The Christy O'Connor column: GAA wasted great chance of open football draw

The Christy O'Connor column: GAA wasted great chance of open football draw
Coronavirus sport: Paul Gallagher, team offical, sanitising the balls before a Glenswilly GAA Club training session. Picture: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

A FEW days before the GAA unveiled their plans for the revamped 2020 championship, Tyrone goalkeeper Niall Morgan gave a revealing podcast interview, which underlined a whole set of new truths for Gaelic footballers in the new normal.

Morgan wasn’t aware at that point of what the GAA had planned, but he was asked a question on a media report which — correctly — claimed that the GAA would return initially with the outstanding league games before running the championship right up to Christmas.

“That would be crazy stuff, not only in terms of for the players but how many pitches are going to be able to hold it?” asked Morgan.

That is an issue, especially with so few floodlit venues in Ulster, but Morgan clearly had a whole different perspective on the required balance between work, home, and sport.

“Now that we’ve had so much time at home, it’s going to be hard to give up five or six days a week again,” said Morgan.

“I don’t know whether I personally will be willing to do it and there’s a right few in the same boat that I’ve been talking to.”

Tyrone goalkeeper Niall Morgan takes a shot at the posts on one of his trips upfield as Aidan O'Shea stretches to block.
Tyrone goalkeeper Niall Morgan takes a shot at the posts on one of his trips upfield as Aidan O'Shea stretches to block.

So, if a player from one of the teams with a realistic chance of winning an All-Ireland is thinking in those terms, what must be running through the heads of the vast platoons of inter-county footballers who have zero chance of even contesting a provincial final?

Of course, nobody can speak for anyone else, or how they are thinking, but Westmeath are a solid starting point in this debate.

After slipping from Divisions 1 to 4, the last three years has been a steady climb back up the mountain for Westmeath; Division 4 league champions in 2017, they won Division 3 last year.

Before the season was shut down in March, Westmeath were just two points of the top of Division 2.

Yet will the league — whether that’s promotion or steering clear of relegation in a highly competitive Division 2 — be Westmeath’s sole focus now before the season resumes in October?

Because the championship — and meeting Dublin in their first game — will certainly be a lot harder for Westmeath’s players to aim for.

There is certainly a clear message in that scenario, which plays out each season for many more teams than just Westmeath; the league is where their realistic ambitions and targets lie.

The vast majority of teams never have a hope of winning a provincial title, let alone an All-Ireland, but most elite sport is built on inequality.

Most of those players have different goals than winning an All-Ireland, many of which are achievable; a couple of championship wins, individual progress, and satisfaction.

Both players and supporters accept there are limits to how far performances can extend beyond a certain threshold.

A Tier 2 Championship could never achieve that status in players’ hearts and minds. Counties who have pulled themselves up by the bootstraps will continue to rail against the concept, but the GAA have still decided to go with that format, which will now be in place for 2021.

Yet league placings at the end of 2020 will still decide the make-up of that format, which, in so many ways, complicates the approach for teams preparing for the championship.

The Connacht and Ulster championships offers prime examples of those varying complications, and the imbalances that go with them. Galway, who are flying high in Division 1, have no relegation fears before they play Sligo in a Connacht semi-final.

The other semi-final is expected to be between Mayo and Roscommon, who have a whole other set of headaches.

Mayo will be trying to dislocate themselves from relegation worries from Division 1, before then facing Roscommon, who sit joint-top of Division 2, and are targeting promotion to Division 1.

So are Cavan, who play an Ulster preliminary game against Monaghan, who are also in a battle to stay in Division 1.

So are Donegal, who meet Tyrone (who aren’t yet safe either) in a massive league game in mid-October, two weeks before they clash in one of the biggest games of the championship.

Meath are already relegated, but every other team will be slow to give up their Division 1 status. The week before that Donegal-Tyrone championship game, one of those sides could be facing a relegation-decider final league game.

Whoever wins that Ulster quarter-final will probably face Armagh in the semis.

Winning is brilliant for momentum, but maintaining consistency at such a high pitch will be difficult in a short timeframe — if Tyrone or Donegal reach an Ulster final, that would mean playing five high-intensity games in 35 days. The Ulster champions may be well battle-hardened for an All-Ireland semi-final, but Dublin will stroll into the same stage having coasted through Leinster.

Given the time constraints, it’s understandable that the GAA opted for a straight knockout format. Yet, they surely missed an opportunity by not going for an open draw.

The excitement would have been huge. Imagine Dublin drawing Kerry?

The novelty would have added to the intrigue, while it would have also diluted some of the current imbalance to the championship structure.

Of course, some counties would still have been cannon-fodder for the big guns. But most of those counties will be swallowed up anyway as they progress in the provinces.

After such a difficult year to date, players just want to play. Yet, in such a unique year, the GAA could have catered for a one-off opportunity and experiment, which in turn, could have been a key testing ground for a future format, and a proper-tiered championship structure.

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