GAA: Is a championship reform the way forward?

GAA: Is a championship reform the way forward?

IN THE 72nd minute of the drawn Munster final, Cork were one point ahead of Kerry and on the verge of a first win in Killarney in 20 years.

Kerry were pressing hard for the equaliser but they’d ridden their luck all afternoon. Kieran Donaghy was gifted a goal in the first-half while a poor penalty call – which James O’Donoghue converted – altered the momentum of the match in the third quarter when Cork were completely on top.

Kerry got out of jail when Fionn Fitzgerald boomed over the equalising score with almost the last kick. Kerry made no mistake in the replay but Fitzgerald’s late intervention also deprived the championship of the intrigue it lacked all summer.

Defeat would have put Kerry and Dublin on a collision course in an All-Ireland quarter-final. After coasting through Leinster, Dublin might have been more vulnerable then than at any other stage of the summer.

With Mayo and Donegal also on that side of the draw, a Kerry-Dublin quarter-final would have blown the other half of the championship wide open.

That Cork-Kerry game was a brilliant match, one of the best derbies of the last decade. Yet it is largely forgotten about now – along with the potential implications a Cork win would have meant to the summer’s bigger picture – because the 2015 football championship was so disappointing.

There were some very good games but not enough; the first 50 minutes of Donegal-Tyrone produced some brilliant football; the drawn Laois-Kildare match was a really good game; Westmeath finally beating Meath in a championship match was a real highlight; the two Dublin-Mayo games were laced with huge drama; the Kerry-Tyrone All-Ireland semi-final was an excellent match in dire conditions.

Dublin celebrate with the Sam Maguire [Picture: Inpho] Dublin celebrate with the Sam Maguire [Picture: Inpho]
Still, in a championship that included 65 matches, there were only 12 that produced games of sufficient quality and drama. That percentage is nowhere near good enough for the time and effort put into preparation but those numbers mirror the frustration of the current system, and the stagnated and stunted potential of what the championship could be.

The end of the 2015 league campaign is as good a starting point as any to illustrate that frustration. Heading into Round 7, 20 teams had something to play for, between trying to secure promotion or avoid relegation. All eight teams in Division 2 were playing for something. Yet that was effectively the last gala weekend of activity and drama of the season.

What happened next for most of the teams? What was it all really for? For every team in Division 4, and most in Division 3, the league is their most measurable form of progression. It is far more important than the championship because it is a far more accurate barometer.

The qualifiers hold no real appeal for most of those teams anymore. The old novelty, where a team could get a decent draw and embark on a run, is gone.

Thirteen of the 16 teams from Divisions 3 and 4 last season were eliminated before Round 3 of the qualifiers. A lot of counties just limped out of the championship.

Deep down, does it really matter between making the last 24 and the last 16? Doesn’t that kind of apathy in high summer, which is fuelled by a lack of hope more than ambition, run completely counter to the professionalism and commitment required from most county panels?

Another reason the qualifiers have become so flat is, with the exception of Tyrone, the big guns don’t need them anymore. Apart from a handful of teams, the gap between the top three – Dublin, Kerry and Mayo – and the rest is only getting wider.

The modern culture of sports science and defensive systems which made teams harder to beat hasn’t tightened standards and closed the gap. The stronger counties just made the most of those means as well to make themselves better.

Mayo and Donegal are the two standout examples of counties who increased their capacity to compete at the highest level, more through resourcefulness, than resources. Yet both are huge counties, with a big footballing tradition and playing population.

Mayo fans en route to Croke Park for the first meeting with Dublin [Picture: Inpho] Mayo fans en route to Croke Park, a familiar trip [Picture: Inpho]
On the other hand, there is nothing new in this debate. The downtrodden and weak have always been part of the championship. Most elite sport is built on inequality. Players from the weaker counties know the odds but they still sign up for the punishment and hardship.

That is mostly down to the status of being an inter-county player. Players and counties have their own goals. Most of them are achievable; league promotion, a couple of decent championship wins, individual progress and satisfaction.

That is all fine but there is still something seriously wrong with a championship structure when a large proportion of players head to the US as soon as they lose a game in the summer.

Change has to happen and the latest move for reform has come from the GPA’s proposals. Based on their plan, the Leagues are run off quicker and a team's finishing position determines their seeding in one of four pots for the All-Ireland championship.

The provincial championships run as a separate entity to the All-Ireland series and the winners are placed in the top eight seeds regardless of their League positions, demoting the lowest placed seed into the next pot.

The All-Ireland series is divided into eight groups of four, with the group winners given direct passage to the last 16 while the second and third place finishers play a round of knockout games to deliver their eight opponents. Then it is an open draw system from there all the way to the final.

Will it happen? Who knows? What’s certain is that it would provide far more entertainment and unpredictability than what the current system does. Because after Fitzgerald landed that equaliser in Killarney in July, the summer largely played out as it was expected to.