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The FAI bailout: A necessary evil or a reward for poor governance?

The recent announcement of a €30 million rescue package for the FAI was heralded as a ‘new era of hope’ in Minister Shane Ross’s Sunday Independent column on February 2nd.

The Minister for Sport went on to suggest that we could “celebrate in moderation” due to the fact that the grassroots “has been recognised as the prime focus of Ireland’s most popular sport”. He noted that “lower and middle-paid jobs have been secured” and warned that the conditions of the deal “must be enforced to ensure our association never falls into the wrong hands again”.

Not surprisingly, the backlash came swiftly as other sporting organisations began accusing the Minister of rewarding bad governance.

First out of the traps was Basketball Ireland, who released a statement highlighting the fact that a financial lifeline hadn’t been forthcoming when they ran up debts of €1.5 million in 2008. Instead they were forced to impose a levy on their members and make half of their employees redundant. 

On the following day, an article by Martin Breheny appeared in the Irish Independent under the headline ‘GAA head the list facing a fleecing after FAI bailout’.

Breheny made a number of pertinent points, particularly in relation to the fact that ordinary citizens will ultimately be the ones that’ll have to “reach into their pockets to pay for the mismanagement of others”. He was also heavily critical of Minister Shane Ross and his assertion that the FAI rescue package was a cause to “celebrate in moderation”.

“Celebrate what – even in moderation?” Breheny thundered. “That under the unsuspecting noses of his department and Sport Ireland, one of the country’s major sporting organisations landed the taxpayer with a massive bill? Yes Minister, let’s raise a glass to that. Cheers.”

It’s a fair point. However, I believe Breheny is on much shakier ground if he thinks the GAA have any reason to gripe over the FAI bailout. While Basketball Ireland can rightly point to the fact that they were abandoned in their hour of need, the GAA have generally found Government Buildings a much more welcoming place.

For instance, when Dublin GAA found itself sinking into crisis in the early-2000s they were able to turn to Taoiseach Bertie Ahern for help. And when John Bailey, the then-Chairman of Dublin GAA, walked into Ahern’s office on a random day in 2002, it arguably laid the foundations for the unprecedented levels of success that were to follow in the subsequent decade.

As a result of that meeting, a steady funding stream was provided for Gaelic Games in the capital city. It was described as follows in an article by John Fogarty for the Irish Examiner in August 2018.

“[Bertie] Ahern played a significant role in Government money being provided for the development of Gaelic games in his native county, close to €1m per year since 2005 via Sport Ireland, which works out at approximately €13m.”

When asked about this on Radio Kerry’s Terrace Talk programme in August 2018, Ahern offered the following explanation for his willingness to provide financial assistance for GAA in the capital city.

“We weren’t doing well at the end of the last decade. As manager of the team, Pat [Gilroy] was going around trying to organise funding. If the success didn’t come in 2011 and the good league campaign, we wouldn’t have got the sponsorship.

“Yes, Dublin has a big population, but it’s a tough game in Dublin. It’s huge soccer country; it’s huge rugby country; it’s huge people-who-couldn’t-care-less-about-Gaelic-football; huge new Irish population, if I put it that way; and you have people who just aren’t sympathetic to GAA in the city.”

Whether you agree or disagree with Bertie Ahern on the merits of providing such disproportionate funding for a single county, it has certainly been a successful strategy in terms of boosting rates of participation in the capital. And if you consider participation in sport to be a social good, then it should be regarded as money well spent.

However, it has also been accompanied by one glaring failure. Participation rates in Gaelic Games may be soaring in Dublin, but it has largely been confined to middle class areas of the city. Since the funding started rolling in around 15 years ago, Dublin GAA has failed make a significant impact in working class areas and those parts of the inner city that have been blighted by social deprivation.

For instance, one of the major success stories has been the creation of a new GAA club in the leafy suburb of Castleknock. It was founded in 1998, and an extensive profile piece on the club appeared in the Irish Independent on the eve of last September’s All-Ireland Football Final.

Under the headline ‘Lattes and lineballs: How the GAA conquered the Dublin suburbs’, John Meagher outlined the impressive work that went into developing the club over a 21-year period, culminating in plans to open “an enormous and architecturally striking clubhouse worth in the region of €1.5m”.

