Sunday 25 February 2018

The Couch: Asset transfer worth a try to correct county imbalance

'The inevitable early-summer doldrums brought on by the GAA's jaded provincial rituals are the trigger for all sorts of theories, appraisals and solutions'
'The inevitable early-summer doldrums brought on by the GAA's jaded provincial rituals are the trigger for all sorts of theories, appraisals and solutions'

Tommy Conlon

Like government reports and pre-election promises, the proposals for systemic change in championship structures continue to pile up and come to nought.

And at this time of year the ideas arrive thick and fast. The inevitable early-summer doldrums brought on by the GAA's jaded provincial rituals are the trigger for all sorts of theories, appraisals and solutions. The matter becomes freshly urgent every May and June when the championship faithfully emerges from hibernation with a whimper, not a bang.

The minnows duly line up to be culled by the apex predators, the predictable beatings are handed out, the staid procession continues. Everyone knows what's coming, nothing much happens, there are no alarms and no surprises. A pall of stagnation hangs over the parade.

The vacuum is filled by all sorts of draughtsmen with plans for a system that might improve matters. Players, managers, fans, pundits, journalists have all thrown their tuppence worth into the pot in recent years. Their proposals are well meant, and sometimes even well thought out.

But they are wrestling with a Rubik's Cube. Every move seemingly has a reverse effect elsewhere; every new idea threatens a competing interest; a gain here is a loss there. The current system is an intermeshed web of schedules that overlap and criss-cross in a matrix that entangles club, county, province; college, juveniles, adults; men's and women's competitions; football and hurling. A tweak on one thread usually sends tremors across the entire spaghetti junction.

It will take supreme organisational dexterity and diplomatic finesse to ever contrive a structure that will minimise the downsides, and maximise the potential of the GAA's premier shop-window tournaments.

These complexities don't deter all those structural engineers out there who devote a great amount of time and thought to plausible alternatives. These are important contributions, if only because they accumulate eventually into the critical mass that's usually required to force systemic change.

One cannot help feeling however that they're wasting their time. Not because Croke Park won't listen, or the provincial councils will remain immovable.

Croke Park maintains a close weather eye on every relevant debate and is without doubt listening to the winds of change gathering around this particular issue. Only last Thursday, Martin Breheny reported in the Irish Independent that senior GAA personnel are inviting submissions from county boards on the matter. Croke Park also floated the prospect that changes to the championship structures could be introduced as early as 2017.

But any changes will have a limited shelf life if the core issue is not addressed. The core issue is the imbalance in playing populations between competing teams.

It is not just the imbalance in competitive games between the various provinces. This is obviously an issue in and of itself: it is patently unfair for example that the top two football powers in Munster are virtually guaranteed safe passage into the last 12 every season. They can plan everything around late July/early August without having to worry about the cannon fodder sent their way in May and June.

So let's say the GAA makes a genuine effort to level the odds in this regard for 2017. But this will only be a case of rearranging the same artillery on the battlefield. The big armies will still be big, the small armies small. The argument here is not that the big armies should have their guns spiked. They should not be penalised for setting the standard, for their commitment to ongoing success. These counties are usually models of organisation, planning and ambition.

But smaller counties simply do not have the economy or the population to compete. The radical step towards equality would be to enable them recruit from beyond their borders. To allow free movement of talent.

The traditional championship structure endured untouched for some 110 years, until the qualifiers system was introduced in the late 1990s. The back door was a gust of fresh air across this moribund landscape. It was a terrific novelty at the time; it brought energy and optimism and some brilliant games.

Now the novelty is wearing thin. The new dispensation, if it ever happens, will also revitalise the competitions. But eventually it will turn stale too because every county will remain more or less back at square one. The status quo will continue. The smaller counties will spend more, organise better, and still collide with the brick wall of their limited resources.

Stagnation is bad enough; paralysis is worse. The ironclad rule of the county boundary has induced widespread paralysis. If every county is a nuclear atom, moving the atoms around on a board won't change very much. It is time to tamper with the DNA. It is time that the number of protons multiplied in every cell.

The sky won't fall in if, say, a half-dozen Kerry footballers were allowed migrate across the border into Clare. They mightn't be good enough to play for Kerry but they might like the idea of playing county football anyway. Likewise, a few top club hurlers from Clare going in the opposite direction. Both teams would get an immediate injection of energy and hope that no amount of structural tampering could emulate. Every team in the country would benefit from an annual recruiting programme.

A policy change on this scale needs careful planning. It should be the next big project for all those armchair reformers who are currently only scratching the surface of the issue.

Sunday Indo Sport

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