It seems that the demand for change in the structure of the Championship is not going to go away. The weekend’s analysis was once again dominated by talk regarding the different standards amongst the teams in action.
A ‘B’ Championship was again touted as the best solution despite being proven in the hurling equivalent as a process that has only cemented the hierarchy of top ‘traditional’ teams, while teams like Meath and Antrim – who played possibly the best hurling game of the year on Saturday – did so in front of an empty Croke Park and received very little coverage, with not even a discussion of the game on last weekend’s edition of The Sunday Game.
As this is not a future that football counties seem to want, it’s time to start looking at the root of the problem in football rather than looking for a simple cosmetic solution. A ‘B’ Championship will not make the counties affected more competitive. It won’t even mean less whinging and whining among those paid to talk about football because – as we see every single weekend – they don’t even discuss these games anyway. Longford v Down and Wexford v Fermanagh played some of the best football of the weekend, yet where was the detailed analysis – or actually even any analysis at all – of these games?
We’re constantly being told when certain teams win that it’s because they are Division 1 or 2 teams. In fact, Pat Spillane informed us that many of the teams in the 1B side of the qualifiers had no chance of progression as they would face Division 1 sides, such as Cork and Mayo in the next round. This is despite the fact that Cork and Mayo ended up in the qualifiers following defeats to Division 3 and 2 teams respectively.
However, the National League is crucial to the situation facing Gaelic football at the moment. How can we ask teams playing Division 4 football to then try beat Dublin in the Leinster Championship? I’m not saying it will never happen; it just doesn’t make sense long term.
Many people have suggested two-tier championships or Premier League style formats. This isn’t an option. The provincial championships are at the heart of football for most genuine GAA people and I, for one, will never stop dreaming of seeing a Wexford man lift the Delaney Cup in the near future. Take Dublin out of the equation and Leinster is possibly one of the more enjoyable provincial championships.
There’s no simple solution but it seems that the league is playing a much more important role than maybe anyone expected or planned for; however, it is also no longer serving its purpose for half the teams involved.
For teams competing in Division 3 or 4, it’s like studying Ordinary Level Irish all year and then opting for the Higher Level paper on the day. It’s the same language but at a different level altogether.
In order to make the Championship more competitive, we need to look at the league. Managers and players use the league as preparation for the Championship but managers like David Power, Shane Ward and more like them are having their hands tied at the start of every year.
Now people will rush to inform me that these teams are in Division 4 for a reason and they can get out of it if they’re good enough; but if we are genuinely interested in helping the game, then these counties need to become more competitive and only by consistently playing against better opposition can they hope to make progress.
Consider an open draw for four groups of the league with each of the four All-Ireland semi-finalists separated into each group. The top team in each group progresses to semi-finals. The reward for 2nd and 3rd place teams could be a home draw in the first round of the Championship or a bye to a quarter final etc.
How will this help teams avoid hammerings? It won’t. But then a second-tier championship will permanently rule out any possibility of progress and cement a hierarchical attitude that is already dangerously close to destroying the ethos of the game. A mixed league would allow managers to best prepare for the championship. It would allow coverage of players and teams that are constantly pushed to the side as footnotes and it would also allow for a potential increase in gate receipts for many counties that struggle to draw crowds for Division 3 or 4 games.
Is this a fool-proof plan? Of course not. There’s no such thing. Teams get beaten. Teams get beaten heavily. That’s sport. However, the worst thing we could do now is to start handling certain teams with kid gloves and accepting poor results and poor standards as the norm.
By establishing a second-tier championship, we are deeming poor set ups in counties, poor underage structures, poor coaching, absence of resources, and funding issues as acceptable while condemning the youth in these counties to the mindset that ‘sure this is how it’s always been here’. We should be looking for ways to help and to improve, instead of always looking for a way out.
I find it a shocking pity that those who claim to love our game are happy to stand, or more accurately sit, by this apathy that some counties just will never be competitive or successful. They say it’s impossible but it’s not. Four years ago Fermanagh were beaten by Wicklow in a Division 4 final. They now play Division 2 football, were All-Ireland quarter-finalists last year and gave Dublin all they wanted of it in Croke Park. Roscommon and Cavan the same.
Fearless teams that got their act together and stopped accepting the status quo. We see the same with forward thinking, ambitious managers like David Power, who has emphasised the importance of getting structures in place in Wexford and used the Junior competition to great effect in getting a panel together for the future. For a competitive future.
The Championship in its current format is not perfect but what competition is? The Championship is cut-throat because it matters. You need to be the best and who can argue with that? What teams need is more competitive preparation for Championship and that starts with the National League. It’s time we looked there first before we take drastic action elsewhere.
Ciara O’Toole, Pundit Arena