Christy O'Connor looks at the next steps for the GAA after football reform was voted down

Option B didn't get the required 60% majority in Croke Park to revamp the inter-county championship but the hunger is there for a fresh approach...
Christy O'Connor looks at the next steps for the GAA after football reform was voted down

Rain-soaked Super 8 action in 2019, with Ian Maguire of Cork holding off Colin Compton of Roscommon at Páirc Uí Rinn. Picture: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

IT may have been part of a strategy, especially when scare-tactics were required in such an emotional debate, but Tom Parsons fired the first shot over the heads of the GAA last week in the lead up to Saturday’s Special Congress.

The GPA CEO said that a ‘passive revolt’ of player withdrawals was possible if a new football championship structure wasn’t voted in. A couple of days later, former Sligo player Adrian Marren echoed those sentiments when predicting that many players will withdraw from panels if the status quo remains.

“From what I’m hearing in Sligo, there are players, and good young players, that are waiting to see what happens with this Special Congress,” said Marren. “Those boys will definitely rely on that to make up their minds about 2022. I’d say every county manager is having the same problem.” 

That mood of anxiety and frustration will inflate now when change didn’t come on Saturday, with Option B, the proposal that the GAA football championship move to a league-based structure, was well short of the 60% necessary for change.

Everybody accepted that Option B was far from perfect but it was still better than the system currently in place, in particular for players fed up from ritual championship hammerings, and uninspired by the impending Tailteann Cup.

In line with what Marren had stated earlier in the week, Sligo chairperson Seán Carroll said that he didn’t want “to have to look my players in the eye after another mismatch”.

The mismatches will continue for certain now, especially in the provincial championships. 

The Tailteann Cup is a solid concept in practise but it remains to be seen how counties will embrace it, especially if its profile is buried like most players fear it will be.

In any case, it is likely that a number of county squads will turn their back on the competition, which could seriously damage the credibility of the Tailteann Cup when it needs the exact opposite mindset for it to develop as a serious Tier 2 competition.

Players often don’t fully grasp the political manoeuvring required to initiate change in the GAA, but Saturday’s decision still has the potential to be a game-changer for all the wrong reasons.

Apart from everyone accepting that Option B wasn’t really going to work in theory, the way in which 80% of the inter-county playing population’s voices were ignored is bound to cause friction, especially when it basically means a return to the status quo.

On OTBAM last week, Declan Darcy, former Leitrim and Dublin footballer, and Jim Gavin’s right-hand man during Dublin’s five-in-a-row spoke strongly about that mood from change amongst inter-county squads.

“It’s all about the players,” said Darcy. “I heard the debate around money. I know that’s important but the number one thing here is what’s best for the players in totality. You’re not going to keep everyone happy but the players must become front and centre here.” 

Offaly chairperson, Michael Duignan, said before the vote was taken that he feared that players would walk away if they felt ignored. “Times have changed and we are at a very dangerous crossroads if we don’t listen to our players,” said Duignan.

The counter-argument is that it would have been risky to pass a proposal because it was less flawed than what is currently in place. What was the point in passing the proposal and then tweaking it? What were delegates voting for in those circumstances?

It was impractical to expect Division Four teams to compete with Division 1 sides – which is what would have happened if Proposal B was passed. But that has always happened in the provincial championships. Leitrim’s Declan Bohan spoke about the mood in the aftermath of the county’s humiliating 26-point hammering by Mayo in the Connacht championship in July.

“This structure we currently have is broken,” said Bohan. “We met the footballers of our county after we exited the championship this year and [were] told in no uncertain terms that if something doesn’t change you won’t see us again. That’s the reality.” 

The flip side is that not every player wanted change. Not every manager was in favour of it either but the reality is that 80% of the playing population did. 

The vast majority of them would not have studied or assessed the wider ramifications of accepting Proposal B like the delegates and officials did in the lead up to Special Congress. But the players would have still interpreted the decision afterwards as those delegates caring more about their self-interests than the people who compete.

Uachtarán Chumann Lúthchleas Gael Larry McCarthy announces the result of Motion 19, regarding the restructuring of the GAA football championship. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Uachtarán Chumann Lúthchleas Gael Larry McCarthy announces the result of Motion 19, regarding the restructuring of the GAA football championship. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

While GAA President Larry McCarthy and Director General Tom Ryan have both said it will be a challenge to have a reworked Proposal B ready for Congress next February, Parsons said he “won’t accept” there not being a fresh vote on football championship reform in four months.

“We have enough time between now and February,” he said. “We can’t be slow. Don’t tell me February is not possible. Every year that is missed is potentially another year gone for the development of footballers and potentially another year where maybe players in lower counties decide to opt out because they don’t see a pathway to success.” 

Whatever happens now, the players need to feel like their voices are at least being heard. Because at the moment, they think they are again being ignored.

“We need to facilitate the players’ needs,” said Darcy last week. “Because if they’re not committed to it, what’s the point really.” 

And unfortunately now, many players will be asking themselves that question this week.

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