He went to note that club member Ciaran Kilkenny would be donning the ‘Number 15’ jersey for Dublin in the following day’s decider, as they chased an unprecedented fifth Sam Maguire Cup in a row.

“If these are good times for one of the fastest-growing sports clubs in the country – and for its illustrious poster-boy who is also a gifted hurler – it’s never been a better time for the GAA and its stranglehold on middle-class Dublin,” Meagher added.

But the same article included a note of concern from the GAA’s Director of Games Development & Research, Pat Daly.   

“You can never generalise, because there would be a good GAA presence in somewhere like Finglas. But in north Clondalkin and parts of Tallaght, Gaelic games wouldn’t have a profile there as much as you’d have elsewhere.

“It can be difficult to penetrate parts of Dublin, because it’s not that you’re trying to develop the games there, it’s the social problems you might have to overcome,” Daly explained.

Those sentiments were echoed by Castleknock GAA Club Chairman Charlie Spillane, who admitted that the club were having difficulties achieving its targets outside the middle classes.

Of course many people will point to Philly McMahon’s inspirational story as an example of how the GAA can help vulnerable young kids steer clear of the scourge of drugs and crime. Unfortunately, though, the Dublin and Ballymun Kickhams star would appear to be an exception in terms of the demographic that generally seems to gravitate towards Gaelic Games.

The GAA has always prided itself on its connection to the grassroots, and its ability to spread its tentacles into every parish in the country. Yet its inability to make more of an impact in working class and deprived areas, particularly in Dublin at a time when the game has never been stronger in the city, is certainly regrettable.

At a time when the scourge of drugs and gangland crime are devastating communities in the inner city and beyond, it is imperative that sporting organisations are furnished with funds to help provide a viable alternative for young kids.   

And this takes us back to the FAI bailout. While the GAA struggles to capture the hearts and minds of working class communities, soccer continues to thrive in the most socially-deprived areas of the country.

The FAI Junior Cup attracts an entry of around 600 clubs every year, making it one of the largest national amateur cup competitions in Europe. Its inaugural competition took place in 1923/24 and was won by Brideville, a club based in The Liberties area of Dublin’s south inner city.

The most successful club of the last ten years has been Sheriff Youth Club, who are based in Sheriff Street. The north inner city club has lifted the FAI Junior Cup on four separate occasions since 2012, and were runners-up twice.

A host of other soccer clubs have established a strong presence in working class areas of Dublin. They include Cherry Orchard (based in Ballyfermot), Crumlin United, Eastwall/Bessborough F.C., Liffey Wanderers F.C., Home Farm F.C. (based in Whitehall), and many others both in Dublin and across the country.  

So until the GAA start making their presence felt in places like Sheriff Street, East Wall and other areas of the inner city, it really has no business sniping at the Government’s decision to provide a bailout to the soccer community.

In whose interests will it serve to have grassroots soccer on its knees, particularly given its strength in working class communities and socially-deprived areas of Dublin’s inner city?

So while Martin Breheny might be right in saying that a €30 million bailout is no cause for celebration, there is also a bigger picture to consider. The GAA has not been shy in looking for financial assistance in the past, and the likes of Bertie Ahern was more than willing to welcome them into the Taoiseach’s office with open arms.

It was government assistance that set the ball rolling for Dublin GAA in the early-2000s, and paved the way for the unprecedented levels of success it has enjoyed over the past decade.

Gaelic Games has been riding a crest of a wave in recent years, and overall revenue of €63.5 million was declared in 2018. That is expected to rise to more than €70 million for 2019, given the fact that the All-Ireland Football Final went to a replay (not to mention the fact that stand tickets for the final were subjected to a price hike of €10, which brought it up to a whopping €90).

So in the grand scheme of things, is €30 million really that big a price to pay to save Irish soccer?

The former FAI chief executive John Delaney appeared before an Oireachtas Committee in April 2019, but refused to answer any questions in relation to a €100,000 payment he made to the FAI in 2017.

The stellar work of Sunday Times journalist Mark Tighe, seems to have finally laid bare the disgraceful levels of poor governance at the FAI. It has prompted a clear out of the old guard, as well as the demise of John Delaney, whose era at the helm of Irish soccer came crashing down in a torrent of shame.

But Irish soccer is bigger than John Delaney and the FAI. And if €30 million is the price it takes to keep the game viable in this country, then surely it’s a price worth paying.

