Antrim boss Lenny Harbinson draws up blueprint for change

Lenny Harbinson's plan would see the National League and championship both reformed and blended together. Picture by Cliff Donaldson
Lenny Harbinson's plan would see the National League and championship both reformed and blended together. Picture by Cliff Donaldson

DO away with pre-season competitions.

Rip up the National League and blend it in with the championship.

Give teams more exposure to those above them and try to level the playing field by allowing the rising tide to lift the boats that most need lifted.

That is the general thrust of how Lenny Harbinson views the footballing landscape. It has, over the last 15 years, become very lop-sided.

Go back a decade, back to when Harbinson was guiding St Gall’s to an All-Ireland club title.

20 of the 32 counties are in the same division of the Allianz Football League now that they were then. Only Cork and Derry, who were both in Division One then and are both in Division Three now, are more than one league out either way now.

Only Clare from that year’s Division Four have seen the heights of Division Two in that time in between, while Mayo, Dublin, Kerry, Galway and Tyrone have almost exclusively been in Division One, while Monaghan are in their sixth straight year there.

The National League system has produced some extraordinary entertainment, but has it also produced a series of heavier ceilings that the teams beneath just cannot crack?

For Harbinson, the answer is to mash up the league and combine it with the championship in a new format altogether.

“Take all the provincial championships away and say we’re going into four groups of eight. Blend the league into the championship,” says the Antrim manager.

“The top four teams in each group go straight into the top tier knockout. Start it in January, and do away with the Mickey Mouse competitions.

“Come April, the top four go and play for Sam Maguire, the bottom four go into a second tier competition. You could seed it, two from Division One in each group, two from Division Two, and so on.

“You’re giving everybody a go at playing against teams, some who will be at their level, some who will be better. Some days you’ll compete, some days you’ll get a trouncing, but you’d hope that the rising tide would lift all boats and bring your standard up.

“If you don’t get in the top four, the secondary competition is there and run off side-by-side with the primary competition.

“Something like that would have worked a lot better. Instead, because you’re Division Three or Four, you’re shoehorned into a secondary competition and given no chance to affect that.”

His plans can be seen on the opposite page.

The basic rundown is that the pre-season competitions are dropped, the League is brought forward into early January and played off as a double-round competition across the next 17 weeks.

It’s split up into something resembling the old 1A/1B/2A/2B system, with the current standings used as seedings to split the 32 teams into four groups.

The top four at the end of each group go into the All-Ireland SFC and the bottom four go into the All-Ireland IFC. Both are played concurrently and both are straight knockout, with an open draw.

It’s all over by the end of June and each county has played a minimum of 16 games, comfortably more than the current minimum of 10. That’s if you include the pre-season competitions. If not, the minimum is just nine across a season that lasts at least six months, if not eight.

All counties would be subject to a maximum spend of £500,000 per code across all their inter-county squads, from development up to senior, and must invest £100,000 into club coaching and development each year.

Counties that run into an overspend would be deducted points in the following year’s competitions.

University and schools football would be played during the first term between September and December

Harbinson also suggests that the GAA be split into two sections centrally. An administrative end that looks after finances and fixtures, while another central body would be responsible for all strategic investments by any county.

The Antrim boss would do away with Congress and appoint a central GAA board that includes Tom Ryan (Director General), Ger Mulryan (finance director), as well as a handful of other directors including ones to cover coaching and administration.

“They would be responsible to a GAA shareholders’ board made up of six county chairmen, six club chairmen and three independent, professional people.

“That board would have three years to plan and execute, with key measurements in place for GAA shareholders to monitor and measure progress.

“And this group would have the power to hire and fire. If hiring, they can source a chief executive with no GAA past. They only need to get the best person.

“The GAA should also run strategic courses to help counties close the gap. For example, strength and conditioning accreditations. Three people from each county attend and best practice is shared.

“County GAA coaches would have to do a professional badge, and only badge holders can coach or manage at county level, and only within their own county.

“There should also be a team of ‘super coaches’, maybe five groups of four people each that actually go into a failing county and spend time sharing best practice to put a recovery plan in place to help close the gap with other counties.”

Harbinson also says he would do away with the four provincial councils and replace them with four paid directors who sit on the GAA’s central board and each take charge of an area.

“The GAA is run like a business in Croke Park, but once you go outside the front doors, they’re leaving the provinces, and then the counties within each province, to do their own things in many aspects. There’s some governance but not a lot.

“Various parts of the organisation are pulling against each other. It shouldn’t be beyond the realms of possibility for the GAA to have a strategic department, a finance department.

