GAA Football

GAA must give assurances if counties are to buy second tier idea: Harbinson

Antrim manager Lenny Harbinson (left) says the GAA will have to come to counties with a “very precise and clear” plan for a second tier football championship if it is to be accepted. Picture by Seamus Loughran

THE GAA will have to come to counties with a “very precise and clear” plan for a second tier football championship if it is to be accepted, Antrim manager Lenny Harbinson believes.

The former All-Ireland club winning St Gall’s boss, who played in the old Tommy Murphy Cup, has been a long-time supporter of the idea of splitting the All-Ireland SFC.

The winds are certainly changing in terms of the idea of acceptance. A recent GPA survey suggested 60 per cent of players were now in favour of the idea, which was passed for further discussion at last weekend’s Central Council meeting, which contrasts with Division Four counties vetoing the idea in 2016.

But there are natural fears in terms of the prestige and promotion that would be afforded to the second tier competition, based on the non-existent exposure offered to lower tier hurling competitions.

Harbinson says the idea of a cutting the championship in two parts should be followed through with, but that it must be done right if there’s to be buy-in.

“For us [Antrim], let’s be realistic and practical. I’m not being defeatist but we’re not going to win the Ulster Championship or the All-Ireland over the next few years.

“You’re never going to win it playing out of Division Four, or even Division Three. The stats say you have to be in Division One, or at worst case the top end of Division Two, to have any chance of competing in the top eight and getting into semi-finals.

“For teams in Division Three and Four, their primary competition is the league. That’s their realistic competition to try and achieve something, and that will remain the case until the GAA look at a meaningful intermediate championship.

“I know people cite the Tommy Murphy Cup, I played in it. I remember playing Wicklow in Navan on a horrible December day with 200 spectators.

“It was a secondary competition that wasn’t promoted correctly. The ideals might have been correct but if it was promoted properly.

“Players want to play more games and bring the training-to-games ratio away down. They want to play games at the time of year when the weather’s good, and they want to play in front of other big games.

“If you were progressing through the ranks and playing your game before a top 8 game in one of the big stadiums, even Croke Park, at the quarter-final stage and your final was the weekend of the All-Ireland, given a proper second tier Allstars scheme where they play the senior Allstars in an exhibition game in the States or somewhere – all it needs is a wee bit of thought. If it was promoted properly, a lot more counties and players would buy in.

“I work in the business world, and if I go in to a customer with a half-cocked idea without any foresight or implications or pros and cons, they’re going to show me the door.

“The GAA at the minute, you look at the size and the nature of it, it’s very much a business run along those lines.

“In every county in Ireland, they have senior, junior and intermediate, and they’ll produce their fixtures and that gives you a pathway, if you win junior you go into Ulster, and then an All-Ireland.

“What Division Three and Four teams are asking for is that pathway and being very precise and clear about it.”

A motion from Roscommon county board that sought for the GAA to take a ‘blank canvas’ approach to fixtures was turned away by Central Council, something which Harbinson also believes was a mistake.

“With the best will in the world, there has to be some rule where county managers have to release players within 10 days of an important club match.

“The counties are playing certain times of the year but the tail’s wagging the dog because of provincial stuff, which is totally imbalanced.

“If a man came here from Mars, they’d say how come a team in Connacht can play two matches and be in an All-Ireland quarter-final, yet a team in Ulster might have to play four? They keep coming at it from that.

“Maybe what the Roscommon people were saying last week was that you need a blank canvas, there are no sacred cows here and everything has to be on the table.

“If Central Council said to Ulster they could guarantee to cover their annual budget in return for losing their own provincial competition, run a winter competition instead of the McKenna Cup instead, then so be it.

“It needs flexibility, but they’re looking at it and saying ‘here’s Ulster, here’s Connacht, we need to work around these’, instead of just wiping it all to one side and coming at it from a clear perspective and saying there’s nothing sacred, and let’s see how we can create a level playing field across the board for every county and every province.”

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