Because no sport, with the possible exception of boxing, has been more active in working class communities and socially-deprived areas of the country than soccer has been. It deserves to be offered a ‘new era of hope’.

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The Tier Two championship: Is it part of an overall strategy or are the GAA just making it up as they go along?

The rushing through of a Tier Two championship for 2020 has left many people feeling uneasy at the way the GAA goes about its business    

There are plenty of GAA people who would be in favour of a Tier Two competition, particularly for lower-ranked counties that make an early exit from the championship. It seems logical given the huge levels of effort and commitment that goes into preparing an inter-county team each year.

For it to be all over by the second week in June, after just a couple of championship matches, seems an awful waste of six or seven months training. So the idea of a second tier competition, to run concurrently with the main championship, makes sense on a number of levels.

However, the only way it can be a success is if it is calibrated correctly from the start. It means that, before a ball is even kicked, the GAA should have a clearly outlined vision designed to capture the imagination of players and supporters alike. Without that, it may be doomed to failure before it even gets off the ground.

It’s not like we haven’t been down this road before. The Tommy Murphy Cup was introduced for similar reasons back in 2004. But the lack of buy-in from many of the counties involved resulted in it being scrapped after just five seasons.

So if a Tier Two competition is to have any chance of succeeding it is imperative to have all the pieces of the puzzle in place ahead of implementation. The one thing you shouldn’t do is rush it through on a whim, and then hope that ‘it’ll-be-alright-on-the-night’.

But that is what we seem to be getting with the motion that received the green light at Special Congress on October 19th. It is hard to see why it needed to be hurried through so quickly, particularly given that a task force had been set up last June to look into all aspects of the fixtures calendar.

GAA President John Horan has said that the Fixtures Calendar Review was “one of the most important projects that the Association will undertake this year”. That task force has been quietly going about its business for the past four months, and their recommendations are expected to be published in the coming weeks.    

Yet despite emphasising its importance earlier in the year, Horan decided to go on a solo run and ram through a Tier Two competition before the task force has even had a chance to publish its findings.  

Is this really what passes as best practice in the GAA? An outgoing President, who feels that he alone knows what’s best for the organisation, decides to push his pet project through Special Congress with barely a discussion.    

Nobody with the best interests of the GAA at heart wants to knock something just for the sake of it. The new Tier Two competition may well turn out to be a roaring success. But that doesn’t change the fact that the manner of its introduction raises serious questions about the way the GAA does its business.   

A major problem seems to be the lack of an over-arching vision for Gaelic Games in the 21st century. It means that any structural change that is introduced tends to be based on the whim of whatever President, or Director-General, happens to be in the hot seat. 

Some of the changes brought in over recent years have certainly been positive. For instance, the ‘mark’ has successfully re-established the dying art of high fielding. The black card has also been somewhat effective in reducing cynical fouling. But many other decisions have been highly questionable at best.

***

To put it in context, here is a timeline of some of the more controversial decisions made by the GAA over the past 17 years. Some of them may have been made with the best of intentions. But many of these decisions have had far-reaching consequences, and are arguably doing great harm to the game……

2002:

  • A Strategic Review is carried out by the GAA which recommends that Dublin be given special attention due to its large population. It would require major investment in terms of finance and personnel.
  • The committee also suggests that Dublin be divided into two separate teams, with the transition to be completed in time for the 2005 season.

2004:

  • The GAA launches the Tommy Murphy Cup, a Tier Two competition designed to benefit the lower-ranked football counties. 

2005:

  • Dublin claim their first provincial crown since 2002, and only their second since 1995. It kick-starts an era of dominance that sees them win 14 of the next 15 Leinster titles, including nine-in-a-row between 2011 and 2019.
  • The recommendation to split Dublin into two separate teams never happens. 
The 2005 Leinster final saw Dublin beat Laois by a single point, 0-14 to 0-13. The Dubs have gone on to win 14 out of a possible 15 provincial titles since then.

2006:

  • Dublin beat Longford by a narrow two-point margin in a Leinster quarter-final at Pearse Park. It is the last game the Dubs will play away from home in the championship for the next 12 years.
  • Dublin go on to play a total of 83 championship matches since that trip to Pearse Park in 2006, and 77 of them are on their home patch in Croke Park. 
  • Of the remaining six matches, four go to neutral venues (O’Moore Park, Portlaoise on three occasions and Nowlan Park, Kilkenny once).
  • Their only two away games are against Tyrone in Omagh, as part of the newly-devised Super-8 phase of the competition that is introduced in 2018. 

