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League competitiveness highlights football’s provincial shortfalls

The league system is becoming increasingly more competitive, which is in stark contrast to recent trends in the provincial championships.

“The less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it”

  • Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Tradition is key to cultural recognition. It provides a link between past and present practices, and reminds us of where we have come from, and who we are. However, tradition for the sake of tradition is not suitable for the advancement of society as a whole. It can hold us back, preventing progress towards a system that better suits the modern era. Think of traditions like different relationships with society; once a tradition no longer suits the needs of society, the relationship should be ended. The provincial system of the GAA’s football championship is one tradition that is gradually separating from the association’s needs, for a variety of reasons.

Entertainment is one of the most significant factors the GAA fans believe allows them to hold sway over soccer when comparing sports. The back-and-forth nature of football and hurling is often in stark contrast to the slow, tactical battle that regularly occurs in soccer. Of course, soccer has much lower scoring rates than its Irish counterparts, which also helps hard line GAA fans to disparage ‘them across the water’.

Importantly though, high scoring and entertainment are not one and the same. While hurling has seen a wonderfully competitive provincial championship since Kilkenny’s fall from dominance, the same cannot be said for football. For example, in the 29 games in the 2018 provincial championships the average score was over 36 points per game, which is undeniably high. When compared with the average margin of victory however, this statistic acts against itself. The average victory in the provincial championships was by almost 10 points per game, a sign that competitiveness isn’t exactly flowing. On average, the score line would equate to 23 points to 13, with almost two goals average per game. This wasn’t always the case.

The old relationship between the provincial championships and football was a beautiful one. The first five years of the 21st century were blissful for the Leinster football championship. Between 2000 and 2004, five counties (Kildare, Meath, Dublin, Laois, and Westmeath) claimed a provincial win and lit up a highly competitive championship that epitomised the essence of the GAA. Love was in the air and it spread around the country. In that burst of the early 2000s, 21 different counties made an appearance in a provincial final, with 12 different winners. This is in stark contrast to the health of the provincial system today. In the past five years (2014-2018), 17 counties have played in a provincial final, and only 8 have won. Dublin have won eight on the spin, with Kerry slightly behind on six in a row. Even the Ulster championship, for all the plaudits it earns as being more competitive, was victim to a large average margin of victory last year, at nearly 7 points per game.

Carlow rightfully earned praise for beating Kildare, Longford surprised many in beating Meath, Monaghan beat Tyrone, only to suffer the same fate at Fermanagh’s hands, and New York nearly ended their championship futility in forcing extra-time against Leitrim. But for every one of these wins, there was a Dublin demolition or Kerry winning at a canter in Munster. In fact, over half (15) of provincial games were decided by double digits, compared to seven games that were decided by three or fewer points after 70 mins. Two of the three games which were decided in extra-time finished with a difference over the 3-point margin.

The competitiveness we come to expect from the football championship simply doesn’t exist at the provincial level. It’s a shame that Westmeath star Ger Egan had to accept that they must ‘be realistic’ when he admitted the Lake County ‘probably’ won’t beat Dublin. Through no fault of his own, or any other county players for that matter, they must taper expectations to reach the Leinster final, rather than announce their intention to win it.

Egan’s words came on the back of his side’s Division Three final victory over Laois, the delayed game that officially ended the league campaign. Fans now wait for four weeks before the traditional championship curtain-raiser involving New York, as Division One champions Mayo travel to meet them, with a further week’s wait before the rest of the opening round of games take place. The league campaigns remain fresh in the memory as counties gear up for the summer ahead, with few containing any real ambitions of silverware.

The Allianz Leagues have arguably become the most entertaining aspect of the inter-county season, with basically full-strength teams, closer games and realistic opportunities at silverware for a larger group of teams. This year the league has provided much closer games than the provincials did last summer, with an average margin of victory in all 116 games (including finals) at just over four points per game. The average points scored in the league is eight points per game lower than the 2018 provincial championships, but with less than half the margin of victory. This begs the question: do we prefer higher scoring, more one-sided games, or are we more entertained by lower scoring, closer matches?

Take the final round of games in this year’s league as an example of high entertainment. It had the highest average score of any round of league games (over 34 points per game) with the second highest margin of victory (4.6 ppg). Yet, this margin was lower than any stage of the All-Ireland Championship last year, with the All-Ireland semi-finals having the lowest margin of victory (5 ppg). Additionally, there were multiple teams fighting in the promotion and relegation battles. 13 teams had a chance to seal a finals appearance in round seven, while eight counties were playing to avoid relegation. Listening to Sunday Sport on RTÉ Radio 1, there was a palpable sense of frenzied, chaotic excitement as coverage moved from game to game, updating listeners on the changing landscape of each division’s standings.

Is it possible to integrate this excitement into the championship season? Possibly, but with great difficulty both with fixtures and resistance from the executive, which both require wholesale changes to allow the leagues to take on a more significant role in the inter-county season. Multiple alternatives have been mooted by many football fans with little progress; two-tiered championships, Champions League-style formats, getting rid of the pre-season competitions like the O’Byrne Cup – another GAA tradition.

Many in Ulster would argue that the provincials are a fantastic test against your nearest neighbours, which is a valid point. Competition is fierce between the top teams in Ulster, with six teams realistically believing they can win out. That’s more than the currently realistic challengers in the other three provinces combined (Dublin, Kerry, Galway, Mayo, Roscommon). So is there a scenario where the needs of the many and the few can be accounted for? It could come from one of the suggested alternatives, or from elsewhere.

The evidence suggests that the league is more competitive than the entirety of the All-Ireland Championships, with over half of league games decided by three or fewer points compared to less than 30 per cent in the championship. The only advantage that the championship holds is the higher scoring average in games. Even then, the idea of what entertains people is subjective, so it is ultimately down to each GAA fan to decide which end of the trade-off between scoring and winning margins they prefer.

As pessimists argue over the causes of the so-called dearth of football, perhaps it’s time to simply ask if the most compelling part of the season is being played too early. Are the traditions of the football season structure interfering with the full potential that Gaelic football has to offer? Can we rationalize the significance of the provincial championships any longer? The provincial championships still hold a place in the GAA calendar, but at the expense of what is easily the most competitive tournament of the season? It’s becoming harder to justify.

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