IN the lead-in to last year’s football league and championship in October, Laois were one of those counties caught in no-mans-land.
After the local lockdown in August, where Laois lost three club championship weekends, their football quarter-finals were only played in the first week in October. Before they played Westmeath in their first league game, Laois only had five full training sessions.
For most counties, the league is invariably the best of their season because it’s where their realistic ambitions and targets lie. A knockout championship last year also made Leinster appear more redundant than ever, which posed a whole new psychological challenge again for every other county in the province.
“It’s a difficult place to marry the realistic expectations you have with what you can actually achieve,” said Laois manager Mike Quirke last October. “The ambition to be the best we can be, to perform as well as we can and see where that takes us is really all we can do.”
That is all any team can do but what does every team in Leinster outside of Dublin do now? Almost every team in the province has long accepted their place under Dublin’s iron rule but at least they had the league and the qualifiers, maybe even a shot at the Super 8s, to build on. But now?
A knockout championship last year was unique and novel, especially with Tipperary and Cavan winning provincial titles. It generated huge excitement, but the old failures of the knockout system were still obvious.
Before the backdoor system for the football championship was passed at a Special Congress in 2000, the vast majority of football players had been withered from the hopelessness of endless training for a single game every summer.
At least teams have the league to aim for now in the summer. It was accepted that the Super 8s and the Tailteann Cup would get scratched again this year, but the concept of a second championship game for everyone should have been retained.
These are unique times but there is also another side to this debate. One of the biggest games in last year’s championship was the Donegal-Tyrone Ulster quarter-final, which Donegal shaded. Yet everyone had long accepted the perils of playing at the roulette table.
“It was disappointing, but I wasn’t too annoyed at losing to Donegal,” said Tyrone’s Niall Morgan in March. “Because knockout is what championship should be all about.”
The Ulster championship though is incomparable to any other province. Every team there targets a provincial title but for most counties in the other provinces, especially those down the pecking order, the league has to be their main target every year because they have long accepted that their championship will only last so long.
In 31 provincial championship games in 2019, ten were decided by double-digit margins. Some of those defeated teams may have been seeking atonement in the qualifiers but, deep down, their season was already effectively over.
Many players won’t openly admit it but, once they find themselves in the qualifiers, their minds have already turned towards the club championships. In that regard, does a knockout championship just expedite what is inevitably going to happen anyway?
Players won’t be going travelling this year, but many will want to enjoy – what they can – of the summer before the club championships really ramps up in the autumn. In that regard, a significant number of players may be happy with a knockout championship.
With a truncated league this year, the only way those teams can really build towards something is to try and generate a championship run.
That isn’t going to happen now. The GAA said they would have needed another three weeks in the playing calendar to have facilitated a backdoor for the All-Ireland football qualifiers.
Time was always going to be the decisive factor. The league was going to be a priority too but, as mentioned here before, the GAA had the ideal opportunity this year to be radical and to run the championships on a league basis.
Commercial contracts with Allianz, who sponsor the leagues, had to be considered but, it was even more of a missed opportunity when, with just three regular league games, there was such huge potential to build the league into the championship.
A Champions League-based championship system may have been tricky considering the 2021 league is being organised on a regional basis, but it would still have been doable by sticking to a regional grading system. Moreover, basing the groups on where teams finished in the 2020 league would have had far more potential for greater diversity and novelty than a provincial championship ever could.
As it stands, every team now is guaranteed just five games, yet, for some teams, one of those matches will be a league relegation semi-final. The Tailteann Cup had to go when the league was retained but it could have been retained under a Champions League type format, where the top two in the group would progress to the last 16, with the bottom two moving on to the Tailteann Cup. The final of the competition could have been staged before the Sam Maguire final.
Playing a championship format on a league basis over the summer would have completely changed the mentality and the dynamic. But that glorious opportunity was missed. And the frustration is even more acute again when this would have been the ideal time for the GAA to have tried something which, in time, will probably have to happen anyway.