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Championship needs a face-lift

Sport


Championship season needs a face-lift

A FEW weeks ago the Football Task Force launched their new plans for the football competitions. Chaired by Paraic Duffy (formerly of the GAC and recently announced as the new GAA Player Welfare Officer), I had hoped the championships might get a makeover but it emerges their focus was really on the league format.
It looks like we are heading back to four divisions of eight teams, graded according to recent form and this is welcomed. It may happen in 2007 or the following year depending on how counties wish to progress matters. Obviously, all counties will want to be masters of their final destiny and so a sudden announcement is unlikely to get majority support for 2007; but we will see.
The championship is of course in a strait-jacket because of the insistence on the provincial arrangements. I agree with this policy and so only a tweak here or there is possible. But I am a little disappointed with the very small adjustments made. Essentially there are three new rules:
-    Division 4 teams go to Tommy Murphy Cup once beaten in their provincial championship (NO backdoor for them). An exception to this is where a Div 4 team made the provincial final; they would then avail of the backdoor.
-    This will reduce the number of Qualifier Rounds to 3 and ALL draws in this phase will be open (teams can meet twice).McStay pic
-    The All Ireland Series (QF, SF and Final) will NOT be pre-ordained as up to now. Again, an open draw will determine the opponent and NOT the old ‘Winners Connacht v runners-up Leinster’ arrangement.
I agree with all of these proposals but would like to see certain teams always attracting home venue. It would avoid a scenario whereby Kerry ended up playing Longford in Killarney. That type of amendment may yet be inserted.
The current set-up fails to really spark until the provincial final stages. It is not that terribly difficult to predict the eight teams that will make it to August. It’s perhaps a little rash to describe the first two months of the season as little more than an elimination process. But the reality of this championship and recent ones is that the stronger counties disengage the weaker ones and where the odd surprise is executed, the back door/trap door remains an option to plan your return.
This is best proven by an audit of the provincial finalists for 2006. Only one team from the 2006 NFL Division 2 has made it through. And Donegal’s recent history allows them to believe they are more at home in the higher echelons.
The Qualifiers will give all early season disappointments the opportunity to redress their plight but the August Bank Holiday weekend will nearly always feature the premier footballing counties. The new system, introduced in 2001, was not designed to accomplish this but history of it suggests it does. The stronger counties enjoyed a position of dominance before the Qualifiers and post their introduction, the status quo remains.
There can be little doubt that the provincial series, as currently configured, perpetuates this scenario. An ‘Elite Eight’ was always likely to emerge, especially if they are kept on opposite sides of the draw. For the most part, this happened with the 2006 draw. 
Ulster generally loses out because it has at least four genuine contenders with perhaps Tyrone and Armagh to the fore presently. But a quick check on the other provinces tosses out the big players: Munster – Cork and Kerry; Connacht – Galway and Mayo; Leinster – Dublin and Laois. The cut and thrust of the early rounds does lead to casualties but as stated earlier they tend to make their way back in if lady luck rides with them.
Yes, the Qualifiers help greatly to find the best team eventually and this is no crime; we want the best team to win it each year. And if that team falls at an early stage for whatever reason, it is only correct that they are afforded a second chance. And the weaker teams have enjoyed great days on the qualifier road: Westmeath, Fermanagh, Sligo, Roscommon, Longford and others know that a second chance can mean you end up in an All Ireland quarter-final. No doubt some team will emerge next season to capture the imagination.
But it appears to me that its best days are in the rear view mirror. Interest by fans is waning and inexplicably, some teams have failed dismally to embrace the concept. How can a team spend nine months preparing for a crucial championship game, lose it and neglect to prepare properly for a second chance six days later?
A season saving second chance and they turn their noses up at it. Better to get the club championships sorted than head off on the rubber chicken circuit!

RAGING BULLS Westport’s Paul Jennings makes the hard yards during last season’s Heineken Connacht Junior Cup Final against Corinthians. Pic: Ray Ryan

My suggestionsfor new format
WE have a season from January to late September and though it is a tight fit, by and large we get the club scene squeezed in. But it is the very fractured nature of the club programme that now threatens to derail the qualifier concept. And I have a sense the club priority has the high moral ground.
The real pressure point in this mix is the geography of Ireland; our provinces have unequal numbers of counties and so, a level playing field for the conduct of the championships cannot be provided. Four Councils run four excellent competitions with their winners enjoying equal status at the end of their journey. But not throughout it, for Leinster has, for instance, almost twice the number of teams as in Munster.
I have a proposal based on the many schemes e-mailed to me over the years and those produced by other contributors to the GAA newspapers and magazines. The planning guidance is as follows: must be a level playing field; same number of counties in groups; same number of games; home and away venues in alternate years; provincial finals are essential; promotion and relegation must be a feature; quality games assured for TV; club scene must be accommodated.
In an attempt to stay with the guidance, the four best teams in each province are decided upon using a historical matrix that weights results, opposition and any other factors deemed appropriate. The matrix on the right contains what I believe could happen in 2006.
So, 16 teams play in the All-Ireland senior football championship. A round robin (the use of ‘Champions League format’ is strictly prohibited; it might frighten off the purists!) in the province ensures three games with the top two going to the final and the bottom two playing off to avoid relegation.
This means each county gets a minimum of four significant games in the championship each year. Scoring difference is used to determine places where equal points are amassed. These games take place in May/June.
The provincial finals take place at the end of June with the All Ireland semi-finals (no backdoor for beaten provincial finalists) in August and the final in September. But scheduling is a matter for GAA HQ and there is flexibility in this programme for sure. It could all be run off quickly early in the season with an All Ireland final early in August if they wanted. But from a PR perspective it might be better to pad it out over the summer to ensure media exposure.
The competition is so well balanced that one could see many if not all games televised either live or delayed. The crowds would surely flock to the games and the chance to follow your team on a day when they might have to win a game by at least seven points to qualify for the next stage would add great excitement.
And the club is well catered for. Depending on the inter-county scheduling the club gets a choice of windows, many reflecting the old traditional dates used. It’s a win-win situation and the only controversy would be the type of weighting matrix used to establish the best four teams in each province. And then the noise from the casualties arising from it!
It’s not a bad effort and it can be refined. What do you think? Can you do better than the proposals rolled out last month?

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