GAA Football

Hitting The Target: Current tier proposal doesn't solve the imbalance

Antrim will have to beat a Division One side to reach an Ulster semi-final, whereas Sligo don't have to play in Connacht until the last four. Picture by Cliff Donaldson

GEOGRAPHICAL re-alignment is a sensitive subject at the best of times and these, dear readers, are far from that.

In the absence of any will to re-balance the provincial inequities inherent in the current football Championship format, another way to bring in some much-needed fairness would be to link League and Championship.

Not in the clumsy way being proposed for a two-tier Championship at the imminent Special Congress, which would exclude Division Three and Four teams from the main event unless they happened to reach their provincial final.

A better, fairer method would be to re-balance matters from the outset of the All-Ireland Football Championship.

Do that by linking League placings to seedings for the qualifiers.

Everyone knows there are problems with the present format, but a Tier Two championship is not the solution.

As it stands, Sligo are straight through to round two of the All-Ireland series simply because they are fortunate enough to have been placed straight into the Connacht SFC semi-finals.

Similarly, one out of Limerick or Waterford, both Division Four teams, is guaranteed to go straight into round two of the qualifiers, simply because they meet each other for a Munster SFC semi-final place.

In contrast, it’s possible that either Donegal or Tyrone might not even make round two of the qualifiers, if they were to lose their Ulster meeting and then be beaten in a tough match in round one of the qualifiers.

Antrim, Ulster’s only Division Four team at present, are probably expected to regard themselves as lucky that they are in the easier side of the provincial draw. Yet the Saffrons would still have to beat Cavan or Monaghan in order to reach the Ulster last four – and both of those are far harder opponents than either Limerick or Waterford, or no one, as is the case for Sligo.

There’s been a rather strange outpouring of sympathy for Cork because they have to beat Kerry in order to reach the 2020 Munster Final.

There doesn’t seem to have been any recognition that the Rebels, even if they do lose that match, will still be guaranteed a place in round two of the qualifiers, because that first game is a provincial semi-final.

That’s a luxury that more than half the counties don’t enjoy.

No team from Ulster, nor from Leinster, get plonked straight into a provincial semi-final and, at the worst, into round two of the All-Ireland qualifiers. That’s 20 teams in all who are already at a disadvantage compared to Cork (and to Kerry and Sligo).

Another aspect of the moaning on behalf of Cork relates to the fact that they’re in Division Three next season and therefore could only get into the proposed new All-Ireland Championship proper if they were to reach the Munster Final; otherwise they would go into the new Tier Two Championship, if it gets passed at the forthcoming Special Congress.

Shrugs.

Nothing against Cork whatsoever, but that’s simply a consequence of them not being good enough in recent seasons.

No county should benefit purely because of who they are or, more accurately, where they are.

If the new Championship format does come to pass, it probably makes sense to go with Tipperary’s motion that Division Three and Four status should relate to how teams perform in the same calendar year as the Championship.

To be clear – if you are relegated into Division Three or Four at the end of the 2020 League then you should be regarded as a Division Three or Four team for the 2020 All-Ireland Championship.

You shouldn’t be allowed to hold on to Division Two status even though you weren’t good enough to stay in it.

Conversely, if you earn promotion from Division Three then you shouldn’t still have to carry that lower label, but should be seen as a Division Two team heading into that summer’s Championship.

Consider Derry’s path to next year’s Ulster SFC Final. First they have to beat Armagh, then they would have to overcome either Donegal (the Ulster champions of the past two seasons) or Tyrone (All-Ireland semi-finalists in the past three campaigns) – both of those are Division One teams next year too.

It’s more likely that the Oak Leafs, under the new management of the astute Rory Gallagher, could earn promotion up to Division Two – and such a feat should bring some extra reward.

Basically, the 16 teams that are sent into round one of the qualifiers should be listed in order of League finish – and the top eight should have some advantage.

Perhaps that should be home advantage (rather than the ridiculous current rule of rewarding teams for failure in the league by granting them a home venue if they are paired with a side from a higher division).

Maybe the eight lower-placed teams should have to play off against each other in order to progress in the qualifiers.

That may smack of ‘Tier Two’, but the major difference would be that they’re still involved directly in the real All-Ireland competition, rather than some lesser event, one which will undoubtedly attract less interest from spectators, sponsors, and television viewers.

There’s a strong case that the four losing semi-finalists from Connacht and Munster should come into the qualifiers at an earlier stage than their counterparts from Leinster and Ulster.

Galway, Mayo, and Roscommon do have to play quarter-finals – but look at who they have to play: New York, Leitrim, and London.

At the very least, some sort of seeding system should apply for the All-Ireland qualifiers, based on league finishes.

Galway, Mayo, and Roscommon are all good teams, and that should be the reason for them having any advantage, rather than the mere fact that they’re from Connacht.

Tweaks to the current format could bring more fairness to the All-Ireland Football Championship without consigning up to half the counties to the sidelines.

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