2008:

  • The Tommy Murphy Cup is scrapped after just five seasons due to lack of interest from players and supporters.

2014:

  • The GAA does a deal with Sky Sports which gives the pay-per-view channel exclusive rights to 14 championship matches.
  • The free-to-air Irish channel, TV3, is squeezed out of the GAA market despite enjoying good viewership figures over the previous six years.
  • Alan Milton, the GAA’s head of media relations, defends the Sky deal on the basis that it will “bring our games to Irish people abroad” as well as “audiences who have never come into contact with [our games]”. He denies that increased revenue was a factor in the arrangement.
The GAA deal with Sky Sports began in 2014.

2016:

  • The viewership figures for GAA on Sky Sports are revealed to be desperately poor. GAA historian Paul Rouse sums it up as follows in his Irish Examiner column on January 21st: “Basically, high-quality live hurling championship matches shown on Sky Sports in Ireland and in England draw fewer viewers than repeats of Judge Judy and the post-midnight ‘highlights’ of Dáil Debates in the middle of summer.”
  • Ten months later, the GAA renews its deal with Sky Sports for a further five years.
  • At the same time, the GAA ends a six-year agreement with Newstalk for the rights to broadcast live radio commentary of matches.
  • RTÉ Radio, who held the rights along with Newstalk over the previous six years, are given full and exclusive live radio rights for all GAA games.
  • The people behind Newstalk’s ‘Off the Ball’ show express their disappointment that “after six years of innovative and extensive coverage, the GAA has decided not to renew that agreement”. They also question why RTÉ “would use state funding to purchase rights for a service that was already available to the public, free of charge, via Newstalk”.

2017:

  • The GAA decide to replace the All-Ireland Quarter-Finals with a round-robin format containing two groups of four. Dubbed the ‘Super-8s’, it is designed to create increased excitement and revenue by having the top teams face each other on a more regular basis. An added attraction is the prospect of having some high profile matches taking place in regional grounds across the country, instead of Croke Park.   
  • The GPA and CPA, along with many others, are opposed to the idea for a variety of reasons.
  • One of the main problems people have with the proposed new format is that it is elitist in nature, and will only serve to widen the gap between the top teams and the rest.
  • Another issue is that it adds an extra couple of rounds to a fixtures calendar that is already at breaking point, and shows scant regard for the club player who is left twiddling his thumbs for most of the summer.  
  • The new format also contains a glaring anomaly that allows Dublin to have two home games, while every other county only gets one. But the GAA decide to press ahead regardless, prompting outrage in many quarters. Colm Parkinson, the former Laois footballer and presenter of The GAA Hour, makes the following observation in an article on SportsJoe.ie: “The decision to give Dublin, the best team in the country, two home games in the Super 8’s is shocking. It’s a decision based on money and could not have been made in the interest of fairness to players, which all governing bodies should ensure for their competitions.”

2018:

  • The draw for the third round of the Qualifiers sees Kildare get a home tie against Mayo.
  • The GAA decide that St. Conleth’s Park in Newbridge isn’t big enough to accommodate Mayo’s large contingent of supporters, and home advantage is taken away from Kildare. The match is scheduled for Croke Park instead.
  • Kildare refuse to give up home advantage and tell the GAA that it’s ‘Newbridge or Nowhere’. The GAA initially dig their heels in and threaten to hand Mayo a walkover if Kildare do not turn up in Croke Park. They also claim that the reason the match cannot go ahead in Newbridge is down to health and safety concerns.
  • Kildare manager Cian O’Neill goes on RTÉ’s Six One News and disputes the claim that there is a health and safety issue. He cites the fact that Kildare GAA has already received the backing of An Garda Siochaná, and would have “no difficulty in hosting the fixture as an all-ticket affair”.
  • The GAA eventually back down due to public pressure. Kildare’s principled stance pays dividends as they pull off a minor shock by beating a Mayo team that had contested the previous two All-Ireland finals.  
Kildare manager Cian O’Neill appeared on RTE’s Six One News during the ‘Newbridge or Nowhere’ controversy in June 2018.

