REFORM. Fairness. Meaningful.
Those words cropped up time and time again as the circus around the latest GAA Special Congress came and went.
The question: how to solve the inherent problems within the inter-county football structure – specifically how to make the system more equitable in a world where 20 per cent of the population lives in one county, equating to the smallest sixteen counties combined from the thirty-two.
One of the by-products of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a throwback to yesteryear, a straightforward All-Ireland Football Championship won by the last county standing – you lose, you’re out.
In some ways it’s been brilliant, classic win or bust ties, surprises in Cavan and Tipperary winning provincial titles last year; yet it doesn’t mask two fundamental issues: one, that cup competitions are heavily influenced by the draw and two, that it’s just too fiscally dangerous for the GAA against a backdrop of broadcasting income and gate receipts.
Not that it’s likely in Leinster right now but imagine a pure knock-out competition where Dublin lose their first game, that means a serious dent to the Croke Park balance sheet for the rest of the season.
Besides, the current format was only a temporary one given the pandemic.
A little over a week ago, Congress rejected the latest pitch to revamp the All-Ireland Football Championship.
An initial proposal to shuffle the pack and make four provinces of eight counties was unanimously rejected, while the much vaunted ‘Plan B’ was narrowly favoured but did not carry the 60 per cent majority needed to pass.
That would have seen the National League format brought into the summer, where counties play others at their level and feed into knock-out games while the provincial competitions replace the National League earlier in the year.
While there was some consensus that things were heading in the right direction, ultimately Congress determined it wasn’t good enough to adopt.
In the end, Congress resolved to return the All-Ireland back to its pre-2018 format with the backdoor system and the removal of the controversial Super 8s.
So what now? GAA President Larry McCarthy has spoken of a ‘tweak’ to get Plan B over the line via the Fixtures Review Committee.
The GPA have voiced their support for Plan B, indeed for any change that gives players more meaningful game time during the key summer period.
Ultimately though, the importance of the Ulster Championship and nervousness in swing counties is proving problematic.
And therein lies the problem, trying to get something tangible passed through Congress is not so much about how many are in favour as it is about how many are prepared to stand in its way, whether that’s for parochial reasons or otherwise.
What’s a given is that for too many inter-county players, there’s big decisions to make at the start of each season as to whether or not the commitment will be worth it come season’s end.
How hard a decision is that for players in smaller counties, particularly if other opportunities come knocking on the door. Take for example Ultan Kelm who has signed a professional contract in Aussie Rules for the Fremantle Dockers, after playing three seasons at senior level for Fermanagh losing all three Ulster Championship matches and one qualifier against Monaghan.
How hard is it for players from Antrim, Leitrim or Waterford who combined have won just six out of twenty-nine games in the last five seasons?
The challenge facing the GAA here is finding a happy medium, something revolutionary is unrealistic given the disparity in interests across the football landscape.
From the view of pure competition the National League is arguably superior to the All-Ireland but it will never carry anywhere near as much prestige.
Whatever is introduced, all counties must get meaningful games each season and all counties must retain the right to win the Sam Maguire – that’s not to say they will win it, but nobody should be denied the possibility to win it.
Between pre-season and National League, a county will play roughly a minimum of ten matches before their championship campaigns begin.
If the goal of a better footballing calendar is giving players more meaningful matches to justify the huge commitment, then the focus should be less on the championship and more on what comes before it – especially if counties view the National League as a warmup to the championship anyway.
Get the early season right, then turn to the summer programme.
For example, if the All-Ireland was framed as four groups of eight counties, with the top two progressing to quarter-finals, each team would get seven championship matches as a minimum – yet instead of following the current National League format, why not have groups determined by performance in stand-alone Provincial Championships earlier in the season – after all, what is a Provincial Championship but a determiner of ranking for the Sam Maguire?
In that scenario each Provincial Championship keeps its prestige, all counties get a chance to face teams right across the spectrum and most importantly all counties get meaningful matches guaranteed.
Whatever gets proposed, to someone it won’t be perfect.
However, after the last Congress, if football is to ever improve than it simply must stop standing in its own way and embrace change. If that means a happy medium, so be it.