Replays should replace penalty shoot-outs for the good of everyone: Armagh coach Ciaran McKeever

Orchard County get back on the horse after Ulster final loss

Donegal's Shaun Patton saves a penalty at the end of the Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Final between Armagh and Donegal at St Tiernach's  Park, Clones. Picture by Philip Walsh
Donegal's Shaun Patton saves a penalty at the end of the Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Final between Armagh and Donegal at St Tiernach's Park, Clones. Picture by Philip Walsh

ARMAGH coach Ciaran McKeever has added his voice to the growing number of people who want the GAA to re-think the split season in its current guise – and says space must be found for provincial final replays through to the knock-out stages of the All-Ireland series.

The Orchard County have suffered four penalty shoot-out defeats across the last three seasons – a scenario directly brought about by the condensed nature of the inter-county season.

Kieran McGeeney’s side have lost back-to-back Ulster finals on penalties as well as two All-Ireland quarter-finals – to Galway (2022) and Monaghan (2023).

McKeever knows that his call may be interpreted as sour grapes from an Armagh perspective - but he has urged the GAA to pull back the lens for its own good and review what’s working and what’s not with regards to the GAA calendar.

The now-disbanded Club Player Association [CPA] successfully lobbied for a split season between club and county fixtures three years ago – but a growing number of stakeholders feel the prescription was far too radical and an urgent rethink is required.

McKeever insisted that everyone knows the penalty shoot-out rules before the season starts – but argues that they are still deeply flawed.

“We’ve no qualms with the penalty kicks,” said the Cullyhanna man.

“They are there for a reason because of the condensed season which doesn’t allow for replays to take place. From our point of view, we know what’s coming down the track and it’s same for the opposition.

“But, taking a broader view, it’s clear the whole thing needs to be looked at because the condensed season is too condensed. There must be a rethink. The whole point of having a split season - and what the CPA was crying about was that county players weren’t getting to play club football.

“They were probably getting to play more club football in the old system and the harsh reality of the condensed season is that there is no club football for the county player.

“By stretching the inter-county season back out for replays to take place in provincial finals, All-Ireland quarter-finals, semi-finals and finals is simply the right thing to do.”

"We’re under no illusion that it’ll be a difficult task," says Ciaran McKeever
Ciaran McKeever says change to the inter-county season is lone overdue

New GAA President Jarlath Burns is a strong advocate of the inter-county season being extended to somewhere near to what it was before. Traditionally, the All-Ireland hurling and football finals took place in the first and third weeks of September.

Aaron Kernan, who was a high-profile member of the CPA, acknowledged that what’s manifested since 2021 now needs revisited.

In an interview with The Irish News last month, the former Armagh player said: “As someone who was for the CPA and the split season, I do now realise that it’s wishful thinking to have a calendar year because there are just so many games between your club, county, universities... it’s so hard to factor it all in.

“It was the 15-month calendar of starting in January and trying to win an All-Ireland the following March [at club level] that was always a big issue, it dragged out the club season way longer than it needed to, so I have no problem with that having been pulled shorter.”

He added: “But at the same time I do also appreciate maybe what the GAA have lost in terms of exposure and building up for an All-Ireland hurling final, the excitement and the euphoria that comes with it, then giving it no time to roll over because the football final is a week later.”

Armagh have had 13 days to lick their wounds from their penalty shoot-out defeat to Donegal in the Ulster decider as they prepare to host Westmeath in the All-Ireland group stages at the BOX-IT Athletic Grounds on Saturday evening.

McKeever said: “We have a group of players, an experienced group that have taken us from Division Three to the levels that we’re at now.

“You’re obviously only judged on winning, that’s the harsh the reality of it, but we’d feel we’d be up there with the top teams in the country - but can we break that glass ceiling and get across the line in one of these big games?”