PROPOSAL B to alter the structure of the All-Ireland football championship was defeated at the recently held GAA Special Congress at Croke Park, and while most GAA followers will have greeted the news with disdain, it will probably end up being a blessing in disguise.
While a change to the inter-county football structure is certainly required, the much-debated Proposal B was not fit for purpose, and thankfully it only received 50.6% of the vote, falling well short of the 60% it required to be implemented.
Proposal B would have seen the All-Ireland switch completely away from the long-existing provincial structures to a league based one, where only the top five teams in Division 1, the top three in Division 2 and the top ranked sides in Division 3 and 4 contested the All-Ireland proper.
Only ten counties would qualify for the All-Ireland Series, with a secondary Tailteann Cup being created for the Division 3 and 4 sides that had not qualified for the Series.
Bizarrely, it meant that the bottom side in Division 1 and the bottom three sides in Division 2 were to have nothing to play for after the league finished, which would have been a terrible unintended consequence for what would have been 25% of the top twelve sides in the country every year.
A lot of criticism has gone the way of the counties that voted against the revamp, with the Ulster counties receiving a lot of that venom, with them being labelled as ‘dinosaurs’ and ultra-conservative.
The thing is, they were quite correct to vote no.
The Ulster Championship works. Each and every Ulster county cares about it, and the local rivalries serve up close championship dogfights on a yearly basis, with shocks being a regular occurrence.
The Ulster football fraternity didn’t want to lose something that they deemed sacrosanct, and so they were dead right to vote as they did. Imagine asking the Munster counties to do away with the Munster Hurling Championship and you would get a similar response down south.
Ulster have defended their position. In their minds the provincial championships cannot go the way of the dodo and the Railway Cup, as by making it a glorified pre-season competition that is exactly what it would have become.
But instead of shouting down these Ulster counties, we should thank them, as in a way they have inadvertently steered us in the direction of the best championship structure, one where the newly proposed league structure and the long-standing provincial structure can have equal importance in terms of gaining qualification for the All-Ireland Series.
The way of doing this is to link the entire season so that both the league and the provincial championships feed into the All-Ireland Series by acting as qualification tournaments – the trick is to make them equally as important in this respect.
For instance, you could play the provincial championships earlier in the year, as per Proposal B, but you would not be just handing out a trophy to the winners in half empty stadiums in March. You would also be rewarding performances in these early-staged provincial championships with places in the All-Ireland Series later in the year. This would be a counties first opportunity to qualify for the All-Ireland proper, which would mean that the provincial championships would always remain relevant, and never lose their lustre.
Ultimately, more than ten sides should compete for the Sam Maguire Cup. Sixteen is the logical and cleanest number, but specifics aren’t important now.
The point is that a system can be devised whereby half the qualifications spots for the All-Ireland Series can be from the provincial championships, and the other half being from the league-based structure, as supported by Proposal B. The Tailteann Cup can then be retained for counties that failed to qualify.
This would be the ultimate ‘have your cake and eat it solution’. Currently counties are playing this number of games anyway, i.e., a full league campaign, followed by a provincial championship and then the All-Ireland Series.
All this structure does is put a connection to the existing structure, while perhaps moving the sequence of the games around a bit.
The one caveat behind this system is that potentially a team, from Ulster or Leinster, might have to play as much as 13 games to win an All-Ireland.
This big number can be offset by the fact that if a team has already qualified for the All-Ireland Series through the provincial championship then they could be more ‘adventurous’ in their squad rotation in the subsequent league, before the All-Ireland Series started.
Ultimately, the newly proposed league-based structure was designed as a way of a) guaranteeing that every county got a certain amount of games per year; and b) to ensure that every county played at the grade most suited to them.
This structure ensures both, albeit there will still probably be one-sided games in the provincial championships, but as they are earlier in the year, they do not have to be defining game for counties either.
They would go from losing in their province to playing in a league against pier counties.
One of the great advantages of this dual-qualification structure would be that every single county would also get two separate opportunities to secure passage into the All-Ireland Series proper, so there could be no complaints or hard-luck stories.
The proposers need to brush off the recent defeat of Proposal B and come back stronger in 2022, but this time with a structure that would actually be fit for purpose.