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Football, power and finance - what shape will 2022 All-Ireland championship take?

The future of football lies in the hands of delegates at Special Congress later this month.

footballstructure (1)

FORMER GPA CEO Paul Flynn made two observations recently that gives rise to optimism that the league-based championship proposal will be successful at Special Congress later this month.

Speaking on the Second Captains podcast this week, Flynn noted that it tends to be easier for the GAA’s top brass to get motions over the line in a Special Congress due to the reduced number of delegates.

In addition, reflecting on his time sitting in fixtures review task force meetings with Larry McCarthy, Flynn felt he was in favour of “ripping up the script and doing things a little bit different.”

McCarthy’s unconventional route to GAA presidency, via New York, means he’s not coming from a provincial background. As a result, he’s less tied to the provincial championships.

Despite it being his first Congress since becoming president, 23 October might well be the defining one of McCarthy’s reign. If installing a split-season was John Horan’s legacy, then changing the structure of the football championship could well go down as McCarthy’s.

To state the obvious, the GAA president is the most powerful person at Special Congress. 

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It’s unclear at this stage which of the two motions that would overhaul the All-Ireland SFC Croke Park’s top brass are in favour of.

Proposal A involves redrawing the provincial boundaries into four conferences of eight, with beaten first round teams allocated into alternative provinces. It has gained little support and is highly unlikely to be voted in.

Option B would see provincial championships played off on a round-robin basis in the early part of the year. A summer championship based on the league would then take place. The top five sides in Division 1, top three in Division 2 and winners of Divisions 3 and 4 would advance into the Sam Maguire Cup. The remaining teams in the bottom two tiers would enter a 14-team Tailteann Cup competition. 

(Watch the GPA’s explainer on Proposal B here)

McCarthy would undoubtedly have made his feelings known through back channels in recent weeks.

larry-mccarthy GAA President Larry McCarthy. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

He hasn’t endorsed either but called for the Association to be “bold” when it comes to restricting the competition and has hinted at his favouritism towards the league-based championship format. 

Speaking at a press conferences on Thursday to endorse Proposal B, GPA chief executive Tom Parsons called for McCarthy to lay his cards on the table.

“I think it is really important, whatever opinion that is,” he said. “I think people need to express their opinions.”

However, as a sitting member of the fixtures review task force that came up with both proposals, McCarthy is unlikely to side with either one in public. Speaking to The42 this week, Connacht secretary John Prenty said it wouldn’t be appropriate for a member of the task force to speak out in favour of either proposal ahead of the vote. 

“I was on the fixtures review committee that proposed both motions and didn’t put any favouritism towards one or the other,” he stated.

“So I think it would be inappropriate for me to be what the feeling is because I’ve got to stay neutral in this because of the fact I was on the committee.”

Whatever about McCarthy’s position, 80% of the playing body that responded to a GPA survey were in favour of Proposal B. It promises the most radical change to the football championship since the competition began, one players, coaches, supporters and the media are crying out for.

“I can see a lot of excitement in players,” said Parsons of the GPA’s preferred format.

Young players won’t tolerate entertaining competitions when they don’t have a chance of winning that competition. Players want to compete and challenge.”

It’s a vote of major importance to the inter-county game. The Munster and Leinster hurling championships will revert to round robin formats in 2022, meaning if the status quo is retained the first half of the summer will be dominated by the small ball code. 

The football championship will sleepwalk along, dependent on competitive games in Ulster and Connacht to keep interest levels up until the All-Ireland quarter-finals roll around. 

The public must wait months before the big guns face off in meaningful games, rather than watching them clash regularly across the season like most other popular team sports. 

Proposal B guarantees seven championship games for every team, gives sides regular games against teams at their own level and provides every county with the opportunity to compete for the Sam Maguire every year. 

Even the teams that fail to reach the Sam Maguire would know that winning the Tailteann Cup also brings the incentive of automatic league promotion.

lee-keegan-celebrates-with-his-daughter-lile-in-the-j-j-nestor-cup The provincial championships would take place in the spring under Proposal B. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

It has flaws but these can be ironed out with tweaks in the years ahead. The possibility of provincial winners being handed four home games in the championship is a good idea that would give added incentive to the spring provincials. 

Kieran Shannon floated the idea that instead of five teams from Division 1 and three from Division 2 qualifying for the All-Ireland series, the top 16 teams be instead split into Division 1A and 1B where the top four in each would advance to the knock-out stages, in addition to the winners of the bottom two divisions. 

“The main thing is do we have a proposal that can adapt, that can change, that is fluid and absolutely we do,” said Parsons.

The fact that the overwhelming majority of current players have indicated they are firmly in favour of an overhaul means it would be a major blow if the status quo is retained next season.

Parsons stated on Thursday that he is confident Proposal B will go through.

However, it still needs 60% of the vote to be successful. The strongest opposition to Proposal B comes from Ulster, where Jim McGuinness, Ulster CEO Brian McAvoy have been the highest profile figures speaking out against it. 

“60% is difficult to achieve every time you go to Congress to change a rule unless it’s something that’s very, very, very easy to understand and simple, getting 60% is difficult,” explains Prenty, a veteran of the GAA political scene.

