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Morgan in call for GAA to go back to future

Tyrone keeper would love to see a return to straight knockout


NOT A FAN: Niall Morgan is not convinced by the current championship format. Photo: SPORTSFILE

NOT A FAN: Niall Morgan is not convinced by the current championship format. Photo: SPORTSFILE


NOT A FAN: Niall Morgan is not convinced by the current championship format. Photo: SPORTSFILE

Even if we weren't in the midst of a global pandemic, Niall Morgan would feel the same way.

But in these thought-provoking times without sport, the Tyrone goalkeeper with a penchant for roaming has allowed his mind to wander; to imagine what it would be like if the inter-county calendar was ripped up and replaced by a new blueprint.

Morgan is no devotee of the current structure, layered with qualifiers and Super 8s. His vision would be a version of back to the future: you'd still have the National League and provincial championships - but the latter as stand-alone competitions followed by a brand new, straight knockout, open-draw, 32-county race for Sam Maguire.

Everyone would be a winner, he maintains - especially the forgotten club footballer.

"If I had it my way, we'd be playing straight knockout. I'm not a fan of back doors and Super 8s," Morgan told The Herald.

"Play your provincials and then put 32 teams into a hat and draw them out … and whoever you get, it's the luck of the draw.

"In my mind, that would bring a lot of the excitement and crowds back," he expanded. "If two big teams drew each other early on, people would be saying that's horrible for the GAA because one of the big teams are going to be out early.

"But could you imagine a Dublin/Kerry, or Tyrone/Dublin, Tyrone/Kerry, Tyrone/Mayo, Tyrone/Donegal in the first round? There'd be 20 or 30,000 at it, knowing that this is last-chance saloon.

"The back door has lost its appeal for a lot of people. And even the Super 8s - the 'dead-rubber' games. I know they're trying to fix that up, but it's not the same. Championship football should be knockout football."

Harking back to Omagh last August, when two already-qualified rivals faced off in a pseudo-showdown, he added: "Seven or eight of the Dublin players didn't even have to travel! I was actually injured, so it probably suited me (not to play).

"I suppose the only good thing was playing Dublin, because Tyrone/Dublin always have that bit of history and always want to beat each other.

"In the changing rooms everybody was up for it before the game. But then after the game, whenever you lose and it doesn't affect you, that's the part that sort of annoyed me."

This weekend sees Morgan embrace a very different theatre of inter-county combat: instead of fine-tuning for Donegal on May 17 (a massive Ulster SFC opener now indefinitely postponed) he will represent Tyrone in the All-Ireland FIFA20 Charity Online Tournament.

The esports event, organised by the GPA and journalist Joanne O'Riordan, is in aid of HSE and NHS frontline workers. One senior hurler or footballer from each of the 32 counties will play off in a one-v-one knockout format, starting today and concluding on Sunday. "No back door, the way it should be!" Morgan quipped.

Describing himself as a "recreational gamer", the 28-year-old netminder saw off internal competition from Cathal McShane, Mark Bradley and Michael McKernan. "I got through by default - everybody must have had an off-day!" he surmised.

Whenever normality returns, Morgan would love if the GAA re-embraced the same knockout ethos.

He would retain the provincial championships but on a "completely separate" basis, running them off during April/May. Then, after breaking for a couple of weeks, he would start his 32-team knockout All-Ireland. Teams from Divisions Three of Four would have home advantage if pitted against a higher-tier rival; otherwise neutral venues would apply.

"You'd have a maximum of five rounds. Play it over ten weeks, play a game every fortnight, and it would be over in two-and-a-half months. Whereas I just think everything is being dragged out," he reckoned.

"There's no quick-fix, but I just think there's ways around it to make the club more at the heart of things again."

Even for this high-profile, All Star-nominated county player, the club remains key. His father coached teams in Edendork so Morgan would hang around the pitch from when he was "three or four", or even younger.

By national standards, the involvement of county players at the Tyrone club coalface remains relatively healthy. The local system works, up to a point.

A club's league and championship status are linked, and just five out of 15 league rounds, known as 'starred' games, take place without county panellists.

"So, we only miss a maximum of five league games a year," Morgan explained. "But there could be only five games between May and whatever point Tyrone get knocked out, which is nonsense for a club player."

By contrast, under his touted format, the club season could start with five starred games running in conjunction with the All-Ireland championship - "and by the time it's over, your county players will be ready to come back. It's going to be no later than the start of August, and you'd have months of club football in half-decent weather rather than at the end of October and November."

From talking to colleagues on international rules duty, Morgan knows some might have played just two club games all year. "To me, that loses the whole ethos of the GAA," he bemoaned.

"The club needs to be brought back to the heart of it all," he added. "With what's going on at the minute, people are realising how important the club is, because they're the ones gathering volunteers and going around houses and helping the elderly and vulnerable."

Which brings us to football in a Covid-19 world. Morgan sounds sceptical about the prospects of a resumption this year.

While there is "massive uncertainty", he warned: "I don't think you can tell players to go out and mark a man, right beside him … yet tell him that, after the match, he's not allowed within two metres.

"I don't think it makes any sense whatsoever to do that. So, unless the social distancing is gone, I couldn't see there being any football, unfortunately.

"It doesn't matter if you can put a thousand people into a stadium, or 86,000. If you can't be within two metres, the players can't play the game.

"I would love to play it; everybody would love a championship. But it's keeping everybody safe. Not just the supporters; the players are very important too."

• The FIFA20 Charity Online Tournament will be broadcast on Insomnia Dublin Gaming Festival's Facebook page, free of charge, but viewers are asked for donations via the event's Go Fund Me page www.gofundme.com/f/zqvjmp-FIFA.