February 2019:

  • Donegal GAA put forward a motion aimed at getting rid of the anomaly that allows Dublin to have two home games in the Super-8s.
  • Dublin GAA secretary John Costello opposes the motion and brands it “divisive and mean-spirited”. Those sentiments are echoed by former GAA president Seán Kelly, who calls it a “very negative motion” that “deserves a negative response”. Kelly goes on to note that “anyone who wants to beat the Dubs should aspire to do so in Croke Park”, before adding that it’s “certainly what we aspire to do in Kerry as we bid to stop the ‘Drive for Five’”.
  • Donegal’s motion is duly defeated after receiving just 36% support from delegates. Seven month’s later, Sean Kelly’s native Kerry fail in their bid to stop Dublin completing the ‘Drive for Five’.   

October 2019:

  • A motion to introduce a Tier Two competition in 2020 comes before Special Congress.
  • GAA President John Horan tells delegates that RTÉ Head of Sport Declan McBennett is confident that the new competition will receive live television coverage. Horan confirms that this is based on a text message sent by McBennett to a staff member in Croke Park, as opposed to any official talks held with the state broadcaster.
  • Delegates vote overwhelmingly in favour of the Tier Two competition.  

***

So this takes us back to the original question: Is there an overall strategy or are the GAA just making it up as they go along?

It is certainly difficult to find any over-arching vision in the timeline of decision-making that is laid out above. If there is a trend running through it, it would appear to be a preoccupation with bringing in money for the organisation at the cost of everything else.

This is particularly apparent in the way Dublin have been given special treatment due to their large population and support base. There may be many good reasons for promoting the game in the capital city. But it should not run counter to competition fairness.

Can anyone point to a popular sport across the globe in which the strongest team get to play almost 93% of their games at home? And then on the rare occasion when there is an opportunity to take the Dubs out of their home patch, the GAA inevitably opt for a neutral venue that’ll best suit the travelling Dublin supporters rather than the county they are up against.

On top of that, Dublin are handed two home games in the Super-8s when every other county gets one. And when challenged on this, the GAA circle the wagons and throw out disparaging remarks like “mean-spirited” and “divisive”.

Yet those at the top table don’t appear to see anything wrong in this. But they are pursuing a very risky strategy by placing revenue ahead of competition fairness.

In this regard, the chickens are already coming home to roost in the shape of plummeting attendances for recent Leinster finals at Croke Park. The amount of people turning up for Super-8 matches at Croke Park has been pretty abysmal as well.  

However, the preferential treatment of Dublin GAA is just one of many concerns. In addition to that there is also the Sky Sports deal, the fixtures mess, the marginalisation of the club player and the failure to address under-the-table-payments to managers.  

In recent weeks, there has been evidence of further fallout with the financial disputes that have erupted in Mayo and Galway. There was also a segment on RTÉ’s Prime Time programme on October 24th which highlighted an issue of ‘serious concern’ in regard to unauthorised spending by a senior GAA official.

The most worrying element in all this is that these recent controversies may just be the tip of the iceberg. And it would be naïve to think that the financial turmoil many counties find themselves in isn’t a by-product of GAA policy.  

A pertinent question that needs to be asked is whether the GAA have inadvertently created an ‘arms race’ through the bankrolling of Dublin. In other words, is the chasing pack in danger of bankrupting themselves in a bid to try and stay competitive with the Dubs?

It is hardly a coincidence that it’s the people pouring sponsorship money into Mayo and Galway that have been kicking up the biggest fuss in recent weeks, and demanding to know how their money is being spent. But is it any wonder that counties are haemorrhaging money when Dublin is being held up by the GAA as the benchmark for excellence.

Achieving excellence is much more attainable when your county board can strike a multi-million euro sponsorship deal with a global corporate entity like AIG. For a start, it means that volunteers don’t have to spend half the year fundraising to keep the show on the road.

To give an example, a team of volunteers attached to Roscommon GAA spent a large chunk of 2018 promoting their ‘Win a House in Dublin’ raffle across the shopping centres of Dublin and further afield. It eventually netted around €1.4m, with a profit margin of just over €943,000.   

To put that in context, an article by Colm Keys that appeared in the Irish Independent on May 19th of last year revealed that Dublin’s accounts for 2017 showed “just €55,000 under the ‘fundraising’ table, one of the lowest in the country”.

