Peter Makem: GAA's major problems stem from provincial system – time for senior and junior inter-county Championships to replace League

Tyrone celebrate their Ulster SFC triumph last July - but Peter Makem argues the provincial system hampers Ulster teams.
Picture by Seamus Loughran
Peter Makem

Former Armagh senior football manager Peter Makem argues that all the GAA's major problems stem from the provincial system, which restrict reforms - and proposes Senior and Junior inter-county Championships with round robin stages replacing the National League...

IMAGINE a visitor to Ireland in the ninth century requesting a meeting with the ruling monarch or whatever authority was in charge of the country.

The visitor would be told that there was actually nobody in overall charge, but there were four or five major kings or chieftains at any given time who largely controlled the provinces. He would have to meet them all individually and put their case - with the warning that they were often on a war footing with each other.

He might have left wondering about Ireland's vulnerability to invasion and occupation with no strong, central executive kingship to command a national army and unite the island under his total authority.

He might in fact have warned of the probability of 800 years of foreign occupation because of this critical weakness and that it was only a matter of time before some local chieftain went over to Britain for help to combat some other local chieftain.

It is hardly strange that the inheritance of provincial and local control, strongly present in the Irish psyche, passed on directly to the GAA and grew ever stronger throughout the last century to the extent that a central authority would always be compromised by this very rooted order of things.

But in the development of this provincial system there were also practicalities at stake such as close access to all the counties involved, guaranteed big championship gates through local rivalry, a natural source of revenue, the development of playing facilities , promotion of cultural events and became a comprehensive and successful unit in all these respects.

But from the beginning this was achieved within a mystical sense of things, that the GAA is "more than a game," is a national cause, an assertion of destiny, of a special inheritance that cannot be defiled. This naturally led to the untouchable mix of successful turnstiles and mystical sense of duty.

Yet while the provinces continue to do great work at many levels in promoting the Association in their area in various developments, this traditional arrangement has resulted in serious and ever-deepening conflict, to the extent that all the major problems confronting the GAA stem from the running of the inter-county championship from the provincial base.

It is not merely the natural inequality regarding the number of counties - Leinster 12, Ulster 9, Munster 6, and Connacht 5 - or the inbuilt privileges enjoyed by Kerry (36 All-Irelands) and Dublin (25 All-Irelands), the former a lone footballing county in a largely hurling province, the latter with the pick of a vast city and home advantage.

It is that no meaningful reform is possible to give equality of opportunity to every county in accordance with their resources in both football and hurling, or create a clear-cut season for county competition and for club competition.

The running of the championships through this provincial system destroys the possibility of all necessary reform, of equality of opportunity, and literally cuts off over half of the counties in both football and hurling from ever winning the only major competition available to them.

All attempts at fixtures reform such as the Qualifers are necessarily built on top of the provincial system and so merely add confusion to the scene and enhance the position of the already privileged.

Even such apparent facts that Leinster football is now Dublin and a wasteland, Leinster hurling is now Kilkenny and a wasteland, do not remotely stir things.

In fact no meaningful discussion in this regard is possible because it must confront the impenetrable presence of the provincial councils.

For example some weeks ago in the Irish News Cahair O'Kane outlined the sheer inequality affecting Ulster teams in GAA Director-General Paraic Duffy's new proposals.

O'Kane pointed out the reality that an Ulster team could have four games to win their provincial championship and three more games in the proposed new round robin system. But the Munster champions could emerge just having played two games in their provincial competition.

Duffy's response was that such was simply "an unchangeable fact." What makes it unchangeable of course is the imposition of the provincial system as the immovable obstacle to any reform.

But there is no way that such an intelligent man and capable administrator would in conventional circumstances propose what he did or make such support for such a system.

The fact is that he, the number one GAA official, is the number one victim of the controlling provincial system, because all proposals must be built on top of this false base, deference must be given, and so the changes will naturally mitigate even further against Ulster teams and against the naturally weaker counties.

Caught in this impasse, Paraic responded with the following statement: "Critical commentary on the championship structure seems oddly preoccupied with achieving an ideal that ignores the unalterable reality of difference in population size, number of clubs, financial resources etc, the factors that determine a county's potential to achieve success.

"So in the interest of the real rather than the ideal, it is thoroughly unrealistic to believe that every county has an equal chance to win the Sam Maguire, or that all counties can be brought to the stage of absolute equality of potential."

But say for a moment that the championship was withdrawn from the provincial system, Paraic would have approached the problem in a totally different manner as follows:

"Thankfully, these differences in resources have found their natural, logical ideal in the manner in which clubs within a given county are streamed into Senior and Junior, sometimes Intermediate as well.

"There, the Junior championship in a county provides the ultimate test for its players, the fulfilment of their genuine potential, the pursuit of their ultimate ambition, the winning of their own 'Sam Maguire'.

"And let it be noted that these finals are played at the official county grounds with the same pomp, pageantry and status as given the seniors, the equally triumphant journey home, and with the achievement later entered into song and saga for posterity.

"Look at the colleges scene. There is the MacRory cup and MacLarnon cup. The answer is clear to me, as General Secretary of the Association, the truth has landed on my desk.

"Instead of the four provinces as the base of the championship with every county thrown into the same senior pot, there are in fact two natural blocks in football, that is, 16 counties who have the resources to win the Senior Sam Maguire cup and 16 counties whose resources can only be fully activated in the Junior Sam Maguire.

Instead of the Four Green Fields we now have the two Noble Ranks. After a century and a half, equality of opportunity is finally enshrined in our system for both football and hurling in inter-county competition."

