Ciarán Whelan: This is the way forward for football
Time for radical revamp to save game that has become even more polarised
Some of the opening championship games in recent weeks have brought back into focus the need to give serious consideration to the structure of the inter-county season.
I outlined my detailed opinion on the re-structure of the GAA season three years ago. Not a lot has changed since then, which does not come to me as a surprise. It is a discussion topic that keeps going full circle but ultimately moves nowhere.
For too long we have been hostage to tradition, history and geographical divide and time has come to inject a fresh impetus into Gaelic football in order to compete with the growing profile of other sports.
Any proposed suggestion comes with pros and cons. In detailing this proposal, I have tried to consider two key factors that we know will continue to provide resistance to any change.
Firstly, as there are four provincial councils in situ, combined with the desired appetite for provincial success by many counties, I have endeavoured to retain a provincial element, albeit with some minor changes to provincial boundaries.
Secondly, we hear regularly that the smaller counties still want to have the opportunity to compete for Sam. This proposal gives every team an equal opportunity each year to compete for top honours and success will be measured be performance right throughout the year.
The GAA has shown in it's past that any change to core values and principles can take considerable time and heated debate. However, change is achievable. Who would have envisaged the playing of soccer and rugby in Croke Park ten or 20 years ago?
So here goes, once again. Let the debate begin and we hope that the leadership of the GAA are brave and open to exploring radical change.
Both the Allianz National League and Championship should have more than just a symbiotic relationship - they should be directly linked to each other.
Such an interconnection would broaden the importance and appeal of early season games providing a 'level playing field' to all competing teams.
Firstly, abandon the National Leagues as they are currently constituted and replace them with Provincial style Leagues (Leinster, Munster, Ulster, Connacht Leagues based primarily but not totally on current provincial divides and run over an eight -week period (February/March).
However, this is no act of self-serving gerrymandering - it's a redrawing of the traditional boundaries for the good of the game and to put it on a stronger footing in the very challenging sporting environment that we now operate.
In order to split the teams into four groups of eight teams, a redrawing of the provincial boundaries is required.
London and Wexford will join the Munster province and Westmeath, Donegal and Longford will join the Connacht province. Kilkenny may be included, if there is any ambition at county board level to develop football any time in the future.
After establishing these new groupings a league - sponsored by Allianz - would be contested under the control of the existing provincial councils and with the support and marketing backing of Croke Park.
For illustrative purposes the groupings would be as detailed below:
LEINSTER LEAGUE: Dublin (1), Kildare (1), Louth (2), Meath (2), Laois (2), Wicklow, Carlow, Offaly.
MUNSTER LEAGUE: Cork (1), Kerry (1), Tipperary (2), Wexford (2), Limerick (2), Clare, Waterford, London.
CONNACHT LEAGUE: Galway (1), Mayo (1), Longford (2), Roscommon (2), Donegal (2), Leitrim, Sligo, Westmeath.
ULSTER LEAGUE: Tyrone (1), Armagh (1), Monaghan (2), Derry (2), Down (2), Fermanagh, Cavan, Antrim.
NB: Teams above allocated/seeded (eg (1) and (2) in brackets) for reference and illustration only - explained later.
All Allianz Provincial Leagues would be run on a round-robin basis over an eight-week period with counties playing four games on Saturdays or Sundays and three games (where possible) played midweek under floodlights.
This would require some counties to upgrade their county grounds to include modern floodlighting - a lot of counties have already undertaken such development.
This initiative will free up weekends early in the calendar for clubs games and the U21 Championship. The top two counties in each Provincial League would qualify for their Provincial Final to be played on the first weekend in April with the existing provincial cups awarded to the winners.
The top five teams in each league (20 counties) qualify seeded (1) or (2) depending on their finishing positions for the All-Ireland Championship Group Stages. Finalists from each Provincial League would be seeded (1) with the three other qualifiers seeded (2). The bottom three teams in each of the four Provincial Leagues (12 counties) would proceed to an open draw All-Ireland 'B' Championship Group Stage.
The 20 qualifying counties from the Provincial League are entered into an open draw - Four groups with five teams in each group.
When doing the draw the top 8 (Seeded 1 ie first and second in each of February/March Provincial Leagues) counties go into one pot with the other 12 counties (Seeded 2) into the other pot - there will be two seeded 1 counties in each group. Again for illustrative purposes see below:
GROUP A: Kildare (1), Kerry (1), Roscommon (2), Limerick (2), Monaghan (2).
GROUP B: Dublin (1), Galway (1), Meath (2), Down (2), Tipperary (2).
GROUP C: Cork (1), Tyrone (1), Derry (2), Louth (2), Longford (2).
GROUP D: Mayo (1), Armagh (1), Donegal (2), Wexford (2), Laois (2).
Each county plays four matches on a round-robin basis commencing at the beginning of May with group games taking place every two weeks and on alternative weekends allowing for four championship matches every weekend played on Saturday and Sundays ie two matches in both Group A and B and two matches in both Group C and D on alternative weekends with one resting team in each group
The administrative body for this competition and these games would be Croke Park and the responsibility for marketing lies with central powers and the competition's multi-sponsors. This system allows for four championship games each weekend to be played over Saturdays and Sundays and every team will have four championship matches over a ten-week period from May to mid-July.
