AS club championships wind down, and inter-county preparations ramp up, the massive success and feel-good factor associated with the club championships to date has hardened the belief that the split season is the way to go from now on.
That was staring everyone in the face all along, especially when the April club month was a farce, but it was still always a hard sell. It’s not that long ago since the very idea of moving the All-Ireland finals forward by two weeks was deemed to be disastrous from a marketing perspective, and how it would hand easy promotional opportunities to the GAA’s main competitors.
Now, everyone seems content to suddenly move everything forward by a month, with the All-Ireland finals taking place in July.
The way the GAA works, meaningful change is usually only achieved after a long adversarial process. The current climate though, has completely altered the pace of that change, primarily because change must fit the new reality.
That now extends as far as selling any new concept; the GAA’s Fixtures Calendar Review Taskforce appear set to embark on a virtual roadshow in the coming months to present their split season proposals.
The committee’s earlier plans to change the face of the All-Ireland senior football championship and the GAA master fixtures calendar have now had to alter their ideas to cater for a split season going forward.
The likelihood is that universal approval will be forthcoming, but nothing concrete will probably happen until 2022; given the anticipated late finish to the 2020 championship, the Central Competitions Control Committee (CCCC) will surely advise a shortened inter-county calendar for 2021.
Getting rid of the club month in April will be the first major structural amendment the committee will make but what will happen next?
When the Fixtures Calendar Review Taskforce first published their report last December, it included a series of 32 recommendations, with the key objective of striking a better balance and degree of certainty to the playing of club fixtures alongside the inter-county fixture programme.
That’s a whole different concept now. The merits of the split season are obvious to everyone, but the format of the All-Ireland senior football championship still needs to be urgently addressed.
The taskforce presented two possible formats in their report.
Format one proposed four provincial football championship competitions each consisting of eight teams, split into two groups of four, and seeded based on League positions and playing in a round robin format. Final league positions would determine the movement of counties into the required four eights.
Format two would see the repositioning of the Football League to the summer months as a basis for the Championship and playing Provincial Competitions in the February/March period. The League would then determine the pathway for counties to qualify for All-Ireland quarter-finals.
Format two was the most attractive, especially when there would always be a reluctance for counties to play in different provinces. Moving the provincial championships to February/March (as proposed in format two) would be unlikely to attract enough support to be backed at Congress. Yet the provincial championships are effectively dead, while most counties see the National League as the most accurate barometer of their progress.
The breakdown of the format though, was questionable; the top four in Division 1 and top two in Division 2 would go to All-Ireland quarter-finals (six teams), while the top team in Division 3 and 4, along with teams placed third and fourth in Division 2 (four teams), would go into qualifier games to play against the top two teams in Division 1 in quarter-finals.
However, that was never going to work when knock-out places were being given to teams ranked 11th, 12th, 17th, and 25th, instead of those positioned fifth to eighth.
Ironing out those creases is manageable in time but, while the only focus, for now, is on 2020, every team will still be keen to know what’s on the cards in 2021. Because the unfortunate reality for most teams is that, with a knockout championship taking place in 2020, many football managers are already eyeing 2021, and the additional opportunities that may give their teams to develop.
That’s why, for many teams, their upcoming two final league games are far more important than the championship. It is already expected that the leagues will commence later next year, likely February, and will be played over a shorter period, with the possibility that each of the four football divisions could be divided into two groups of four.
Linking league placings to any altered championship format would be more difficult in an expected abbreviated campaign, especially when time must be found for clubs with the split season unlikely to be introduced until 2022.
Either way, the Super 8s look set to bite the dust. Although their retention for one final year appeared to have enough support amongst the GAA’s top brass, the Super 8s is a flawed structure that needs to be replaced. Teams like Monaghan and Galway didn’t make the Super 8s last year but, while they were beaten by Armagh and Mayo respectively along the way, the format is increasingly looking more like a top 5-6 competition. And that reality is only widening the gap between those at the top and the chasing pack.
The remaining options then for the 2021 football championships are already on the table; the provincial championships with the Tailteann Cup; flipping the League and Championship; four provincial conferences of eight teams.
Consensus won’t be easy to achieve. But, even long before the split season is introduced, something radical has to be done to shake up the current football championship format.