Peter Makem: GAA's Football Championship needs a fair two-tiered format
WITH the inter-county Championships immiment, former Armagh manager Peter Makem again offers a blueprint for a better, equitable football format
THIRTY years ago, in May 1989, I wrote a widely-published article detailing proposals for an inter-county senior football championship with a proper tiered system.
Something very similar to what I proposed was largely taken up in last year's hurling championship, but the most pressing issue in Gaelic football was taken off the agenda for the recent Congress.
At least until the mooted Special Congress this autumn, the open wound of the ongoing championship system remains.
The recent column by Danny Hughes in The Irish News on the subject was well-written, but I disagree with him on two basic points.
The first is the retention of the provincial championship as an immovable structure in any new dynamic, and the second is the notion that a tiered championship somehow takes away from the integrity of the weaker counties.
The logic of this latter is that we do away with junior and intermediate championships within counties as they only pit "the weak against the weak" and lack "all-round inclusivity."
The reality is the opposite - that the tiered system in club football within counties gives genuine equality of opportunity and scope for ultimate development within the natural resources of smaller clubs.
Junior championship achievements provide the exact acclaim and sense of achievement as that of senior clubs.
The tiered club system within counties is the great success story of common sense and equality of opportunity. The very use of the awful term 'B' Championship does not come into it.
So why is it such an obstacle at inter-county level? A major part of the answer, which dramatically applies to football and which Danny Hughes refers to, is the traditional power base of the provinces.
This is a reflection of Irish history, strong provinces and clans and a weak or non-existent centre - hence the ease of the 800 years conquest. This has always compromised aspirations to an authentic central control and so sustained a provincial based/ knock-out system which has led to inbuilt inequality of opportunity in inter-county football.
In many ways, the GAA grew in isolation from other team sports, as if cut off from mainstream things, and evolved in a very different way regarding competition.
Unlike all other team sports where the champions are the winners of a league system, Gaelic games uniquely adapted a knock-out system for the championship, and as the major source of funding.
But behind all the traditional assertions that "you can't beat championship football" lay an awkward truth that 16 teams were dismissed after a single championship game, that all their preparations counted for nothing.
Again, the players, the bread-earners of the game, always came last in the sequence of importance, as they largely still do, subservient to wider aspirations that the very playing of the game is a privilege, a cause, a belonging. Players are still taken for granted well into the third century of the Association
But. as asserted 30 years ago, the most important factor in any team sport is an authentic championship that gives equality of opportunity to all in accordance with their natural resources. This has never happened in inter-county championship football.
As things stand, the GAA inter-county football championship system is simply the most convoluted, most awful in all team sports. Nearly everybody now knows that, but they are not sure how to get out of the mess without disrupting the revenue base and without disturbing the ever-wary provincial councils in this respect.
The football championship as it now stands is a compromise between three forces, an extremely awkward attempt to please three masters.
First, there is the traditional controlling provincial system; second, the demand of the counties for more games instead of the old knock-out system - hence the qualifiers; and thirdly, the Super Eights, brought in largely as an extra fundraiser.
But this has all led to the reality that at present there is now only the Super One, the Gallant Seven, and the Forgotten Twenty-Four.
All those years ago I proposed a straight move from the knock- out provincial system to a two-tier All-Ireland championship structure with the play-offs at the end. It appealed to logic, to equality of opportunity, and above all, to pure common sense.
However, as I expected, the general response was largely negative, realising the old saying that the insight of individuals cannot make itself felt so long as the spirit of the age is not ripe to receive it.
But the development in the hurling championship can be transferred to the football championships on the very same principles. Hurling combined the provinces of Leinster and Connacht to form a single league format as a parallel force to Munster's five strong counties.
Regarding football, there are not enough teams with genuine 'Sam Maguire' potential in any single province to form a proper round robin league structure as in hurling.
The Munster football championship is largely an annual fixture between Kerry and Cork. In recent times in Leinster there is only Dublin and a wasteland, Connacht has the ever-changing three (Galway, Mayo, and Roscommon). In Ulster the power changes a lot in a much more intense championship structure.
Kerry are a lone footballing county in a hurling province, Dublin have home advantage and the pick of a vast city, so it is no wonder that between them they have half of all the All Irelands won from their positions of privilege There is no genuine equality of opportunity.
So what can give Gaelic football a single, authentic, streamlined inter-county senior competition that absorbs all the present competitions including the National League and traditional provincial competition in a season from early March until the end of June, before play-offs, and leave the second half of the year for an equally authentic club season?
