GAA Football

Counties opt for late championship starts to tie into Ulster Club

The six northern counties have all opted for club leagues in 2021, but Down's is the latest start at the end of July. Picture by Philip Walsh

DESPITE having the freedom to potentially start sooner, Ulster counties are opting to run their 2021 club championships later in the year.

The GAA’s decision to hold the All-Ireland finals on August 22 (hurling) and 29 (football) will all but four county teams in each code will be finished by the end of July at the very latest.

But in order to run more closely into the dates set for the provincial club championships, thereby giving their respective county champions the best chance in Ulster, counties have decided to largely opt for a September start for club championships.

There has been no dissent to that given that pushing championships back has allowed county boards to offer a full league programme to clubs.

Tyrone are still finalising dates after their clubs voted for full leagues followed by a straight knockout championship, despite knowing that it would increase the number of ‘starred’ games needed.

Clubs will begin their league campaign towards the end of May with nine starred games in a row, which means there will be no county players available to clubs.

Due to the fact there was promotion from 2020 but no relegation, the senior league in Tyrone has 18 teams this year, meaning each club will have 17 league games plus at least one championship tie.

The start date for the championship will be determined by how deep into the season the county team goes but fitting it all in will likely require double-rounds of Friday-Sunday fixtures in the league, or the conclusion of the league after the championship is finished.

Derry announced their plans on Saturday morning, with the most significant factor being the continuation of last year’s round-robin format in the championship.

Having had great success with a return to a straight knockout format in the few years running up to 2020, last year saw a change in order to guarantee clubs a minimum of three games in the truncated season.

Despite offering a full league campaign to clubs in 2021, the Oak Leaf county has also opted to retain the round-robin groups with which to begin its championship.

All 16 teams will get at least one knockout game after the group stage, with the senior football final set for November 7.

Club games will begin as early as this weekend in Derry, with the start of district competitions, before the leagues begin on the last weekend of May.

There will be no relegation in 2021, while last year’s outstanding junior football championship final between Craigbane and Desertmartin will be played on Friday, June 11.

The senior hurling championship will also be played on a round-robin basis, with champions Slaughtneil and last year’s beaten finalists Kevin Lynch’s kept apart.

Armagh still have a chunk of club league games from 2020 outstanding and have opted to start their 2021 campaign with those, building them into this year’s league which will comprise seven additional games.

The Orchard county will go for a straight knockout championship and while dates are not nailed down, they’re likely to work into the preliminary round of the Ulster Club series, which is set for November 21.

Armagh’s final is traditionally two weeks before their champions’ first outing in Ulster, and they are likely to work off the same again.

Antrim and Down have both set their football county finals for November 14 and will play leagues, but have taken very different approaches.

Antrim’s hurling leagues begin this Saturday and their football leagues next weekend, starting a hectic period that will see an 11-round football league and a nine-round hurling league finished by mid-July.

There will be no relegation but promotion will apply on the premise that at least 60 per cent of the games are played.

The football championship will have a round-robin system beginning on August 11.

Down, however, are not beginning their club leagues until July 23.

They will fill the breach until then with a league cup, which begins on May 14 and offers clubs six games up until June 25.

The senior football league will then begin on July 23, by which stage only the provincial finalists will be left in the All-Ireland SFC.

Down’s senior club football league will see 11 rounds played in just over seven weeks, with seven Friday night games and four on the following Monday.

Their championship is due to begin on the weekend of September 12, and will follow the usual format that includes a qualifier system.

October 31 is the date for the Down football final, three weeks before the Ulster Club series begins.

Fermanagh last week told clubs that they could begin preparing for an 18-game senior football league beginning on May 21, and a nine-game Erne Cup that will begin on May 23.

Their outstanding 2020 junior final is planned for mid-August, while the 2021 championships will begin once the league has finished.

COUNTY-BY-COUNTY

Antrim

- Championships run from early August until mid-November

- Round robin formats to both football and hurling

- Hurling final October 10

- Football final November 14

- Full league campaigns beginning this weekend

Armagh

- Straight knockout championship, likely starting in early September

- Football final in early November, date TBC

- Outstanding 2020 league games to be tied into 2021 leagues

Derry

- Championships run from early August until mid-November

- Round-robin formats to both football and hurling

- Football final November 7

- Hurling final November 14

- Full league campaigns beginning in late May

Down

- Championships run from early September until late October

- Back-door format for football championship

- Football final October 31

- 11-round league beginning on July 23

- District cup games from late May until mid-June

Fermanagh

- Plans not yet finalised

- Full league campaign of 18 games, plus nine-game Erne Cup competition

- Championship begins after league finishes

Tyrone

- Dates being finalised

- Straight knockout championship format

- Clubs voted for a full 17-round league campaign, including the first nine as ‘starred’ games without county players

- Club leagues to begin in late May

- League may not be finished before championship begins

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