The Christy O'Connor column: Radical change is on the way to solve the GAA fixture dilemma

The Christy O'Connor column: Radical change is on the way to solve the GAA fixture dilemma
Kevin Harnett of Clare and David Clifford of Kerry tussle off the ball. Picture: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

A WEEK after the drawn All-Ireland football final in September, Clare manager Colm Collins began beating a drum he has been hammering now for years.

Collins warned the GAA that it risks damaging its future by failing to scrap the provincial football championships and replacing them with a streamlined 32-team system.

Colm Collins. Picture: INPHO/Donall Farmer
Colm Collins. Picture: INPHO/Donall Farmer

Collins has long believed that the system is not only restricting the counties who are trying to make that next step, but is also doing serious long-term damage to the game. “If we keep going like this,” he said, “we'll lose more players."

Collins was largely speaking from a position of claustrophobia, with Clare having played Kerry six times (five in Munster) over the last six seasons, losing all six.

Munster will have a different feel to it next year, with Cork and Kerry on the same side of the draw, but Collins was still clear in his view of what he felt was the best way forward for the game’s future – replace the provincials with eight groups of four, with the top two in each advancing to the Sam Maguire tier and the bottom 16 playing in a second-tier competition.

Collins’ comments came a month before the GAA’s Central Council proposed, and then passed, a new Tier Two championship. Collins was against that format because he argued it was based on the wrong premise. 

“We have an exciting solution (eight groups of four) staring us in the face, so why are we slow to take it up?” asked Collins. “Players would love it and I have no doubt that they would be far better disposed to a Tier 2 championship under that system.” 

Kerry players before facing Clare. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie
Kerry players before facing Clare. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

Yet no matter how radical the GAA will ever get, removing the provincial system in football is clearly something the association won’t do.

When the fixture calendar review taskforce revealed two blueprints (the retention of the current structure was also proposed) on Wednesday, both were designed to radically alter the format of the All-Ireland football championship.

A Special Congress next year will determine if the provincial boundaries are redrawn so as to provide four eight-team provincial football championships. That proposal is framed around what Collins largely spoke about, but only to a certain point; because the taskforce was not prepared to abolish the provincial championships.

If that proposal was adopted, counties from Ulster and Leinster would migrate to Munster and Connacht. It’s unknown what criteria would be employed to determine which counties are moved into a neighbouring province, but it would probably be decided by a play-off, or some divisional structure with the league.

That potential format is still only is a stage of gestation but, while most teams would remain in the same province, the details of that system show the massive scale of change; each provincial competition would be split into two groups of four and run off on a round-robin basis.

The top team in either group then progress to their respective provincial final; the second and third-placed teams move into the qualifiers, with the bottom-placed teams participating in the Tier 2 championship. It would also guarantee each county a minimum of four championship games.

Under that format, the league would retain its current timing and structure, whereas the taskforce’s second proposal recommends playing the provincial championships in February/March. That would be staged on a round-robin basis, with semi-finals and finals, where Munster and Connacht would be played in groups of six, and Ulster and Leinster in two groups each of five counties.

The top team in Connacht and the top in Munster would progress straight to their respective provincial finals, with the 2nd and 3rd placed teams after the round robin stage meeting in semi-finals.

In Leinster and Ulster, the top two teams in each group would meet in semi-finals, with the winners advancing to the provincial final to play each other.

As with option 1, a mechanism would need to be agreed to determine which Leinster team would play in the Ulster competition.

Then the league would take over between May-July to decide the eight All-Ireland quarter-finalists; the top four in Division 1, and the top two in Division 2 would advance to the last eight. Those six would then be joined by the play-off winners of a round between the winners of Division 3 and 4, along with the third and fourth counties in Division 2. 

The Tier 2 championship then would consist of the remaining teams in Division 3 and 4.

There would clearly be an imbalance and unfairness to that system with the fifth-ranked team in the top flight being eliminated while the top side in the bottom division was still involved. 

Yet the base format is just being set at the moment, with the specific details of the model hammered out if that format is passed. For example, the number of teams to progress from Divisions 1 and 2 could be increased, and then pared down by preliminary All-Ireland quarter-finals.

Together with the suggested new formats are two distinct scheduling models, which would open up more windows for club activity. Both options will involve more inter-county matches being played but within a smaller period of time.

The taskforce’s report will now be brought around the country to a number of regional meetings with various different stakeholders.

A lot of specifics have to be ironed out yet but it shouldn’t be a hard sell before deciding on one of the two radical options next year.

It won’t be exactly what Colm Collins’ wanted. But it’s not far off. And either one is a far better option than the current system.

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