The GAA need to get real about tiered Championship talk
ON June 14, hosts Russia will take on Saudi Arabia in the opening game of the 2018 World Cup finals.
The following day there are three group games: Egypt versus Uruguay, Morocco versus Iran and Portugal versus Spain.
The World Cup remains one of the greatest sporting events on earth.
Like millions of other nerds, I will SkyPlus anything that moves between June 14 and July 15.
I will watch Morocco versus Iran and enjoy how Group B unfolds.
It is safe to say that Morocco and Iran have absolutely no chance of winning the World Cup.
With Spain and Portugal to come, they will do well to get beyond the group stages.
If this was the GAA, there would be cries to split the World Cup into two groups of 16.
Create an ‘A’ Championship and a ‘B’ Championship.
You see, the GAA has an obsession with separating the wheat from the chaff.
Supporters of a tiered Championship like to simplify things: teams that have no chance of winning the competition shouldn’t in the competition.
If the same logic was applied to the World Cup finals Morocco and Iran would be playing in the ‘B’ Championship.
Imagine Fifa trying to sell a ‘B’ Championship to big TV companies across the globe.
No-one would bother to tune in to watch this Group B clash – that’s if the TV companies bothered to show ‘B’ Championship games.
And if you happened to be in Saint Petersburg you could pay at the gate to watch Morocco and Iran - and lift the kids over the turnstiles.
The fact that Morocco and Iran are part of this summer’s 32-team World Cup finals makes them relevant.
Football fans will tune in and enjoy discovering new players among teams they would otherwise never watch.
New GAA President John Horan wants to see a tiered Championship by the end of his three-year tenure.
It’s an integral part of his Presidential ticket.
Let’s be honest, you can’t campaign for the status quo.
You need to campaign for change.
Change is good.
Don’t tweak around the edges.
Whatever you do make some noise.
The best atmosphere for a Championship match that I covered last summer was an All-Ireland Qualifier between Westmeath and Armagh.
It was a baking hot Saturday evening in Mullingar.
Cusack Park was jammed.
The game itself was by no means a classic – but it was feisty and not short of drama.
Westmeath, agonisingly, kicked themselves out of it and Armagh grabbed a precious stoppage-time victory to advance.
Now, imagine if Westmeath and Armagh had been competing in a ‘B’ Championship match in Cusack Park last July.
For starters, there wouldn’t have been 5,000 at the game. You might have got 1,000 supporters. Westmeath crashed and burned that night.
Armagh journeyed deep into the Qualifiers before losing heavily to Tyrone in the All-Ireland quarter-finals.
Armagh are better for the experience. They will feel Gaelic football’s glass ceiling can be penetrated.
A tiered Championship makes the glass ceiling shatter-proof.
If and when a tiered Championship is approved, that’s when the de-investment process starts.
That’s when you start chipping away at the prestige of development squads.
That’s when you start down-sizing backroom teams.
That’s when you replace a nutritionist with a nutrition print-out straight off the internet.
That’s when you start borrowing strength and conditioning programmes rather than employing a strength and conditioning coach.
That’s when gym memberships begin to lapse.
That’s when the video analysis guy disappears.
That’s when overnight hotel stays become unaffordable luxuries.
That’s when fundraising becomes tougher and corporate people don’t return your calls.
A ‘B’ Championship is when county boards make “efficiency savings”.
That’s when playing for your county is no longer aspirational.
A ‘B’ Championship is when standards inevitably drop and you lose players to other codes.
Just because Morocco have no chance of winning the World Cup and the same with Carlow in the Sam Maguire shouldn’t preclude them from competing.
You cannot underestimate just how much the lower-ranked teams enrich premier competitions.
The winner’s narrative is not always the dominant or the most significant one.
Carlow’s story was one of the most glowing elements of the 2017 All-Ireland Championship.
I recall Longford’s famous All-Ireland Qualifier win over Monaghan a couple of summers ago in Clones.
It didn’t matter that Longford crashed and burned a week later to Cork.
The All-Ireland Championship is about perfect days.
Ask Denis Connerton when he retires what his best moment in football management was and he’ll tell you the Saturday evening his Longford side toppled Monaghan.
I remember Damian Barton and Tony Scullion embracing on the lush green turf of Breffni Park after their Derry side beat Cavan.
Like Longford, Derry crashed and burned a week later to Tipperary.
But the Derry footballers created a perfect day.
Sligo have had some great days. Roscommon too. Tipp. Antrim reached an Ulster final in ’09 and pushed Kerry all the way in Tullamore a week later.
All kinds of different narratives combine to give texture to the Championship.
Jim Gavin’s Dublin look unbeatable and are probably the best team to ever play Gaelic football.
But how many times have we been enthralled by them? How can we be enthralled by a runaway train?
Leinster will come and go this summer without our hearts skipping a beat.
If some GAA people believe the Championship is a dysfunctional entity, then so is the World Cup finals.
So is Wimbledon. So is the FA Cup. So is the Grand National. So is every major competition.
The only opinion that stands up to serious scrutiny on the issue is Sligo’s Neil Ewing.
While most people regard the Allianz National Leagues as a utopia, Ewing says that’s exactly where the problem lies.
“It’s very disappointing for ourselves when you only play a Division One team once a year in the Championship,” Ewing said.
“You learn loads of lessons but you’ve to wait 12 months…”
Ewing argues that the lower ranked teams need to be exposed to better sides during the League in order to raise Championship standards.
“I think since the Division One to Division Four came in there’s a situation that has developed that the best five or six teams are constantly Division One and they’re constantly playing against each other and they’re making each other better, whereas the weaker teams are constantly playing each other and they’re probably finding a level that’s below themselves.
“We’re in real danger of killing what makes the GAA special which is Championship football. The GAA is an amateur organisation in a very small country. We’re about participation – it’s not about an elite and developing the best teams in the country.”