Maybe it’s because we’re the ones that are so badly affected this year that I’m so agitated about it but, as we’re on the cusp of this year’s championship season, I have to come out and say it: the current structure sucks. And I mean really sucks. The old system was bad enough but the current one is, to my mind, even worse. While I don’t agree with John Maughan, who says we should scrap the qualifiers and revert to the pre-2001 format, I can see where he’s coming from.
A basic, possibly the basic, element of any competition of this kind is that all teams start from the same position and have an equal and fair chance of winning the thing. We are a million miles from this at the moment, with lopsided provinces and a backdoor system that provides the strongest counties with a safety net. Ulster remains a bear-pit, Leinster is also too big but with a wider variation in quality, Munster is a perpetual two-horse race while we have a slightly more competitive but still quite predictable contest in the West.
The scheduling of games sucks too. The Connacht championship starts this weekend (in bloody New York as well!) but, with only seven participants, it still doesn’t conclude until the 8th of July. This lackadaisical approach to scheduling brings its own problems, especially when, as is happening this year, the open draw pits us at the outset against Galway. Say we beat Galway, what then? Well, we sit on our holes for five weeks, that’s what. Before the next outing - against Leitrim. All due respect to the boys from the rushy fields but talk about having the main course served before the soup. Then, it’s a further a two-week break (a sensible time-lag this time) before the Connacht final. Once we’re through Connacht (I’m assuming for the purposes of this discussion that we make it through), we could, as happened last year, be then faced with three matches in three weeks. It makes no bloody sense.
I mentioned a few months ago that some GAA heads were thinking about how to revise the current structure and that a motion on this was being planned for April’s Congress. This never happened and there’s no sense that the GAA hierarchy believes they have a problem with how the championship is currently structured. They should do, however, because attendances at championship matches are falling and the qualifiers, which drew big crowds in 2001 and 2002, are now more poorly attended than many league games. While the GAA may not yet recognise it, the punters are demonstrating their disenchantment with the current state of affairs and, if this trend continues, change will have to come.
So, where do we go? I mentioned the other day that the ladies have come up with an interesting plan for their championship this year but there are others too. Here’s some possible options:
1. The Maughan Plan: revert to the old pre-2001 knockout system.
2. The Breheny Plan: redraw the provinces and introduce a mini-league element to the provincial championships. This is an idea mooted by the Indo’s Martin Breheny (still can't find the link to the article he wrote on this) which would involve fairly minor shifting of counties between provinces (Donegal, Longford and Westmeath into Connacht, Laois and Wexford into Munster) to create 4 "provinces" of eight counties. Breheny then proposes that the provincial championships should be run on the basis of two mini-leagues in each province prior to the provincial semi-finals and finals. Only the provincial winners would go forward (like pre-2001) to the All-Ireland series and the qualifiers would be scrapped.
3. The Mná Plan: use the provincial championships as a gateway to a mini-league All-Ireland series. The top four teams in each province take part in a mini-league stage, which then leads onto All-Ireland quarter-final knockout stage. Unlike all the other options, we'll be able to see this one for real when the ladies use it this year.
4. The Fourgoal McGee Plan: keep the existing provincial championships and create a mini-league format for the All-Ireland series. This could be drawn from either the Provincial champions (1 group of four) or the Provincial finalists (2 groups of four). My thanks to Fourgoal McGee for his comment on Tuesday's post, from which I've drawn this one.
5. The Decouple the Provincial Championships Plan: keep the existing provincial championships but make them a tournament in their own right and remove the link between the provincial championships and the All-Ireland series. The All-Ireland championship would then comprise two separate tournaments, with the Sam Maguire reserved for the stronger sixteen, the Tommy Murphy Cup for the weaker sixteen. Both could be run in the same way, with four groups of four teams, the top two of which would qualify for the All-Ireland quarter-finals. There would probably need to be a significant threat of relegation from the top tier, with either the team finishing last in every group dropping down or else the worst two.
There are other variants on all of these ideas but all the ones I’ve seen have the same new element, i.e. a mini-league at some stage in the process. That’s apart from the Maughan Plan but, with all due respect to John, I think he’s trying to drag us back to the Stone Age. Players and supporters alike want more championship games and so going back to a system where teams spend months preparing for just one Summer outing simply isn’t going to happen again.
If the Breheny Plan were to be adopted, it would provide all counties with a minimum number of championship matches and it would also do away with the current insane situation of having a shit-or-bust match right at the start of the championship season (which we’re faced with on Sunday week). It would also mean that all counties emerging into the All-Ireland series would (barring the odd replay) have played the same number of games up to that point, although the going would still, for example, be tougher in Ulster than in Munster. It would,however, have the major disadvantage of tweaking with who is in what province and this would be likely to prove its downfall.
The Mná/Fourgoal options can be viewed as variants on the same theme. The big advantage in terms of getting support for such a move would be that the existing provincial structures would remain intact. However, that's also it's principal weakness with Ulster still a tough slog to get out of, while Munster will remain a canter so counties won’t reach the mini-league stage in the same condition. Having the mini-league at the start of the All-Ireland series though should mean that teams would need to look at peaking a bit earlier, thus preventing those cute hoors from Kerry sidling slyly into the final without breaking sweat.
The Decoupling Plan deals head-on with the root cause of the unfairness in the present system, i.e. the lopsided nature of the existing provincial championships. If they are given an existence of their own, they might survive and then again they might not. Teams could, for example, use them as souped-up challenges matches prior to the real action getting underway. With a mini-league system seeded on the basis of strength, all counties would face the same, meaningful challenge. It’s the fairest system and the one that should provide more evenly-fought contests. Its radical nature, however, means that it hasn’t a hope in hell of being adopted.
The Mná/Fourgoal option is therefore probably the only one of the above list that could be expected to have a chance of getting through a future Congress. While it doesn’t sort every failing in the current structure, it would be a major improvement on the existing deeply flawed format. We could, of course, be forced to put up with the current mess for many more years but I, for one, cannot see this continuing indefinitely. In the meantime, we head for Salthill . . .