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This Sporting Life

Last weekend saw the GAA announce a shake up to the structures of the All-Ireland club championships, with the finals moved from their traditional St Patrick’s Day slot. January will now see the club season come to an end, with the GAA head honchos citing the fact that counties were being forced to fulfil league games without some of their top club players. The irony of the fact that club teams are forced to fulfil their league games without their top county players was not lost, but that can be a matter for another day.

The other potential change comes in relation to the All Ireland football championship, with two proposals being mooted to revamp the structures and the introduction of a Tier Two.

Proposal A would retain the provincial championships as presently organised with the current four rounds of All-Ireland SFC Qualifiers reducing to two rounds and only open to teams from that year’s Allianz Football League Divisions 1 and 2 and any Division 3 and 4 teams who qualify for their provincial finals.

The Tier 2 Championship would be a straight knock-out competition for 16 teams from across Divisions 3 and 4 that do not make their provincial finals.

The competition could be organised on a geographical basis – northern and southern conferences for first- round ties, quarter-finals and semi-finals to ensure less travel for teams and supporters, while also retaining local rivalries.

Proposal B is similar to the above and also features Division 3 and 4 teams that do not reach a provincial decider entering a new Tier 2 championship.

A key difference is that in the event that a Division 3 or 4 team do reach a provincial final, to make up 16 teams in Tier 2 their place in Tier 2 would be taken by the lowest-ranked Division 2 team from that year’s Allianz League.

Confused? Yeah. Me too. It is why these proposals are both likely to fail and the GAA will continue to kick the can down the road to avoid the ultimate move that could revolutionise the whole championship. Scrapping the provincial championships and moving to a Champions League style format with eight groups of four teams where the top two go on to the main event and the bottom two contest the Tier Two, the B championship, the Tommy Murphy Mark 2 or whatever tag you want to put on it.

The provincial championships are a dead duck and are long past their sell by date. Take the Munster football championship. That memorable day in 1992 is the last time the Kerry/Cork axis was broken, and prior to that, it was Tipperary in 1935. Romantic? Hardly.

Let’s move to Leinster. Dublin. Let’s move on.

Connacht has at least retained some diversity with Roscommon, Galway and Mayo taking their turn at provincial glory over the last decade, but it is hardly enough to be a credible argument for retaining it. Ulster is arguably the only province that would see some lamentation if the provincials were to be scrapped, with the northern winners always difficult to predict.

Football has had several detractors in recent times with packed defences and blankets getting plenty criticism, while the longing for the old values of catch and kick has grown louder too. Crowds have been on the wane compared to the small ball equivalent, and it is clear that something must change. Rule changes have encouraged teams to at least try and play in something resembling a positive manner, but the tired structures at provincial level are making it hard to create any meaningful propaganda around it. RTÉ came under fire for waiting so long into the championship season before airing a football game, but in reality was there really any that would have you running for the couch to make sure you did not miss it? The simple answer is no. The provincial championships are boring, predictable and stale and they need to be let die an honourable death.

The proof of that is in the success story that has been the All-Ireland qualifiers. Take 2019 for Clare and the way it has panned out. The buzz around the county ahead of the tie with Meath is brilliant to see and what a brilliant moment it would be to reach the Super Eight’s. What makes it such a unique year is that in Leitrim and Westmeath, Clare met two teams that they had never faced before in the championship and supporters got two brilliant evenings out in Carrick on Shannon and Mullingar. We would have preferred to be at home of course, but it made it even more of an occasion to hit off to exotic climes.

Transfer that same principle now to the idea of a Champions League style open championship. Every year would throw up new opponents sprinkled with old rivals and there would be at least some sense of excitement. Every team would have the chance to dream but ultimately wake up to reality. Can that be done with the provincials as they are? Absolutley not.

The other side of the coin is that while all the above would be great in an ideal world, it is hard to see it happening. Provincial councils will not pass up on their revenue and in some ways you cannot blame them. It is the biggest barrier to meaningful change and it is hard to see a way around it.

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