The push for structural change needs to continue despite the recent setback at GAA Special Congress 2021
Disappointment and anger may have been the overriding emotion for many GAA folk in the aftermath of last weekend’s rejection of Option B at Special Congress. However, the appetite for change was reflected in the fact that a slim majority voted in favour of the proposal (50.6%).
In the end, it seems as if the anomalies associated with Option B were just too big to ignore for many people. A lot of anger is now being directed towards the so-called ‘dinosaurs’ of the GAA. In other words, those who will always be resistant to change of any kind, particularly if it threatens to splinter the power of the provincial councils.
But while there may be a cohort who continue to operate in this manner, it would be a mistake to believe that anyone who expressed their opposition to Option B fell into this category.
Personally speaking, I was in favour of the proposal. But having followed the debate closely over the last few weeks, I was particularly struck by some interesting points made by the Irish News sports journalist Cahair O’Kane in an interview with Off The Ball’s Nathan Murphy.
O’Kane suggested that people are so “blinded” by how bad the current structures are, that they’ve become desperate for change of any kind. But the point that resonated strongest with me was his assertion that “Division One has become an enclosed space” which is “really harming football”.
In other words, the current league structure has resulted in the top teams playing each other all the time and this has served to increase the gap in quality between the elite and everyone else. He went on to give the example of Roscommon and Cavan, two teams that have been yo-yoing between Division One and Two in recent years due to the fact that the gap between the top five or six and the best-of-the-rest is so stark.
O’Kane suggested that one way of trying to remedy this is by returning to the Division 1A and 1B model, where you would have a mixture of Division One and Two teams in each section. It is something that Kieran Shannon has also expressed support for in his Irish Examiner column.
I too am in agreement with the idea, and feel that it is a crucial element in the re-working of Option B. Long before the proposal ever reached the floor of Special Congress, it struck me that the much-discussed anomalies could easily be fixed by a tweaking of the league structures.
So here is an outline of how Option B can be re-packaged with the current anomalies ironed out:
- A return to the National Football League model that was in place between 1998 and 2007, comprising of two divisions sub-divided into 1A / 1B and 2A / 2B.
- The leagues get played off in the usual manner, with finals taking place between the winners of 1A and 1B, and 2A and 2B.
- The final league placings are then used to determine who goes into the All-Ireland series and Tailteann Cup, and at what stage.
- The top two teams in 1A and 1B qualify as the four seeded quarter-finalists (in the same way as the provincial winners did under the old pre-Super 8 system).
- The counties that finish in third and fourth place in 1A and 1B qualify as the four seeded teams in a Qualifier Round that precedes the quarter-finals.
- That leaves us needing four more teams to take on the four seeded counties in the Qualifier Round.
- A maximum of seven counties are eligible to qualify as ‘wild cards’ for the All-Ireland series. They comprise of the following:
- The four winners of the provincial championships.
- The two winners of Division 2A and 2B.
- The Tailteann Cup winners from the previous year.
Given that some or all of the provincial winners may already have secured a berth in the All-Ireland series via their league placings, it is unlikely that you would have seven ‘wild cards’ on any given year.
Also, the Tailteann Cup winners from the previous year may end up winning Division 2A or 2B the following season. Thus, the ‘wild card’ qualifiers could be as low as two on any given year, or as high as seven.
If there are only two or three ‘wild cards’, then the teams that finished fifth in Division 1A and 1B will come back into the reckoning for a Qualifier berth.
On the other hand, if all seven potential ‘wild cards’ end up qualifying then you would stage a pre-Qualifier round. This would involve the seven counties going into a hat for the purpose of an open draw. It would result in three play-off matches, and one county receiving a bye to the main Qualifier round.
A similar system would be used for the Tailteann Cup, but without the ‘wild card’ element. Instead, the teams that finished in second and third place in 2A and 2B would be handed the seeded berths in the quarter-finals.
The teams that finished in fourth and fifth place would enter a Qualifier Round as the seeded teams (i.e. home advantage), going up against the sixth and seventh-placed teams in 2A and 2B.
The structural changes outlined above are designed to address some of the key issues that prevented Option B from receiving enough support at Special Congress.
For a start, it retains the status of the provincial championships by linking them back in with the All-Ireland series. It also upgrades the status of the Tailteann Cup by providing the winners with an automatic qualification berth for the following year’s All-Ireland series.
A third major anomaly with the Option B proposal was the fact that teams ranked 17th (Division Three winners) and 25th (Division Four winners) would qualify for the All-Ireland series ahead of counties ranked sixth, seventh and eighth.
Under the system outlined above, that anomaly has been tightened up to a large degree. It would still mean that the counties ranked 17th and 18th in the country would qualify ahead of the counties ranked ninth and tenth.
But while there may still be a slight anomaly in that, the gap is much narrower than before (eight or nine places, instead of 19). In addition, the counties that finish in the lower rungs of 1A and 1B will still have their provincial championships as an alternative route to qualification.
Many people have rightly complained about the inequities of the provincial championships. Realistically, though, any change to the current structures is going to be a hard sell unless the provincial championships are linked into the system in a meaningful way.
Provincial titles may not mean much to Dublin and Kerry. But for practically every other county in Ireland, provincial success still means a hell of a lot. The wild celebrations that greeted recent title victories for Tipperary, Cavan and Roscommon are testament to that.
Only one team can bring the Sam Maguire Cup home on any given year, and the number of counties with realistic expectations of doing so has dwindled to just three or four at best.
So it should hardly come as a shock that almost all the counties in Ulster voted against Option B, including Fermanagh (to the apparent surprise of many).
The Ernesiders have never managed to win an Ulster title. But as long as they remain competitive in the province, that long-held aspiration to bring home the Anglo-Celt Cup will endure as their holy grail.
An Ulster title will remain a realistic target for the likes of Fermanagh, Cavan, Derry, Armagh and Down, in a way that an All-Ireland title could never be. So any attempt to dilute the prestige of the provincials is unlikely to garner much support up North.
There is also likely to be resistance in Connacht, as could be seen from the way Mayo and Galway delegates voted at Special Congress. A lot of Roscommon supporters would have mixed feelings as well, given the euphoria of their provincial triumphs in 2010, 2017 and 2019.
Another major drawback with Option B was the fact that the Tailteann Cup winners were not given the carrot of automatic qualification for the following year’s All-Ireland series. For many, this turned the competition into an after-thought that had all the hallmarks of a re-branded Tommy Murphy Cup.
So while there was plenty to like about Option B, the drawbacks were ultimately too big to ignore for many. However, going back to the status quo cannot be an option either.
The one thing that almost everyone agrees upon is that the current system is irredeemably broken. Hence the need for forward-thinking, hopefully along the lines outlined above.