Yet the GAA continues to use the fig leaf of ‘amateur ethos’ to deflect attention from the gross inequality that now lies at the heart of the organisation. And the longer it allows this to go unchecked, the wider the chasm will get between the haves and the have-nots.

Carlow’s Turlough O’Brien

This slide towards elitism has been gathering pace for some time now. For many, the introduction of a Tier Two championship was just another step along the way. It prompted the following reaction from Carlow manager Turlough O’Brien in an article by Martin Breheny that appeared in the Irish Independent on October 24th.       

“It’s leading to elitism and that will take it towards some form of semi-professionalism,” O’Brien warned. “Counties are fundraising in the US to provide more and more money to spend on county teams.

“The more successful the county, the more they can get but isn’t there something wrong with all this money being raised just to spend on county teams?

“We’re heading for a revolution in the organisation unless we work out what’s best for everybody and take steps to implement it. It can’t all be about ‘Super 8s’ and the top teams,” he reasoned.  

The time has surely come for the GAA to decide what it stands for in the 21st century. If that means professionalism then they need to come out and say that, and set about creating a vision for the future based on those principles.

On the other hand, if they want to maintain an amateur ethos then they need to start doing a better job of pooling resources, re-distributing the wealth fairly and levelling the playing field a bit more.     

Either way, the organisation is at a crossroads. And what they cannot afford to do is continue to operate in this limbo-region where it’s professionalism for the few, and an amateur ethos for the many.  

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The GAA Strategic Review: Why was it not fully implemented?

Gaelic Football is ploughing headlong into a crisis, the seeds of which were sown in 2002 when Dublin GAA were allowed to cherry-pick from that year’s Strategic Review

When the GAA Strategic Review was released in 2002, the essential message to emerge from it was that Dublin needed to be prioritised. The chairman of the committee, Peter Quinn, noted at the time that Dublin required “special attention” due to the fact that it accounted for “30 per cent of the state’s population”.

In an Irish Times article from Jan 21st of that year, Quinn was quoted as saying that they would be “recommending sizeable investment in terms of finance and personnel”. He also said that the committee would be recommending that Dublin be divided into two separate teams, with the transition to be completed in time for the 2005 season.

In the same article, Dublin’s newly-appointed senior football manager Tommy Lyons responded to the proposals as follows: “I’m happy we’re talking about change. We shouldn’t be afraid of change, irrespective of how it affects individuals. Something radical is needed when you’re dealing with a county of 1.2 million people.

“In isolation, the idea of splitting Dublin in two mightn’t have any particular value but as part of a whole review programme of development and investment, it might well make sense. There are so many areas in the Dublin region that are not properly serviced,” he said.

Over the following years, the special attention duly arrived in the shape of millions of euros in investment. But the split never happened.

Last July, Lyons was speaking once again about Dublin’s funding. But this time he seemed to be singing from a different hymn sheet.

“This isn’t about money. It’s about hard work and county boards not waiting for others to do the heavy lifting,” the former Dublin manager declared in an Irish Independent article from July 4th.

“No amount of cheap shots about money in Dublin will change that. It’s arseboxing of the highest order. Just because an exceptional Dublin senior football team, led by an exceptional manager, is going well people are having a go.

“Fine, if that’s what they want to do, but let’s stick with facts, not stuff that just doesn’t hold up,” he argued.

When asked about the Strategic Review back in 2002, former Dublin football manager Tommy Lyons felt that the splitting of Dublin “made sense” as part of the overall review programme

Lyons did not make any mention of the splitting of Dublin, despite the fact that he felt it “made sense” as part of the overall strategy in 2002.

And why would he? Especially since Dublin were able to receive all the spoils from the 2002 strategic review but without having to take on any of the accompanying pain. It means that what we are left with is a region that has the population and funding of a province, but continues to operate as just another county.

This begs the following question. If Dublin GAA want to operate as a county like any other, then why is it being singled out for “special attention”?

On the other hand, if Dublin is too strategically important to be treated as just another county then why does it continue to operate with just one county team, 17 years after the strategic committee recommended it be split?

Surely they cannot have it both ways.

***

So what can be done to address the imbalance?

The latest suggestion to emanate from the higher echelons of the GAA is a proposal to give the Leinster champions a bye into the provincial semi-finals.

Writing in the Irish Independent on September 6th, Colm Keys noted that the reason given by Leinster GAA chairman Jim Bolger for the proposed change was that it would give counties more time to prepare for an encounter with the top team in Leinster.