“They can’t be in control of every nook and cranny in every county, but you delegate out and you take central control of it. They don’t do that, and as we can see, costs are going up, there are overspends, and they’re doing nothing about it. It’s been flagged up for years.”

And away on he goes, back to work. The GAA could do worse than bring him in and listen.



(Based on 2020 National Football League, with current standings taken as final positions)

- No pre-season competitions

- No provincial championships

- Championship and league blended together

- Organised in four groups of eight, without New York

- Groups seeded, with two teams from each 2020 NFL division in each group

- Double round league, fourteen games each, home and away

- Top four in each group go through to All-Ireland SFC quarter-finals

- Bottom four in each group move into All-Ireland IFC quarter-finals

- Both competitions open draw

- Two competitions run side-by-sid

- Two options for Championship dates – either May 17 to June 28, or August 9 to September 20

- All-Ireland SFC and IFC finals played on the same weekend, if not together

Groups seeded, randomly generated

Group A: Galway, Meath, Westmeath, Clare, Cork, Derry, Sligo, London

Group B: Mayo, Kerry, Laois, Kildare, Longford, Down, Carlow, Wexford

Group C: Tyrone, Donegal, Armagh, Fermanagh, Offaly, Tipperary, Antrim, Waterford

Group D: Dublin, Monaghan, Cavan, Roscommon, Leitrim, Louth, Limerick, Wicklow

Group stage fixtures

January 4/5

Group A: Meath v Galway, London v Westmeath, Sligo v Clare, Cork v Derry

Group B: Kerry v Mayo, Laois v Wexford, Kildare v Carlow, Longford v Down

Group C: Donegal v Tyrone, Armagh v Waterford, Fermanagh v Antrim, Offaly v Tipperary

Group D: Monaghan v Dublin, Cavan v Wicklow, Roscommon v Limerick, Leitrim v Louth

January 11/12

Group A: Westmeath v Clare, Galway v Sligo, London v Derry, Cork v Meath

Group B: Laois v Kildare, Mayo v Carlow, Wexford v Down, Kerry v Longford

Group C: Armagh v Fermanagh, Tyrone v Antrim, Waterford v Tipperary, Donegal v Offaly

Group D: Cavan v Roscommon, Dublin v Limerick, Wicklow v Louth, Monaghan v Leitrim

January 18/19

Group A: Sligo v Cork, London v Clare, Meath v Westmeath, Derry v Galway

Group B: Carlow v Longford, Wexford v Kildare, Kerry v Laois, Down v Mayo

Group C: Antrim v Offaly, Waterford v Fermanagh, Donegal v Armagh, Tipperary v Tyrone

Group D: Limerick v Leitrim, Wicklow v Roscommon, Monaghan v Cavan, Louth v Dublin

January 25/26

Group A: Galway v Westmeath, Clare v Meath, Cork v London, Derry v Sligo

Group B: Mayo v Laois, Kildare v Kerry, Longford v Wexford, Down v Carlow

Group C: Tyrone v Armagh, Fermanagh v Donegal, Offaly v Waterford, Tipperary v Antrim

Group D: Dublin v Cavan, Roscommon v Monaghan, Leitrim v Wicklow, Limerick v Louth

February 1/2

Break week

February 8/9

Group A: Clare v Cork, London v Galway, Meath v Sligo, Westmeath v Derry

Group B: Kildare v Longford, Wexford v Mayo, Kerry v Carlow, Laois v Down

Group C: Fermanagh v Offaly, Waterford v Tyrone, Donegal v Antrim, Armagh v Tipperary

Group D: Roscommon v Leitrim, Wicklow v Dublin, Monaghan v Limerick, Cavan v Louth

February 15/16

Group A: Derry v Meath, Sligo v London, Clare v Galway, Cork v Westmeath

Group B: Down v Kerry, Carlow v Wexford, Kildare v Mayo, Longford v Laois

Group C: Tipperary v Donegal, Antrim v Waterford, Fermanagh v Tyrone, Offaly v Armagh

Group D: Louth v Monaghan, Limerick v Wicklow, Roscommon v Dublin, Leitrim v Cavan

February 22/23

Group A: Sligo v Westmeath, London v Meath, Galway v Cork, Derry v Clare

Group B: Carlow v Laois, Wexford v Kerry, Mayo v Longford, Down v Kildare

Group C: Antrim v Armagh, Waterford v Donegal, Tyrone v Offaly, Tipperary v Fermanagh

Group D: Limerick v Cavan, Wicklow v Monaghan, Dublin v Leitrim, Louth v Roscommon

