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The ideal Football Championship might never be played

Everyone has had a say in the football championship conversation, but the best ideas may never see the light of day in GAA’s convoluted world of competition.

This week, GAA President John Horan was due to appoint a committee to identify a new structure for the All Ireland Football Championship, to potentially take to a special congress in the autumn. If his earlier chat about a two-tier system – essentially Tommy Murphy 2.0 – is any indication, then I shudder to think what this committee will finalise on. Therein lies the problem for Horan and his cohort: whatever they come up with, they are unlikely to please everyone.

In fact – because most fans hold strong opinions on what the ideal football championship structure looks like – they are likely to please no one. Coming up with a new championship format is the GAA’s equivalent of fan fiction.

This has been going on for years. The late Eugene McGee and the Football Review Committee weighed into the debate in 2013, suggesting a 4 x 8 provincial format. Jim McGuinness famously publicised his preferred approach in 2015, that attempted to integrate the league and provincial championships. There have been dozens more touted besides. So many, that it’s difficult to remember where one tier ends and another ‘Champions League’ group begins.

The clamour to produce one’s own championship format probably reached saturation point a few years ago and the footballing public would be forgiven for feeling championship-structure fatigue, considering any innovative proposal fell totally on deaf ears. However Horan appears determined to make changes during the tenure of his presidency and subsequently the movement towards reform has received a shot in the arm amongst Gaelic football’s cogniscenti in recent weeks.

Front and centre last week was a proposal made by former Kerry footballer Kieran Donaghy and Eoin Sheahan on Off The Ball. It suggested a two-tier, round-robin structure, that would give valid publicity to the lower tier (which it absolutely needs, if any proposed two-tier system is to be a runner; players need to buy-in, first and foremost). Like most of its predecessors, Donaghy’s format contains balance, simplicity and parity. And like most of its predecessors, it’s unlikely to ever see the light of day.

The reason why Gaelic football fans are so keen to produce these structural doodles is because they are so easy to come up with. The even number of 32 teams is ready-made for an entertaining format that both rewards quality and produces drama. Sports fans have been spoilt for choice in this regard: see the NFL, or the FIFA World Cup as prime examples. The possibilities are endless. Which is why it continues to be so galling that the GAA refuse to update the football championship format to something with a modicum of excitement. We’re not looking for anything particularly innovative; just plain common sense.

It should be simple enough – even allowing for a two-tier system – but there’s a turd in the punch bowl: the provincial championships.

There is just no way the GAA will reduce the role the provinces have to play in the football championship. Forget that they are based on a centuries-old postcode lottery (1610 to be precise), they are ingrained in the championship system and they are here to stay. To that end, (former Armagh footballer) Aidan O’Rourke’s proposal from the weekend is more likely to be closer to what is eventually decided upon.  Not only is his “blueprint” sufficiently convoluted (in keeping with fine GAA tradition), it maintains the provincial influence. (NB. it also extends the format to three tiers; if you think players from weaker counties are keen enough to go to the US as it is, O’Rourke’s proposal would only accelerate the exodus.)

The current qualifier format is now approaching its 20th season, but the flaws contained within it were obvious almost straight away. Because it is handcuffed to the provincial system, it is horribly complex, extremely unbalanced and downright unfair. Especially when you consider teams in Ulster and Leinster might have to play three games to reach a provincial final, while Cork and Kerry (and teams in Connacht) might only have to play one. Most years, Cork and Kerry are actually exempt from ever appearing in Round One of the qualifiers.

It’s a crazy format that few sports across the world would ever entertain. If it happened in your local club championship, there’d be war! Yet here we are, and John Horan’s preferred approach to take to congress this year, leans on these general structures once again.

Maybe I’m biased but I believe players and fans would be most excited by something along the lines of what Donaghy (and half the country) has proposed, but unless we somehow attach due significance to the archaic provincial championships, Horan and co. will dismiss it out of hand. Which is such a shame because that will only result in a convoluted mess instead of a democratic football championship that has the potential to be a brilliant product. Perhaps we just need a few more footballing legends like Kieran Donaghy to bang the drum.

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