As presented back in 1989, there is only scope for a genuine championship structure through the joining up of provinces to form two entities, namely Munster /Connacht and Leinster /Ulster. In any given year, there are eight counties from each of these entities with genuine 'Sam Maguire' capability or genuine opportunity for serious development because of natural unused resources.
Munster/Connacht presents Cork, Kerry, Tipperary, Galway, Mayo, and Roscommon along with Clare and Sligo for one round robin league.
In the other league there are Dublin, Meath, Kildare, Monaghan, Tyrone and Donegal, perhaps Laois - and one other Ulster county, depending on how they do in the coming year.
In the proposed system, these teams play each other home and away, 14 games, with the top four from both leagues playing off in the All-Ireland quarter finals. This proposal also keeps a strong measure of old provincial rivalries fully alive.
The notion of a 'B' championship for the other counties is eliminated as being derogatory and demeaning as distinct from the notion of the All-Ireland Junior Sam Maguire championship.
The very term 'B' represents notions of second-rate, inadequate, surplus to requirement, unimportant, unwanted, ignoble, nuisance, and so on. Nor does the naming of a new cup after some famous player elevate things. Anything other than the name of Sam Maguire diminishes.
This competition would involves North and South leagues to keep a measure of old provincial and neighbourly rivalries intact and played under the same principles with quarter-final play-offs, leading to an All-Ireland final in Croke Park with a system of annual relegation and promotion.
As things stand regarding the North Junior League at present, eight counties are involved depending on current competitive status from Antrim, Derry, Louth, Cavan, Leitrim, Fermanagh, Westmeath, Down, and Armagh. In the South League there would be Longford, Offaly, Carlow, Wicklow, Kilkenny, Wexford, Waterford, and Limerick.
All other traditional under-age competitions must be built around this central inter-county programme as it represents by far the major earner for the Association.
The other major factor is that the new proposal gives all teams the opportunity to develop to their full potential. At present there is a strong fatalism running through many counties as to why they should bother at all as there is only humiliation ahead, and that proposals for under-age development and so on will simply run into a dead end.
For many of the teams, the championship as it stands remains a fake enterprise. Take even a great championship tradition such as that of Meath. It is not that they haven't the potential to reach the heights of Dublin, but that there is no scope in the current championship structure to develop their potential to this level.
However, after a full season of serious championship football as proposed, another Meath side would be seriously challenging the old enemy for supremacy.
The biggest fear of GAA officials is that revenue may suffer from any new system. This is understandable. But surely this has to be balanced with a system that gives equality of opportunity to the actual creators of the GAA income, the players and where the sheer amount of competitive games should form an equally strong financial base to that which exists at present, and which is actually declining.
While the National Football League as a rule represents an authentic system that matches teams according to their natural resources, it is not given any genuine status, is very much secondary, a series of glorified challenge matches, and teams do not prepare for it as they do for the Championship.
And the Championship, the major competition brings the ultimate irony to the scene with the madness of such as Wicklow v Dublin, Antrim v Tyrone, Waterford v Kerry, and so on.
But there is another, rather invisible factor to be overcome, a certain mystique regarding the dangers of change that defines logic and common sense.
From time to time I bring up some of these matters to the attention of GAA people I have known over the years, intelligent, successful, and articulate people. But when I mention such change they often quiet, as if something very deep has been disturbed, an abode where questions evaporate, from where no responses come. I was obviously dealing with GAA profundities too deep for common sense, the disruption of an intimate, cherished, untouchable.
I got a similar sense of things recently when some managers of small counties with limited resources suggested that they would rather take on Dublin in the championship than enter some secondary championship. Part of this is understandable if this presented as a 'B' event.
But it also projects a willingness to accept some sense of a noble and glorious humiliation rather than venture away from the intensity of tradition.
Such is still ingrained in many that for example the romance of an Ulster final in Clones will still attract the crowds even though supporters realise it would be better that their team lost and went the back door route. There is no doubt an element of the mystical at stake. But the price of this should not be the current system.
The provincial system lives more on nostalgia than reality. Donegal are the Ulster champions - but it was Tyrone who reached the All Ireland final. Cork are the Muster hurling champions, but Limerick are the All Ireland champions. The retaining of Munster and Leinster hurling finals last year -for revenue purposes - was the only flaw in the hurling system.
Surely the GPA should make a decisive move in this overall regard. Is not equality of opportunity the first principle regarding the well-being of Gaelic players, that the bread-earners of the Association, the worker bees, be provided with a system that realises the full potential of their resources?
The stated aim of the GPA is to promote and protect all aspects of player welfare and to provide an independent voice for players. If there is no equality of opportunity in competition, all else loses much of its meaning. because as things stand, the GAA authorities, after 100 years and more, continue to deny the vast majority of the young players of the game access to their full potential.