One of the most cynical episodes in recent times was the assertion, widely promoted, that the smaller counties don't want to be relegated to a B championship named after some personality as the only alternative to their plight.

This was merely giving them a choice of two humiliations, that is, do they want their annual first round hammerings to go on as usual, or do they want to be formally humiliated by confinement to a B championship and fitted into wherever the GAA calendar can find some space?

Which do they prefer, the current annual firing squad system in first round or the gallows of a B event? Why has it never occurred to the authorities that the club system within counties provides the perfect model, the All Ireland Junior Sam Maguire with the same Croke Park All-Ireland final pageantry, meeting the president, the post-match banquet, full media focus, Spillane, Brolly and co in excited flow, the Junior All Stars and so on?

This has probably occurred to many, but quickly been dropped when confronted with the glare of the Four Sentries (provincial secretaries) at the gates of the Association.

From the start of the McKenna Cup, through the National League, to the end of the championship there are six to eight months of continuous concentration on inter-county football.

County football teams are more and more becoming separate entities and breaking away from the old regime into 'super clubs' where most of the concentration is focused.

The traditional clubs are almost becoming a nuisance when looking for their own players which the county set-up have taken over.

This is happening because of the ongoing hands-off policy of the GAA that allows things to drift in this regard and find their own level.

There are two options available at this particular cross-roads. The first is to let things drift as they are with counties becoming ever more exclusive entities and the conventional club competitions moving parallel to this without their county stars but with some kind of compensation. This of course will cause serious problems for the traditional club integrity and serious reaction.

The second option is the more natural and reasonable and asks the obvious question - is the National League as it stands necessary at all? Or is a new order of an extended championship occupying a specific county season not what is required?

There are many myths about the League, especially when people speak of divisional status. But the league does not confer any genuine status.

It is merely the identification of a much wider dynamic, that is, that there are two natural blocks of footballing counties, those that have the resources to challenge for the Sam Maguire and whose natural habit from year to year is Division One and Division Two, and they drift between one to the other.

Divisions Three and Four is the natural residence of those 16 counties who do not have the resources to compete with the other bloc.

If counties like Armagh or Down, which have the resources to compete for highest honours, find themselves in Division Three, it is because these resources are going through a lull.

The league is very much a secondary competition, almost a series of glorified challenge games, where the natural residual resources of the various counties keeps them where they are without much effort.

If 100 sporting experts from the various countries of the world were asked to sort out the entire GAA fixture problem, each one of them would present the same conclusion and a joint statement would read as follows:

"The inter-county championships must be removed from the Provincial Councils. In Gaelic football, there are two natural blocks, a Senior and a Junior, both of 16 teams.

"By sheer coincidence, there are also two natural divisions in the senior block, one of eight teams from the Munster/ Connacht region and the same from the North/East region of Ulster and Leinster.

"But there is no such natural division in the Junior championship and this would have to be created. This makes four actual groups, two in the senior and two the junior.

"The National Leagues are abolished, but the league system is brought into the championship because the old early knock-out system in the major competition – unknown in any other team sport in the world - debilitates the natural development of a team's potential.

"In the Senior for example, each of the South-West teams would play each other over three to four months, with the top teams qualifying for the All-Ireland knock-out stages, and the same in the Ulster/Leinster eight.

"The Junior championship follows the same pattern for the All Ireland Junior Sam Maguire to be played at Croke Park with the exact same focus, dignity, and pageantry as the senior.

"In Hurling there are only 10 teams who have a chance of the Liam MacCarthy Cup and so a similar junior and probably intermediate structure is required, leading to knock-out stages.

"It is up to the GAA to place the inter-county and the club scenes appropriately within the year, with a specific county and a specific club season. That's the totality of our findings and again we are 100% unanimous in our presentation."

But this on its own will not shift the GAA. There is one and only one factor that can unnerve the Association out of its more-than-a-century-old rigidity and impassiveness, and it's a job for the GPA, who seem to be open to a new role.

There is no other meaningful agenda for them but to get to the core problem of the GAA. They must persuade the officials of the all those counties who can find their true fulfilment only in a Junior championship to simply withdraw from their annual humiliation of the current system.

They will have to overcome an initial ingrained loyalty to the old regime, but must convince them that they are only being loyal to their own humiliation, that year after year the GAA authorities take the money at the gates and turn their backs on them, leaving them once again crushed.

The only loyalty these counties should have is to their own players and members, and this demands a competition that challenges their potential in a meaningful way, not an annual slaughtering match.

If they are banned or punished in some manner as a result are they any worse off? Have they not more dignity to be out of the scene completely?

Have the GAA authorities shown genuine respect for them over the past 100-plus years in this regard?

The GPA have to tell them that they must withdraw in the name of the founders of the Association, whose ambition was that Gaelic games were for the fulfilment of all the counties and all the clubs and not those born into privilege.

Again, there is no other agenda available to the GPA and one that will give genuine meaning to their existence.

It will also free up fresh possibilities for the newly founded Club Players Association.

* This GAA mind-set seems to afflict all attempts to make needed changes where logic and reason are somehow drawn away, as if governed by instinctive fears of touching anything that goes too deeply into the nerves of things, that only something tame is available.

Every so often the Association responds to public discontent regarding aspects of the rules but when special committees are set up they invariably present the craziest of conclusions.

For example, the deliberate pulling down of opponents to prevent a certain goal or disrupt a dangerous build up resulted in the 'black card' solution.

But this had scant effect on the problem because an attacking forward going through for an almost certain goal can be pulled down by a defender, a free kick awarded, a point conceded instead of a goal, and the guilty team are further awarded with a pair of fresh legs.



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