Wednesday 13 December 2017

There's no reason to fear change

A Champions League style format could resolve a lot of issues for the GAA, argues Colm O'Rourke

M ore often than not I think players' views should come with a health warning. The reason is that players by their very nature are focused on two things: playing and winning. They often don't see that there is a big gap between what is desirable and practical. It is the optimism of youth.

The best players also generally have a healthy cynicism towards county boards, fixtures committees and administration in all its forms. Most of the time they are quite right too as efficiency is a word that is not used frequently when discussing the GAA.

Naturally too there is often a great divide even among players as to what the right approach is. There are probably not too many calls for change in the system of governance in Kerry or Kilkenny or huge support to restructure the championship system, or for that matter modifications in the method of choosing managers. They don't take bites out of stone walls in either county. Yet it is for that very reason that so many others want fundamental change. The domination by a small number of counties in both football and hurling demands intervention to improve competition -- not as an attempt to beat those counties as they will be successful no matter what the system, but rather to give some foundation for about three quarters of the counties to build on.

The most glaring finding from the survey of players published today is that they want change from the back door system and they certainly don't want a return to the old knockout model which suffocated competition for over 100 years. What alternative to offer is where players and most administrators might find it hardest to agree.

When I was a member of the committee that introduced the back door system, I was very conscious at the time that it had the potential to make the rich quite a lot richer. The chances of beating Kerry or Tyrone twice in the one year was immediately apparent. Many of the committee shared that concern but having had a more radical plan thrown out at the previous Congress, the feeling was that half a loaf was better than no bread. It was also felt that this was just the beginning, not the end; what is needed now is another group of young turks to drive the process further.

When players are asked what they want, the general view seems to settle on a Champions League type format. It is not the players' job I suppose to put flesh on those bones but the operation of such a system would be a huge step forward in terms of providing a proper competitive structure at the right time of year against similar opposition while at the same time helping to solve one of the biggest issues: club fixtures.

Of course it would mean provincial championships becoming redundant but it would be very interesting to see who would vote to preserve some historical status rather than do the right thing for an organisation which is crippling the weak and stunting development.

The only way this would work is a type of league championship, three divisions of 11, with Kilkenny having to make a massive sacrifice and not shoot every footballer on sight. It would also mean London in and New York out, with the Big Apple trip becoming part of the winner's prize for the third division. Imagine a first division of Kerry, Cork, Tyrone, Meath, Galway, Dublin, Mayo, Kildare, Armagh, Derry and Monaghan. Of course there would be disputes but league and championship form would solve most problems if taken over a two-year period.

Then in the second group you would have Donegal, Sligo, Limerick, Wexford, Fermanagh, Wicklow, Laois, Tipperary, Down, Antrim and Westmeath. Some may not agree with that combination either but after that there is Longford, Leitrim, Roscommon, Waterford, Carlow, Louth, Offaly, Cavan, London, Kilkenny and Clare.

A team not happy with its position could solve the problem on the field in one year but the potential benefits are an opportunity to have five home games and at the right time of year -- there would be no need to start matches until the middle of April. The success of Saturday evening games in summer shows the way forward. It would be up to each county to market their home games as they would be keeping the biggest percentage of the gate -- think of promotion in schools, the possibility for local sponsorship of the game and the ball, supporters' clubs hosting lunches beforehand and a thousand other ways of making a match the centre of a county's attention.

With promotion and relegation, the top two going straight into semi-finals with the next four playing off for the remaining two places and two going down it would mean all games would be important for all.

Not only that but it would at a stroke solve most of the problems with club fixtures. Now there would be a definite structure for county matches and clubs could slot in; the dog could start wagging the tail again instead of the other way round. The frustration among county players and the anger among most club men about this ongoing scandal of club fixtures is near breaking point. And with all knockout matches being played in Croke Park, it would give a huge number of players who never get an opportunity of playing in that great stadium. Is there any reason why six teams in the third division have not as much right to Croke Park as anyone else, no matter what support they bring.

This system may have flaws but at the very least it is fair, gives football to all at county level in summer, puts a shape on fixtures for everyone at both club and county level and gives an opportunity to build a county team from year to year. It is now time to move on. The back door has served a very useful purpose but its hinge is ready to fall off.

It has always struck me as very strange that a county with 33 club teams would organise the premier competition to take account of senior, intermediate and junior yet at county level exactly the opposite happens. Everyone is treated the same. It merely reinforces inequality. The players are right, even if they are not clear on the solution.

They are right too in being dissatisfied with the way county managers are selected. In most counties there is little confidence in a group who generally have no management experience picking the most important manager in the county. The chairman is the only one from the county board who is needed on this committee; after that it should be recent ex-players and/or managers. Even if Croke Park have issued guidelines on procedures and questions for candidates, the controversy in many counties is more about who is asking the questions than the questions that are being asked.

The real definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, in many cases this is the way a lot of GAA committees act. Even a little change at all levels, especially county boards, could yield massive improvements.

This is a good time too for the GPA to throw all its weight behind players who are searching in the dark for a better way to run our games at all levels. The only real conflict should be about the fairest and best way to run competitions for all players irrespective of the strength of the county or the weakness of the club.

After the revolution I hope things are a lot better. And the meek shall inherit the earth.

Sunday Independent

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