HERE’S a question you have heard with increasing frequency over the past week: Is there a way to save the 2020 All-Ireland inter-county senior football and hurling championships?
What you probably haven’t heard yet is a convincing answer. We are in the realms of the unprecedented; a grotesque Gaelic version of ‘Ripley’s Believe It Or Not’.
But there is a potential escape route, if the various GAA stakeholders are willing to think outside the large parallelogram. The salvation of our 2020 season will, in all likelihood, be reliant on playing two seasons in one.
We are sure lots of you will find gaping holes in our incomplete blueprint, which can only work (in any event) on the proviso that the public health landscape has changed sufficiently by New Year’s Day to allow mass public gatherings in 2021.
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No guarantees there.
However, you must also accept that there is no such thing as a perfect solution in this perfect storm.
The genesis of this plan stems from a GAA obsessive suddenly left with far too much thinking time in this Covid world without matches. This Dub diehard with proud Offaly and Westmeath roots would rather remain nameless, for fear the status quo fundamentalists would have him barred for life from his beloved Association. We have finessed some of the details and fine-tuned the calendar. Here goes …
Our first assumption – again far from bulletproof – is that Government restrictions will have eased sufficiently by September/October to allow a resumption of GAA club activity, even in a crowd-controlled or ‘behind-closed-doors’ environment.
All the county championships are run off in this period. All round-robin groups are jettisoned; you might have a ‘back door’ facility for first round losers, but time is precious and thereafter it will be straight knockout.
Theoretically, you might have just enough time to run off provincial and/or All-Ireland club championships before Christmas … but the priority must be the completion of county championships, and there will be no ‘club’ carryover into January. Here’s why …
2021 dawns . . .
It is now inter-county season, but not as we know it. This plan will focus on football, but similar principles can be adopted to facilitate a return to inter-county hurling during the same time-frame.
The first ambition to be abandoned is the notion of completing the 2020 National League. Game over; burst ball. The next sacrificial lamb will be all those pre-season tournaments that were already more of a nuisance: bye-bye the O’Byrne Cup, for now at least.
The competitive season will start, on the weekend of January 16-17, with the 2021 ‘League’ – a league championship with a difference culminating in one cup, Sam Maguire.
The old spring meritocracy – Divisions 1, 2, 3 and 4 – will be replaced by four regional conferences. These, by extension, are effectively replacing our four provincial championships.
Some counties will be forced to accept a new ‘home’. Cavan venture to what was previously known as Leinster; Longford and Westmeath metaphorically cross the Shannon (along with London, presuming it’s safe for the Exiles to compete); and Carlow and Wexford head south.
Our conferences, we should reiterate, will not be named Ulster, Leinster, Connacht and Munster. Instead we will have …
EASTERN CONFERENCE: Dublin, Meath, Kildare, Wicklow, Offaly, Louth, Laois, Cavan.
SOUTHERN CONFERENCE: Kerry, Cork, Tipperary, Limerick, Clare, Waterford, Carlow, Wexford.
WESTERN CONFERENCE: Galway, Mayo, Roscommon, Sligo, Leitrim, London, Longford, Westmeath.
NORTHERN CONFERENCE: Donegal, Derry, Tyrone, Armagh, Antrim, Down, Fermanagh, Monaghan.
Each team will be guaranteed seven round-robin games – the lucky ones will get four at home. These games will be completed by mid-March, on the following dates: Round 1 (Jan 16-17), Round 2 (Jan 23-24) and Round 3 (Jan 30-31), then a break to Round 4 (Feb 13-14) and Round 5 (Feb 20-21), then another break to Round 6 (Mar 6-7) and Round 7 (Sunday, March 14).
Any postponed fixtures – a near-certainty given the timing and the reality of climate change – will be played on those two free weekends or, in a worst-case scenario, on the free weekend of March 20-21.
Here’s the key: the top two teams in each conference will advance to the All-Ireland SFC quarter-finals, with the four group leaders seeded.
(NB: To preserve a competitive edge to all league fixtures, each county’s final position will dictate its NFL status in 2022, when the competition will revert to four divisions. In other words, teams finishing first and second will qualify for Division 1, all the way down to seventh and eighth heading for Division 4.)
Back to the All-Ireland race: ‘Winner-on-the-day’ regulations will apply both to the quarter-finals (March 27-28) and semi-finals a week later (April 3-4). The finalists will have a two-week lead-in before battling for Sam, hopefully at a capacity Croke Park with social distancing a thing of the past, on April 18.
This could go to a replay, one week later, when it must be winner-on-the-day.
There will follow a total inter-county shutdown, embracing a four-week period devoted exclusively to club training and club matches. This must be rigidly enforced.
Given that a full pre-season isn’t required after such a hectic spring, county managers must be content with a fortnight’s preparation ahead of the 2021 All-Ireland senior championships, in both codes.
These will start in early June and run until late August or mid-September at the latest. Football will be organised on whatever basis is deemed most suitable, be it (a) the pre-existing format; (b) a new one agreed by Congress, arising from the various proposals floated by the Fixtures Calendar Review Task Force; or (c) a one-off abbreviated structure to ensure the completion of two championships in one calendar year.
A unique remedy for the crazy times we live in.