GAA Football

Alarm bells must be ringing among the GAA's top brass: Antrim boss Lenny Harbinson

Antrim manager Lenny Harbinson believes the Championship structures are all wrong Picture Seamus Loughran.

ANTRIM manager Lenny Harbinson says there should be “alarm bells ringing” among the GAA’s top brass over the declining interest in the Football Championship and re-iterated his call for a “meaningful” second tier tournament.

Antrim have lost their first three NFL Division Four games and are virtually out of contention for promotion.

With the prospect of playing four more Division Four games with little incentive before facing into an Ulster Championship clash against Tyrone or Derry, Harbinson believes it’s time to create a second tier to retain the interest of a large percentage of inter-county footballers.

“It is a big challenge right across 70 per cent of the counties in Ireland,” said Harbinson.

“Division Four, Division Three and an element of Division Two are out of contention for the Sam Maguire. That’s the reality of it. When you look at the stats, the history and everything else, the winners come from Division One or a team that has been promoted from Division Two. That’s the landscape.”

“[A tiered Championship] would give a large percentage of inter-county footballers, who are not going to compete in the Sam Maguire, the opportunity to play in a more meaningful competition, and when you get to the quarter-finals and semi-finals, you get TV rights and they’re played before the latter stages of the Sam Maguire.”

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Harbinson added: “You could have a festival of football on All-Ireland final weekend. You could play the second tier final on the Saturday evening and the senior final on the Sunday. That way you have proper recognition of the competitions. You could have an exhibition game between the two winning teams in America. Put incentives in there while at the same time promoting GAA in Australia, Britain and America rather than going down the International Rules hybrid route which is a waste of time.”

While praising the discipline and commitment of the current panel, the Antrim manager says the GAA must be more mindful of losing players to other codes and should create better Championship structures.

“Young people out there are being attracted by world travel and not only that going to America during the summer and earning some money to pay for their university fees and enjoying their football while they are there.

“Then they come back and focus on their club football where they have a chance of winning something. That’s the challenge facing Croke Park and I think it’s an easy enough challenge to address [at inter-county level] where you give a second tier competition the proper status, the proper PR…

“And the winners of the second tier should have the opportunity of a back door into the senior championship, if that’s what they choose to do.

“Paradoxically, every single county in Ireland operates that system of junior, intermediate and senior…

“Counties will tell you: ‘Here are our structures and it has worked for years.’

“But when it’s mentioned at inter-county level, it’s a case of: ‘Hold on a second…’”

Antrim's Kevin Brady lifts the Tommy Murphy Cup - the last second tier championship winning captain - in 2008

GAA President John Horan supports creating a tiered Championship before the end of his three-year tenure while 60 per cent of the GPA’s membership were keen on the idea.

“There is a lot of competition out there from other sports,” added Harbinson.

“We’re in the middle of the Six Nations and every other year you have a major soccer championships. Irish rugby has a world stage; we don’t have that world stage and you’ve got the big following that the English Premiership has, the League of Ireland is run reasonably well [during the summer] so there are big challenges there.

“There is a lot of talk of the high drop-off rates at the age of 20-21 in the GAA. What other sport can sustain that? There has got to be alarm bells ringing there for the GAA.”

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