February 29 / March 1

Group A: Galway v Meath, Westmeath v London, Clare v Sligo, Derry v Cork

Group B: Mayo v Kerry, Wexford v Laois, Carlow v Kildare, Down v Longford

Group C: Tyrone v Donegal, Waterford v Armagh, Antrim v Fermanagh, Tipperary v Offaly

Group D: Dublin v Monaghan, Wicklow v Cavan, Limerick v Roscommon, Louth v Leitrim

March 7/8

Break week

March 14/15

Group A: Clare v Westmeath, Sligo v Galway, Derry v London, Meath v Cork

Group B: Kildare v Laois, Carlow v Mayo, Down v Wexford, Longford v Kerry

Group C: Fermanagh v Armagh, Antrim v Tyrone, Tipperary v Waterford, Offaly v Donegal

Group D: Roscommon v Cavan, Limerick v Dublin, Louth v Wicklow, Leitrim v Monaghan

March 21/22

Group A: Cork v Sligo, Clare v London, Westmeath v Meath, Galway v Derry

Group B: Longford v Carlow, Kildare v Wexford, Laois v Kerry, Mayo v Down

Group C: Offaly v Antrim, Fermanagh v Waterford, Armagh v Donegal, Tyrone v Tipperary

Group D: Leitrim v Limerick, Roscommon v Wicklow, Cavan v Monaghan, Dublin v Louth

March 28/29

Group A: Westmeath v Galway, Meath v Clare, London v Cork, Sligo v Derry

Group B: Laois v Mayo, Kerry v Kildare, Wexford v Longford, Carlow v Down

Group C: Armagh v Tyrone, Donegal v Fermanagh, Waterford v Offaly, Antrim v Tipperary

Group D: Cavan v Dublin, Monaghan v Roscommon, Wicklow v Leitrim, Louth v Limerick

April 4/5

Break week

April 11/12

Group A: Cork v Clare, Galway v London, Sligo v Meath, Derry v Westmeath

Group B: Longford v Kildare, Mayo v Wexford, Carlow v Kerry, Down v Laois

Group C: Offaly v Fermanagh, Tyrone v Waterford, Antrim v Donegal, Tipperary v Armagh

Group D: Leitrim v Roscommon, Dublin v Wicklow, Limerick v Monaghan, Louth v Cavan

April 18/19

Group A: Meath v Derry, London v Sligo, Galway v Clare, Westmeath v Cork

Group B: Kerry v Down, Wexford v Carlow, Mayo v Kildare, Laois v Longford

Group C: Donegal v Tipperary, Waterford v Antrim, Tyrone v Fermanagh, Armagh v Offaly

Group D: Monaghan v Louth, Wicklow v Limerick, Dublin v Roscommon, Cavan v Leitrim

April 25/26

Group A: Westmeath v Sligo, Meath v London, Cork v Galway, Clare v Derry

Group B: Laois v Carlow, Kerry v Wexford, Longford v Mayo, Kildare v Down

Group C: Armagh v Antrim, Donegal v Waterford, Offaly v Tyrone, Fermanagh v Tipperary

Group D: Cavan v Limerick, Monaghan v Wicklow, Leitrim v Dublin, Roscommon v Louth

Championship schedule

- Either May 17 to June 28, or August 9 to September 20

- If May / June, club fixtures come in straight after inter-county championships end

- If August / September, inter-county teams break on April 26 and club league fixtures are played through May, June and early July, with club championships played from September 27 onwards

May 2/3: Break week

May 9/10: Break week

May 16/17

All-Ireland SFC and IFC round one (lowest ranked team at home where applicable)

All-Ireland SFC: Westmeath v Galway, Donegal v Mayo, Kildare v Dublin, Fermanagh v Roscommon, Tyrone v Galway, Cavan v Armagh, Laois v Monaghan, Clare v Kerry

All-Ireland IFC: Sligo v Derry, Waterford v Offaly, Louth v Down, Carlow v Cork, Limerick v Wicklow, Wexford v Longford, London v Leitrim, Antrim v Tipperary

May 23/24: Break week

May 30/31

All-Ireland SFC and IFC quarter-finals (neutral, games paired)

All-Ireland SFC: Tyrone v Kerry, Armagh v Dublin, Monaghan v Roscommon, Galway v Donegal

All-Ireland IFC: Down v Limerick, Cork v Tipperary, Offaly v Longford, Derry v Leitrim

June 6/7: Break week

June 13/14

All-Ireland SFC and IFC semi-finals

All-Ireland SFC: Kerry v Dublin, Monaghan v Donegal

All-Ireland IFC: Down v Cork, Longford v Derry

June 20/21: Break week

June 27/28

All-Ireland SFC final: Dublin v Donegal

All-Ireland IFC final: Cork v Derry