Champions League format would bring new energy to Gaelic football

With GAA on hold, the Association have a chance to completely rethink the championship
Champions League format would bring new energy to Gaelic football

Cork's Conor Dennehy in action against Kildare's Mick O'Grady in the 2019 league clash in the Páirc. The counties are slated to meet again this spring, if the competition goes ahead. Picture: INPHO/Ken Sutton

AS well as being the second longest-serving inter-county football manager now in the game, and considering the huge progress Clare have made under his tenure, Colm Collins’ views are entitled to be respected and listened to.

Collins has been ultra-consistent in his message since taking over Clare in 2014; he’s been constantly banging the drum about the desperate need for change to the structures of the provincial and All-Ireland championships.

It’s been easy for Collins to be frustrated, especially when Clare have been held in a provincial headlock by Kerry for the majority of Collins’ tenure.

After the 2019 championship draw was made in October 2018, which effectively pitted Clare in a Munster semi-final against Kerry for the fourth successive year, Collins spoke about more than just the monotony and mental drudgery of having to face Kerry again.

“We badly need to shake the whole thing up,” said Collins. “I wish someone would just grasp the nettle and say, ‘Here’s 32 teams, let’s go.’ The sky is not going to fall in if we get rid of the provincials.” 

Clare manager Colm Collins. Picture: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Clare manager Colm Collins. Picture: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Even after Tipperary finally managed win a historic first Munster title in 85 years last November, Tipp manager David Power still spoke about the bigger picture Collins has repeatedly referred to. "I personally think the provincial system has to go," said Power on Tipp FM just weeks later.

Power’s preference was for a Champions League-style format, where teams are graded on their league standing, with the top two going into the Sam Maguire Cup and the bottom two going into the Tailteann Cup. "I think that will eventually happen,” said Power. “Because it's the only fair way of having teams graded."

The big question now is why wait? Change in the GAA always moves at snail pace but, while the pandemic has created chaos, frustration and disappointment, it has also created opportunity. That was evident last year when the split-season suddenly made perfect sense after the GAA were left with no other option but to run with it.

With the GAA now in cold storage until Easter, the additional time on the margins is also an opportunity for the Association to be creative, clever and inventive in trying to eradicate such a huge problem with the football championship.

With inter-county activity unlikely to resume before late April, the GAA still intend to run the league and championships. Any proposed new calendar may change again but, even if it does, the GAA still have the chance to be radical and to run the championships on a league basis.

LEVEL PLAYING FIELD

Teams would be hampered by not having a batch of games beforehand – like the pre-season competitions before the league and the league before the championship. But every team would be operating from the same starting point, which was never the case with the old system; one team may get a tough provincial quarter-final, which would set them up perfectly for a semi-final against a team coming in cold after a longer lay-off.

The brilliant successes of Tipperary and Cavan last year resuscitated the provincial championships. The knockout element also added a level of intrigue and spice to a largely moribund system. Yet running the league, and possibly returning to a knockout format now in a condensed schedule, is even more pointless when there is such potential to build the league into the championship.

The football league was going to be condensed anyway and, while a Champions League based championship system may be tricky considering the 2021 league was being organised on a regional basis, it’s still doable by sticking to a regional grading system as much as possible.

Basing the groups on where teams finished in the 2020 league, that format still has far more potential for greater diversity and novelty than a provincial championship ever could.

That’s already clear from the make-up of the league groupings for this season. For example, Division One South includes Dublin, Galway, Roscommon and Kerry; Division Two South is made up of Cork, Laois, Clare and Kildare; Division 3 South contains Wicklow, Offaly, Tipperary and Limerick; the teams in Division 4 South are Carlow, Waterford, Wexford and London.

On that basis, two sample Champions League groups could comprise Dublin, Cork, Tipperary and Wexford, with another being made up of Kerry, Kildare, Limerick and Carlow.

The critics would point to the mismatch of Dublin-Wexford. But that’s inevitable if Wexford draw Dublin in the Leinster championship. Wexford might not beat Cork and Tipperary but they’d have a rattle off them, which would also set them up well for the Tailteann Cup. If there wasn’t any way of granting the winners of the Tailteann Cup entry back into the Sam Maguire, the final of that competition should be staged before the Sam Maguire final.

With every team in that Champions League type system only guaranteed four games, it is two less matches they’d get in the current league and championship format. But the potential is far more attractive, especially for the Division 3 and 4 teams, than getting hammered in the provincial championships and then getting smashed by some Division 1 or 2 side in the qualifiers. What kind of hope does that give to so many teams in the championship?

Playing a championship format on a league basis over the summer would completely change the mentality and the dynamic. The variety and novelty would also breathe massive life into a dying and decaying system. And if such a system worked in 2021, the groups could be expanded to teams of eight going forward.

It would be a challenge to get all the group pairings fairly balanced, but the current hiatus gives the GAA enough time to be flexible and creative.

And the perfect chance to see this time now as a glorious opportunity.

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