Christy O'Connor looks at Option B which is set to overhaul the All-Ireland football championship

Cork GAA this week voted to revamp inter-county Gaelic football programme, while Bishopstown native and GAA president Larry McCarthy has also spoke in favour of change
Christy O'Connor looks at Option B which is set to overhaul the All-Ireland football championship

Cork forward Luke Connolly shoots wide under pressure from Niall Morgan and Ronan McNamee of Tyrone in the 2019 meeting at Croke Park. The Red Hand have a tougher province to negotiate each summer than the Rebels. Picture: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

WHEN the potential football championship reform was being discussed back in March, Ulster was inevitably up in arms anytime both options were even aired, never mind discussed.

Ulster was never going to agree to an eight-team regional championship model, with one team in the province moving to Connacht, but they were just as horrified at the prospect of the provincial series being played as stand-alone competitions in the spring, with the League becoming a qualifier competition for a two-tier All-Ireland series.

The basic concept of the provincial championship provides Ulster with everything they want – local derbies, manic competitiveness, realistic hope for every team.

That attitude was bound to become even more trenchant after Tyrone won the All-Ireland title in September, to secure the province’s first title in nine years. And yet, even though the Tyrone players would have been absolutely within their rights to proclaim their support for their provincial championship, even they can see the bigger picture.

“The status quo is broken,” said Tyrone goalkeeper Niall Morgan last week. “It doesn’t work. It would be, in my opinion, insane to continue with something that isn’t working.” 

And yet, option B will need 60% support to be passed at Saturday’s Special Congress. If it, or option A, which hasn’t a hope, don’t pass that threshold, the championship will revert to the status quo of a knockout provincial competition with a back-door qualifier system and a second-tier Tailteann Cup aimed at Division 3 and 4 sides.

The players certainly don’t want it. The Gaelic Players Association have found 80% support for Option B amongst its membership. They have recognised that the time has finally come to give the players the proper series of games during the summer.

The adoption of proposal B would see each county play a minimum of seven championship matches, where there would be 216 games in the senior inter-county calendar, 34 more than a Super 8 year and 39 that what would be thrown up in the qualifier/Tailteann Cup format.

FLAWS

It won’t be an easy sell, particularly when the league format in Proposal B isn’t as imaginative as it needed to be, especially in the circumstances of needing something extra to secure enough votes; only five Division 1 teams will progress to the knockout stages of the All-Ireland, along with the top three in Division 2 along with the winners of Divisions 3 and 4.

To put that into further context, if those league placings were taken from 2020, Monaghan and Mayo wouldn’t have made the championship final eight, but Limerick would.

Most of the resistance to change though, will rest with the provincial councils, especially around money. Their primary fear is that the revenue generated for their coffers in the summer will be seriously diluted by staging a watered-down version of the provincial championships in the spring.

More championship games does mean more money but the majority of counties earn more in gate receipts from the League than any other competition.

Counties would need to be assured that the league becoming championship doesn’t lose them income. The GAA could offset the provincial council’s concerns by guaranteeing a certain share of income from a projected increased amount.

Yet what if there isn’t an expected increase? What if fewer people than expected turn up to games next year? Are many people still nervous of crowds? That leaves uncertainty and uncertainty frightens delegates, especially when money has never been tighter.

The provinces already receive central funding, but there would need to be a significant subvention from Croke Park for the provincial councils to fund their activities, especially if there wasn’t significant income from a provincial football championship.

On the other hand, adopting Proposal B would increase the commercial and marketing opportunities with so many extra games during the summer.

The home-and-away arrangements would bring the games back to the people across the country, financially driving the local economies, and growing the games in the provinces. You can’t equate that format with the Round Robin hurling system in Munster and Leinster in hurling but the potential still exists.

Munster’s income though is boosted by a thriving hurling championship similar to the Ulster football championship. 

Yet while Munster would be financially equipped to cope with a downgraded provincial football competition, Ulster wouldn’t have that safety net. Neither would Connacht.

Embracing radical change is always bound to cause unease. All the recent talk on both sides about projected figures – with nothing concrete – seemed to only inflate that unease.

The other significant strand to this debate is that it hasn’t been debated enough. Connacht GAA secretary John Prenty said it would be “dangerous” to vote through Proposal B, especially without any meaningful discussion of the many “unintended consequences” associated with the league-based All-Ireland championship.

Matthew Ruane of Mayo is fouled by Matthew Tierney and Finnian Ó Laoí of Galway resulting in a penalty, in this season's Connacht final at Croker. Picture: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile
Matthew Ruane of Mayo is fouled by Matthew Tierney and Finnian Ó Laoí of Galway resulting in a penalty, in this season's Connacht final at Croker. Picture: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

Prenty believes that a more satisfactory proposal can and must be conceived. Monaghan footballer Darren Hughes also spoke out against what’s being proposed in Proposal B, in particular the exclusion of the sixth team in Division One from the playoffs.

However, the vast majority of players want change. 

And momentum has been gathering as the week has gone on. The silence from the hierarchy all along suggested they favoured the status quo but GAA President Larry McCarthy and Director General Tom Ryan came out in support of Proposal B on Wednesday.

Close to half the counties have already declared their support. The mood has certainly altered but the overseas votes will be decisive. The tide has changed but Saturday will tell if it has turned enough to blow the dam wide open.

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