WHEN analysing the Armagh-Cavan drawn Ulster semi-final on ‘The Sunday Game’ in June, Pat Spillane was clearly buzzed up. Spillane has long been a critic of Ulster football, and while the replay, and the second semi-final had still to be played, Spillane said that the 2019 Ulster championship had already produced the highest quality matches he had seen in “10 or 12 years”.
Then Spillane advanced his argument to include the whole football championship. “Whisper it quietly,” he said “but the football championship this year has probably given us better quality, more entertaining and more intense games than the hurling.”
The subsequent Armagh-Cavan replay was the best game during the first month of the football championship but Spillane had been beating his drum on the increased standard of football throughout the summer.
In his newspaper column a few weeks earlier, Spillane felt that Offaly’s heroic effort against Meath, Derry's battling performance against Tyrone, and London giving Galway a real fright, had scarcely merited a mention for a reason. “All the focus has been on the hammerings which Leitrim and Sligo endured against Roscommon and Galway,” wrote Spillane. “Why? Because it feeds the narrative that Gaelic football is in a dire state and we need a tiered football championship.”
A week before that Spillane column, Joe Brolly had used Leitrim’s hammering against Roscommon as an example of the need for that tiered championship.
“This is cruel what’s happening, and until teams like Leitrim are afforded the same respect as Kerry, Dublin, Mayo and Tyrone, we do not have a fair and equitable Association,” said Brolly. “Teams need a vibrant championship at their level, that’s treated with the same respect.” After all the debate for and against a tiered format, that proposal will now be put forward at Special Congress on Saturday in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
The main difficulty with the current format is that it’s still highly unbalanced. Teams always have the capacity to improve, especially under good management but too many sides are just oscillating, and a host of counties are just drifting. And they are just cut loose once their provincial campaign ends; of the 16 qualifier games in Rounds 1 and 2 in 2018, ten were won by margins of eight points or more.
Despite the increased quality this summer, the numbers were more or less the same in the opening two rounds of the qualifiers; eight of the 16 matches were won by margins of eight points or more.
Most of those teams would be better suited to a Tier Two championship but the biggest sell with any proposed tiered format is to the counties who see themselves as above that status. History has also shown that the concept has never been fully embraced by both the counties involved in those competitions (several of which have been tried before in different forms), and the public.
A number of factors have contributed to the general apathy but any Tier 2 championship would have to be given proper recognition and marketed vigorously if it was to gain full acceptance this time around.
On the otherhand, no matter how it is promoted, some counties still won’t want to know about a Tier 2 championship. They don’t want to entertain comparisons between the elite and the more common classes because they feel that they are more entitled to the same spin at the roulette table as everyone else.
Other counties which have pulled themselves up by the bootstraps will continue to rail against such a concept but any side outside the top six (never mind the top 12) has minimal chance of appearing in an All-Ireland final in Croke Park anytime soon.
Yet teams still crave status and a Tier 2 football championship could never achieve that in players’ hearts and minds. However, something has to change. And attitudes already are.
"I'm a huge supporter of a Tier-Two Championship," said London manager Ciaran Deely after his side narrowly lost to Galway in May. "We want to be pitting ourselves against teams that are in Division 3 and Division 4 on a continual basis. We want more games. We'd love to be in a competition that we've a real chance of winning."
That’s the bottom line for most teams outside the top 8-10 sides but it will still be a hard sell on Saturday. Especially for Cork.
Last week’s Munster draw, which pitted Cork and Kerry in a Munster semi-final for the first time in eight seasons, could yet have serious ramifications for Cork.
Cork will expect to be promoted from Division 3 next March but, before deciding whether to go with a new Tier Two football championship for Division 3 and 4 counties, delegates will first be asked to choose between a definition of those groups that includes the counties relegated from Division Two that year, or one that sticks with the status quo at the start of the same year.
Cork’s get-out-of-jail card (if they needed it) was believed to be the provision of allowing provincial finalists into the Tier One championship, irrespective of league position. That may be disrespectful to the other Munster counties, especially Clare who have repeatedly beaten Cork over the last three years, but Cork would still have a better chance of reaching a Munster final by avoiding Kerry. So, despite all the progress made last year, if Cork don’t escape from a competitive Division 3 next year, and they lose to Kerry, they may be in Tier Two.
Tipperary, who were also relegated to Division 3 last year, have drafted a motion which defines Division 2 as incorporating the following year’s status rather than the current position.
That is a whole other side to this debate but, before any decisions are made, the hardest sell to most other counties in Divisions 3 and 4 will be to convince them that – despite the tweaks and promises – that this isn’t a reheat of the Tommy Murphy Cup.
Because nobody had any interest in that competition last time around.