The top team in each group qualifies for the All-Ireland SFC quarter-final.
The teams in second and third place are drawn against each other to play for an All-Ireland quarter- final berth.
To assist with framing the developing picture of this Championship we will go with the following examples to fill out the counties to make it to the last-eight in the race for Sam Maguire.
Play-offs for teams finishing second and third in each Group: Galway v Armagh; Winner: Galway. Monaghan v Cork; Winner: Cork. Meath v Derry; Winner: Meath. Roscommon v Donegal; Winner: Donegal.
So these winners progress to the quarter-final with the group winners (Dublin, Kerry, Mayo, Tyrone) on the opposite side of the draw. In this scenario the quarter-final draw throws up the following pairings: Dublin v Galway; Kerry v Cork; Mayo v Meath; Tyrone v Donegal. The quarter finals, semi- finals and final are then played in a traditional fashion until a winner is crowned All Ireland Champions.
ALL-IRELAND 'B' CHAMPIONSHIP
This championship would consist of the 12 counties that finished in the bottom three positions in the four Conference League system.
The 12 counties would be split into two groups of six and play a round-robin system with five championship games each.
GROUP 1: Wicklow, London, Leitrim, Antrim, Waterford, Cavan.
GROUP 2: Sligo, Fermanagh, Westmeath, Clare, Carlow, Offaly.
The top county in each group qualifies for the All-Ireland semi-final. The teams in second and third place are drawn against each other to play for a place in the All-Ireland semi-finals. Again, we will use notional results to illustrate.
Round of Qualifiers (second v third): Westmeath v Wicklow; Antrim v Offaly.
All Ireland semi-finals: Cavan v Westmeath; Fermanagh v Offaly.
All-Ireland Final: Cavan v Offaly.
The winners of the 'B' championship get a 'team holiday' to play New York in October.
REASONS FOR CHANGE
*A new format would revitalise the image of Gaelic Games making it more marketable and attractive to the general public.
*The new format would interlink the full the Gaelic football season with every game in both competitions proving to be important to the eventual outcome. This format will also keep the profile of Gaelic games in the shop window for a longer period of time and help to compete with the profile of other sporting codes.
The existing provincial competitions and powers of their councils would be retained, albeit in a new, more exciting format.
*All games in both championships (Race for Sam and 'B') would be better balanced competitively and the format should eradicate one-sided fixtures and demoralising defeats for some weaker counties.
*It avoids repetition of annual fixtures between the same counties, which since the introduction of the backdoor system have clearly lost the intensity of proper championship football.
*All fixtures would be more evenly spread over the summer months with an even amount of teams in action each weekend rather than the existing imbalance that exists at the present time where teams in Munster can be idle for very lengthy tracts of the summer.
*The general excitement and anticipation of an annual open draw for the group stages would keep the format fresh every year. The GAA could go one step further and replicate the format from the Heineken Cup by offering bonus points for three goals scored or for the margin of victory. This may assist in negating overly defensive tactics and encourage a more attacking brand of football.
*There is a guarantee of two home championship games for all counties which will help boost local economies and individual county board coffers during the summer months.
*There would be a reduction in costs associated with travel during the Provincial Leagues, as a lot of fixtures would be shorter in terms of mileage for the travelling counties. This savings could contribute to any player expenses associated with some mid-week Provincial league games between neighbouring counties.
*With recent changes to cultures and habits, the introduction of mid-week games under lights during the 'Provincial Leagues' should attract bigger crowds and therefore an increase in revenue.
*The new format would allow for greater structure to the club season as Provincial Leagues and Championship fixtures could be set well in advance.
*For the most part County Boards would no longer have to plan club fixtures around the fortunes of the county team awaiting to see if they remain in their provincial competitions or have to travel the current backdoor route.
*With no replays in group stages and a total of four games over ten weeks, some early rounds of club county championships could be played during the summer months helping to complete the club season within the calendar year.
ISSUES AROUND NEW FORMAT
3The Provincial Leagues would still be weighted in favour of the stronger teams and chances of a breakthrough by a weaker team would be reduced.
However, every county deserves the chance to compete for the top prize and achieving qualification to the All-Ireland Championship (Sam Maguire) will be an incentive and a measure of progress for the weaker counties
Victories in recent years like Sligo and Leitrim in Connacht , Westmeath and Laois in Leinster or Monaghan in Ulster cannot be underestimated in terms of what it has done for these counties.
However, can the GAA afford to wait around once every generation for one of these momentous occasions?
3With the season commencing in February, all senior managers will require full access to their players for all provincial and championship games. This could impact the U21 championship in its current format and create difficulties for most counties.
Consideration may have to be given to amalgamating the Minor and U21 championships into one U19 All-Ireland competition to run concurrently with the Senior All-Ireland Championship.
3The Sigerson and the latter stages of the club championships would have to be moved back to the calendar year concluding in late November or early December.