GAA Football

Hitting The Target: GAA Task Force's Championship options are strangely unappealing

Connacht champions Roscommon and Ulster Finalists Cavan wouldn't have been in with a chance of All-Ireland SFC quarter-finals under one strange proposal from the Fixtures Task Force.
Pic Philip Walsh

‘Offer me solutions, offer me alternatives and I decline’…

OK, to say ‘It’s the end of the world as we know it’ about the latest set of proposals for revamping the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship would be stretching matters too far.

However, it does seem GAA leaders are pretending to offer viable options for change.

How do you persuade people to stick with the status quo, even if they don’t really like it?

Make them believe that any alternative is worse.

That seems to be the intention, or at least the effect, of the report from the GAA’s Fixture Calendar Review Task Force (FCRTF).

Basically it offers two options (as well as the current ‘trial’ structures):

The first is to create eight-team provincial championships, rather than the existing unwieldy, imbalanced numbers of six (Munster), seven (Connacht), nine (Ulster), and 11 (Leinster);

The second envisages a ‘League Championship’, with the current National League format taking place later into the year and leading into knock-out All-Ireland quarter-finals.

This column approves of the first suggestion.

It’s pretty obvious that the GAA should be able to make the most of being a 32-county organisation in terms of running competitions.

It’s the perfect number for four groups of eight, or eight groups of four, leading into a knockout round of 16.

Yet the entirely sensible idea from the Football Review Committee earlier this decade to bump some counties from Leinster and Ulster into Connacht and Munster was rejected.

And those moves across provincial boundaries were to take place AFTER those teams had been knocked out of their own provincial championship.

So it doesn’t seem likely that the regularly ‘weaker’ counties which will most probably have to switch will vote for this system, given that they won’t even get playing in Leinster or Ulster first.

A ‘League Championship’ is something HTT has long approved of, at the very least by linking league positions to seedings for Championship draws.

The proposed ‘National League Format for Championship’, though, is bizarre.

If approved, it would lead to conversations such as the following with Division Two managers:

REPORTER: ‘What are your aims for the season?’

MANAGER: ‘Well, obviously we’d like to avoid relegation, and we’ll be setting our sights on the second two.’

R: ‘Pardon? Do you mean ‘the top two’? Or ‘second’ spot?

M: ‘No, the second two. We don’t want to get promoted, because that’ll just mean us getting relegated next year, or at best finishing in the bottom half of Division One – either way that would guarantee us missing out on the knock-out stages.

‘But if we finished third or fourth we’ll only have to beat a team from Division Three or Four to reach the quarter-finals, and we’ll get another go at that next year. Then, to save you asking again next year, our aim will be to finish in the second two….’

How did the brains trust on this Task Force come up with this sequence of numbers?:

1, 2, 3, 4, 9, 10, 11, 12, 17 - and 25.

Those will be the overall finishing positions in the League section of the 10 teams able to be involved in the All-Ireland SFC quarter-finals.

The first six (the top four from Division One and the top two from Division Two) would go straight into the last eight, to be joined by winners from qualifier games between the third and fourth teams from Division Two and the winners of Divisions Three and Four.

That’s right.

‘Team by team, reporters baffled, trumped, tethered, cropped.’

Forget the ‘Super Eights’, roll up, roll up for the ‘Top Four, Top Four from Division Two, and the table-toppers from Divisions Three and Four’. It’ll be top, top stuff.

The FCRTF report acknowledges the unfairness of the proposal: ‘It could be argued that this option is too rewarding to teams in Division 2, 3 and 4 and harsh on teams that finish in the bottom half of division 1.’

Ya think?!

It’s worse than that.

The majority of counties would not be involved in any knockout football, certainly not in the All-Ireland Championship proper.

To be clear, absent from the mix, would be the teams in the bottom halves of Divisions One and Two, and all the teams which fail to win Divisions Three and Four.

That’s 22 teams. Out of 32.

Is ruling close to 70 per cent of the teams out of a Championship really a proposal expected to be supported by a majority?

Sure, ‘some’ teams from Divisions Three and Four would go into a Tier 2 knockout competition – but there’d be no more action for any of the counties which finish in the bottom half of Division One.

So it’s better to finish 20th, possibly 30th, than fifth?

Off the top of my head here’s a better, fairer sequence of finishing positions, ensuring progress from the League to the Championship:

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 17, 18, 19, 25, 26.

That’s 16 teams, comprising the top six from Division One, the top five from Division Two, the top three from Division Three, and the top two from Division Four.

Clearly there should be some form of seeding involved in any draw.

With half the counties involved in the Championship proper, that’s a format more likely to attract support.

Put the other 16 into a Tier Two competition (one that isn’t demeaning and demeaned by only involved teams from Divisions Three and Four) and this might get even more backing.

After all, most of the contributors and respondents surveyed by the FCRTF (almost three-quarters of them) want a second tier football championship: 55 per cent deemed that ‘very important’ and 28 per cent ‘somewhat important’. Only eight per cent said it was ‘not important at all’ and nine per cent ‘not that important’.

In contrast, the FCRTF proposal smacks of turkeys and Christmas.

Did anyone suggest ‘half of the top eight teams should be kept out of the All-Ireland quarter-finals’?

The FRCTF report seems in keeping with much of what has occurred ahead of tomorrow’s British general election – and harks back to the line from that R.E.M. song which precedes the intro to this column:

‘A tournament, a tournament, a tournament of lies’.

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