GAA Football

Kicking Out: The Super 8s aren't the problem

Tyrone's dead-rubber with Dublin has led to death-knell calls for the Super 8s - but the structure of the competition isn't the problem here. Picture by Seamus Loughran

GAA strategic plans can be a bluffer’s paradise.

Writing one is easy. Here’s a six-point plan.

1) Think of every conceivable population base that would be angry if you didn’t include them.

2) Talk about their strengths and weaknesses, using only the finest of marketing jargon.

3) Grab a few population statistics.

4) Google a nice, semi-relevant but sufficiently obscure quote.

5) Think up some lofty ambitions. Must include ‘being consistently competitive for All-Ireland titles in both hurling and football within three-to-five years’, regardless of the fact that your county hasn’t been in a final for 100 years.

6) Mix it all together in a sparkly, colour co-ordinated pdf.

A lot of these strategic plans are just words that mean nothing at all. It’s grand to have ambitions, but they have to be realistic.

In order for ambitions to be realised, you have to have a detailed plan as to how you’ll achieve your goals.

Dublin’s famous strategic plan from 2011, The Blue Wave, doesn’t read an awful pile differently from that of any other county.

The difference is in how they planned to go about it. One of the key themes in the document is a simple, but crucial, premise: ‘What gets measured gets done’.

Broken into nine different themes, they set 119 small goals in total. Each tiny goal they set had a very definite timeframe for success.

They won’t have hit all 119 goals, but constantly measuring as they’ve gone alone has been the key to the document’s success.

In January of this year, Cork county board published their five-year plan, titled #2024.

It’s not your ordinary strategic plan. It’s an impressive document, in which the biggest sleeping giant in the GAA identified four key focus areas to help them maximise their potential.

The four pillars were clubs and schools; people; the county; and administration. Within each, they identified supporting pillars, an underpinning theme, what they wanted to change from and what they wanted to change to, and what appointments had to be made to strengthen each area.

Each of the four parts are broken down into much smaller compartments. The ideas are not dissimilar to those put forward by other counties, but there’s a greater depth to the 48-page document in terms exactly what is needed in each area.

By 2024, Cork’s plan might be just empty words on a page. But if the word on Kevin O’Donovan, the man heading it, is right, then they stand a fair chance. He comes at the role from a position of very high regard, both within Cork and beyond.

Their All-Ireland U20 success at the weekend, where they fought back from a nightmare start to completely overwhelm Dublin, is too early in this process to give the #2024 document much credit for it.

But what it was is a sign of the potential Cork have if they get their act together. And if their strategy can be implemented, you’re looking at a possible superpower that can challenge Dublin long-term.

Here’s the point. All we’ve heard for two days is giving out and more giving out about the Super 8s and it all ending on dead-rubbers. How this shouldn’t be the way for the first weekend of August.

In 2017, the average winning margin in an All-Ireland quarter-final was 14.5 points. In 2015, it was 12 points. Even in 2016, it was just short of nine points.

In the two years of the Super 8s, even including Dublin’s dominance and the dead-rubbers in both years, the average winning margin across all the games has been around seven points in both years.

Are the Super 8s perfect? No. Could tweaks be made to improve them? Possibly, though none really stand out.

This time last the whinging was that the provincial champions didn’t get home advantage until the final game. This time it was that they had to play away from home in the final game. They can’t play them all at home.

But the real issue here is that people are looking to blame the structure of the competition for the way that the games have turned out.

There are only five teams that stood any conceivable chance of winning an All-Ireland by the time the Super 8s came around, and they were the same five we knew would stand a chance before the championship began.

In a knockout year, the quarter-finals this year would have been: Donegal v Meath, Kerry v Mayo, Roscommon v Tyrone, Dublin v Cork.

Where among that does the average winning margin come down? Kerry and Mayo would, on most days, be a lot closer than they were in Killarney. The other three games would have been won by Donegal, Tyrone and Dublin, and if anything, playing them in Croke Park would have reduced the sense of occasion and driven the margins up.

Regardless of what they meant and what they looked like, both games played on Sunday were still closer, and by that value more competitive, than what would otherwise have occurred.

The Super 8s has given us more in the last two years than the old system was giving us previously.

We’ve had Castlebar on Saturday, Ballybofey for the visit of Tyrone last summer, the bubbling cauldron of Hyde Park that Tyrone stepped into earlier this summer, the classic between Donegal and Kerry, Meath having a proper cut in MacCumhaill Park.

In the three years previous, there were just three properly competitive quarter-final ties – Roscommon’s draw with Mayo in 2017, Mayo’s one-point win over Tyrone the year previous, and Tyrone’s four-point victory over Monaghan in 2015.

The competition structure isn’t the problem here. In fact, while it isn’t flawless, this year’s will unquestionably have helped Meath, Cork and Roscommon in their quest to bridge the gap somewhere down the line.

Only a knockout system that possibly pits them together would have stopped four out of the top five reaching the All-Ireland semi-finals, but all that would leave you with a weak semi-final, if not a weak final.

The only thing that will make the All-Ireland quarter-finals competitive again is when half-a-dozen more counties get a proper strategy in place to narrow the gap.

There are no quick fixes to the lack of competitiveness at the top end of the championship.

Discarding a Super 8s structure that has given more than it’s taken away would be a rash, and foolish, move.

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