So if this proposal goes through, it will effectively mean more special treatment for Dublin GAA. Under the new scenario, they will avoid the opening two rounds in Leinster and will be able to tailor their training schedule to enable them to hit peak fitness later in the summer. Other counties, meanwhile, will need to hit the ground running four or five week’s earlier.

If the GAA truly wanted to give teams a better chance of beating Dublin, then why not have an open draw? That would open up the possibility of Dublin having to travel to Meath or Kildare for an away fixture in early May.

This is how it currently works in Ulster and Connacht, and heavyweights like Tyrone and Mayo have suffered early provincial exits on a number of occasions in recent seasons. So if the GAA was serious about tackling the inequity in Leinster, wouldn’t that be a good place to start?  

Ultimately, though, it is just tinkering around the edges of the problem and ignoring the root cause.    

John Horan and the GAA hierarchy seem intent on pushing the narrative that the current Dublin team is just an outlier and their dominance will soon pass.

But anybody who has been tracking the evolution of their squad over the past six-to-eight years will rightly be sceptical of this argument.

The turnover of players has been too extensive to consider it to be just one exceptional cohort enjoying an extended period of success, as Kerry did in the late-70s and early-80s. Rather, it is a conveyor belt of top class talent being churned out on an annual basis, resulting in the perennial regeneration of this Dublin team.

Apart from the strategic funding, it has also enabled Dublin GAA to secure lucrative sponsorship deals which can be targeted specifically at their inter-county teams. This type of revenue stream is something that will never be within reach for the majority of counties.     

Given all that, it is hard to see any other solution than the splitting of Dublin. For their loyal supporters, that cannot be an easy thing to hear. But it’s not something that fans of the other 31 counties should be cock-a-hoop about either.

Imagine having to watch an All-Ireland final, or even a provincial final, being contested by Dublin North and Dublin South. It is hardly an ideal scenario for anyone, is it?

Yet we are where we are. Dublin has become a financial juggernaut and we now have to deal with the consequences. That particular horse has long since bolted, and, most worrying of all, attendances have been plummeting due to the lack of competitive fare on offer.

So it appears as if we are left with two options; one of which is bad and the other terrible.

The bad option is to split Dublin. The terrible one is to keep the status quo and see the Dubs destroy opponents with depressing regularity, often without having to step out of second gear.  

So what is the solution?

Well if it does mean the splitting of Dublin, then the best we can hope for is that some sort of compromise could be reached that might be agreeable to both sides.

In that vein, I believe that the changes outlined in the following blog post may be one potential way forward……

A revamped Leinster Championship

Could the following structural change have the potential to breathe life back into the Leinster Championship?……

1) Dublin, due to population and financial clout, should be treated as a sub-province instead of a county. It could be split into the following four regions:

  • Dublin North
  • Dublin South
  • Dublin East
  • Dublin West

2) Following on from that, the Leinster provincial championship could be split into two sub-provinces:

  • Leinster East (comprising the four Dublin regions)
  • Leinster West (comprising the other ten competing counties)

3) The Leinster East championship could be played on a round-robin basis between the four Dublin regions. The winning team would be crowned Leinster East champions and earn the right to represent Dublin County for the remainder of the championship.

4) This would mean that whichever team emerges from Leinster East would be known simply as ‘Dublin’ once they progress beyond their own sub-province and into the championship proper. 

5) The three Dublin regions that fail to progress beyond their sub-province would be eliminated from the championship and ineligible for the Qualifiers. 

6) Leinster West could be run as a straight knockout (along the lines of the current provincial championship, but without Dublin). The winning county would be crowned Leinster West champions and progress to take on Dublin in the Leinster Final proper.

7) The nine counties that are eliminated from the Leinster West sub-provincial championship would enter the Qualifiers as usual, as would the loser of the Leinster Final proper.

8) So there would be three trophies to play for in Leinster:

  • Leinster East sub-provincial championship
  • Leinster West sub-provincial championship
  • Leinster provincial title (i.e. Consisting of the two sub-provincial champions playing off for the Delaney Cup in an overall decider at Croke Park, maintaining the current tradition)

***

So what would be the ‘pros and cons’ to this structural change?

