight games. The winners (A) advance to Round 3, the losers are eliminated. The 16 first-round losers (B) play off to produce eight winners (C), with the losers exiting.

Round 3: A v C (eight games)

Round 4: Quarter-finals

Round 5: Semi-finals

Round 6: Final

Advantages: Variety of pairings in Round 1; every county starts together; every county is guaranteed at least two games; the entire championship can be run off over six weekends; it has 47 games as supposed to 31 for a straight knockout using the traditional provincial system,

By way of first-round illustration here's a random sample Round 1 draw (New York not included), I made yesterday using the cross-provincial requirement until options ran out for the last pairing.

Laois v Tyrone; Wicklow v Cavan; Antrim v Wexford; Longford v Cork; Monaghan v Dublin; Offaly v Kerry; Leitrim v Donegal; Roscommon v Armagh; Waterford v Louth; Clare v Meath; Fermanagh v Galway; Tipperary v Mayo; Kildare v Down; Sligo v Derry; Limerick v London; Carlow v Westmeath.

If the six rounds were played on successive weekends, it could be run off between July 26 and August 30, the scheduled date of the All-Ireland final. Obviously, a break or two could apply if an earlier start becomes possible. And who knows? It might even turn out to be a system that works beyond this year.

Hurling offers a different challenge but here's a proposed format which also requires six weekends to complete. Increase the Liam MacCarthy contenders from 10 to 12 (promote Carlow and Westmeath). Divide the 12 counties into four groups of three to play in round-robin format.

Top two in each group to reach the quarter-finals.


League dilemma a problem in waiting

It's a debate for when GAA grounds are no longer required as medical sites and return to hosting games, but with it looking increasingly improbable that the Allianz Leagues will be completed before the championship, the question arises as to what happens then.

Hurling is fairly straightforward, with only the knockout stages remaining in Division 1. They could well be abandoned. Lower down, there are a few divisional finals, which decide promotion, to be played but it might be possible to slot them in later in the year.

Football has two full rounds to go in all four divisions. Could space be found for them in November/December? Otherwise, the current standings will be irrelevant and all counties revert to where they were at the start of this season.

That would be good news for the bottom two (Meath, Mayo, Kildare, Fermanagh, Leitrim, Louth) in the top three divisions. Not so for Roscommon, Cavan, Cork, Down, Limerick and Antrim who occupy the six promotion places.


Can we leave it to the pros please?

No one needs reminding of how serious the Covid-19 crisis is, but we're now beginning to get a hierarchy of self-appointed experts and 'influencers', who appear to equate rampant self-regard with knowledge.

It's becoming tiresome, but one suspects we're only in the early stages of being told by 'personalities' and 'celebrities' from the acting, musical, sporting and other high-profile areas how we should conduct ourselves.

Even some in the media world seem to think they are bigger than the story. Surely, a large parking lot, complete with locked gates, can be found for ego in these strange times.

Most of us take our information from the medical professionals who know what they're talking about and who have the expertise to make the correct judgments, so can we leave it to them to get on with a very difficult job and abide by what they recommend?

The rest is just irritating noise.

Sport will eventually play an important role in re-igniting the country's spirit - hopefully sooner rather than later.

Irish Independent