Pros

1) Extra opportunities for Dublin footballers

As it stands, only 30 or 40 Dublin footballers can aspire to make a county panel on any given year. Under the regional system outlined above, 120-160 players would have an opportunity to represent their county. This would be a bit more reflective of Dublin’s population size.  

2) Only one Dublin team eligible to compete for provincial and All-Ireland titles

Dublin only gets split into regions for the purposes of an intra-county championship. So their supporters will still have a single team to get behind once they move beyond their own internal championship, and start playing other counties.

Each region could wear their own distinctive colours in the Leinster East championship, with the winners earning the right to wear the traditional navy and sky blue for the championship proper.

3) The other ten counties in Leinster cannot meet Dublin until the Leinster Final

The revamped format would provide a greater incentive for the weaker counties in Leinster, as they will have a sub-provincial title to compete for which does not include Dublin.

This should make for a very competitive Leinster West championship, comprising of teams that are more evenly matched than is currently the case. The county that does eventually qualify to meet Dublin in the Leinster Final proper will have already proven itself to be the best of the rest.

4) A revamped Allianz League could include the four Dublin regions

  • If the four Dublin regions (North, South, East, West) were to compete as separate entities in the league, it would provide competitive inter-county football for more than 100 Dublin footballers every year.
  • The number of teams competing in the league would be increased to 35, which could be split into five groups of seven.
  • Division 1 could be split into 1A and 1B, and the same in Division 2.  
  • So there would be 14 teams in Division 1 (spilt into two groups of seven), and the same in Division 2. Division 3 would also be left with seven teams.
  • No more than two Dublin regions could be allowed in any section. So if all four Dublin teams were in Division 1, then two of them would have to go into 1A and the other two in 1B.
  • The leagues could be run off in the usual way. But instead of the top two qualifying for a league final, it would be the winners of 1A and 1B that’d progress to the Division 1 final. The same thing would happen in Division 2A and 2B.
  • Division 3 would see the top two qualify for the final, and both promoted to replace the bottom teams in 2A and 2B.
  • If you wanted to run a tiered championship, you could still use the Allianz League standings for seeding purposes. Otherwise, you could just continue as is with the backdoor system (but without the Dublin regional teams that lost out in the Leinster East round-robin phase).

Cons

1) A Dublin team will always be guaranteed a place in the Leinster Final proper.

It is not ideal to have a Dublin team guaranteed a spot in the Leinster Final every year. But, in practice, this can hardly be seen as an issue given that the Dubs have won 14 of the last 15 provincial titles (stretching back to 2005).

The GAA are currently proposing to give Dublin a bye into the provincial semi-finals, in the hope that it will give other counties in Leinster a better chance of being competitive with them. If that’s your ultimate goal, wouldn’t it make more sense to split the county first and then have the top Dublin region take on the best-of-the-rest in the provincial final?      

2) Dublin’s footballing talent will be diluted across the four regional teams

From a Dublin perspective, this may be seen as a negative. But for the sake of a fairer competition it’s hardly a bad thing, particularly given the vast population advantage it enjoys over every other county.

3) The Allianz League dilemma: To split or not to split?

If you wanted to maintain the status quo, the Dublin region that wins the Leinster East sub-provincial championship could also be given the honour of representing Dublin in the following season’s Allianz League.

But that would mean that the other three regions would have no competitive football for 10 or 11 months of the year. So it would make much more sense for the four regions to compete as separate entities in the league, thus giving every team an equal amount of competitive action each year.  

***

I am sure many will disagree with these suggestions. There may also be issues that I have not considered which will be pointed out by others. But whatever your point of view, I don’t think any fair-minded person would disagree that this is a debate worth having.

The football championship is already in crisis, and this has been borne out by plummeting attendances. The current President of the GAA has been very quick to defend his native Dublin from accusations of financial doping.

But the latest proposal to hand Dublin a bye to the provincial semi-finals is just a tacit acknowledgment that the current system is not fit-for-purpose. On top of that, there is the two-tier system that John Horan is looking to bulldoze through before the end of his presidency.    

There may well be further tinkering around the edges over the coming seasons. But if the Dubs continue to dominate in the way they have done over the past few seasons, then the voices of dissent may become too loud to ignore.

The GAA hierarchy may not want to engage in that debate right now. But it’s not going away, and sooner or later they will need to grasp the nettle. It may not result in the changes outlined above, but something radical will eventually be required to address the current structural imbalance.