It’s a high benchmark. It’s not as bad as it was a few years ago when it was 66% but it’s still high.”

Division 4 side Leitrim suffered a 24-point hammering by Mayo in this year’s Connacht SFC. A championship league would avoid this scenario and ultimately help convince players from lower tier counties to commit to inter-county football.

“Sligo took the beating, Leitrim took the beating, Longord took the beating, a lot of the weaker counties took the beating,” says Leitrim chairman Enda Stenson.

“If there’s no change and they put in the same again, a lot of those counties – those beatings are on the table for them again. And that’s not a very good thing.” 

james-mccarthy-and-dessie-reynolds Dublin handed out a heavy beating to Longford in 2018. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

However, he yet to be convinced about the merits of the proposed formats.

“There’s a lot of grey areas in A and B that will have to be ironed out before there’s any definitely position made,” he said. “There’s too many grey areas.

“I don’t know where the 60% can come from. If it was a very clear cut thing yes you could get 60% but when you have inaccuracies, issues that people are not sure of well then you won’t get 60%.”

As is the case in most counties, Leitrim are discussing the matter with clubs and their senior panel before they make a final decision on which way to vote. 

Like Stenson, former president Sean Kelly is not in favour of either format, although he gives Proposal B “a very good chance” of achieving the required votes.

“Especially the way it will operate,” said Kelly. “This is kind of human nature to a certain extent, if the first one is voted on first and that’s rejected, then a lot of delegates will say, ‘Well, maybe we shouldn’t reject the second one as well.’

“So I presume they’ll go in the order they’re written in, the one that is put first will have a less chance of being adopted than the one that’s put in second.

Because really when it comes to the second vote, the first one is rejected, the obviously you’re not voting A or B, you’re voting for or against B which is slightly different.” 

Kelly, who helped modernise the GAA by overseeing the abolishment of Rule 42 during his presidency, strongly believes a proposal he made public in 2015 remains the “best solution.”

However, given the Tailteann Cup will come into play next year and the All-Ireland quarter-finals will revert to straight knock-out, his suggestion is very similar to the structure that will come into play in 2022 if Proposals A and B are unsuccessful. It fails to address the imbalances in the provinces or provide more championship games in the summer months.

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sean-kelly Former GAA President Sean Kelly. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Going back to the prospect of Proposal B being successful, the GPA gave well-reasoned responses to five of the main arguments against the proposal at their media event this week. 

Niall Morgan insisted that winning the Ulster title would “still be prestigious” even if it wasn’t linked to the All-Ireland series. Ulster secretary McAvoy is one of the most ardent opponents of the GPA’s preferred option, having made his feelings clear in separate interviews with RTÉ, the Irish Examiner and Off The Ball.

McAvoy’s description of Option B as “probably the worst motion I ever saw on a Congress clár” was pointed and unnecessary.

His counterpart in Connacht feels some of the media discussion has been unhelpful.  

“I think clubs and counties are smart enough to drill down through what is being proposed and make up their own minds,” said Prenty. “I don’t think there needs to be anybody telling them what to do in the media because normally that turns out to be divisive with one side and the other.

“The Ard Stiúrthóir (Tom Ryan), the President and (director of games and administration) Feargal McGill have explained the motions. There are other motions on the clár for Special Congress as well.

“They were all explained to the provinces and all the counties in the provinces in the last two weeks and now it’s up for the counties to go back to the clubs, look at it and make up their own minds.

“There’s a lot of commentary and we’d probably be better off if we had no commentary and just let people make up their mind.”

In addition to provincial championships losing value, there’s a feeling that some of McAvoy’s opposition comes from a position of not wanting the provincial bodies to lose power.

It’s an assessment that Prenty disagrees with, while he admits they stand to lose out financially. 

“It depends what you mean by power. We’ll definitely lose finance but what power do we have?” he asked.

“There are no financial arrangements about either format yet. The provincial councils make their revenues out of the Connacht senior football championship. And we have other competitions, we had FBD in the past that made small amounts.

“Then we had minor and U20 and the club championship. But what keeps us going I suppose is the money we make out of the senior inter-county championship. And we won’t have a Connacht senior inter-county championship in one of of the formats.

There’s a bit of comment out there that provincial councils will lose power, but at the end of the day between the four provincial councils in the country there’s only four votes out of 300 votes or whatever at Congress.”

Offaly manager John Maughan recently described the GAA as an “overly democratic” organisation when it comes to structural changes, but Kelly has pushed back on that idea.

“I don’t agree with it,” he said. “I wouldn’t be giving the top table any more power. If they have a suggestion then if has merit then they should bo able to convince the delegates because in fairness everybody is out for the good of the GAA at the end of the day.

“If they can’t convince enough people that it’s the best proposal then it obviously isn’t. Centralising power in that regard I wouldn’t agree with because you mightn’t get the best decision always. Often in my experience, both politically and in the GAA, one or two people dominate committees generally.

motion-57-is-passed A view of GAA Congress in 2020. Source: Tom O'Hanlon/INPHO

“If one is strong enough and has someone else to back them, then the others are inclined to acquiesce rather than argue the point strongly.

“So that’s where the safety valve of having a democratic vote is important and also the fact we have reduced it from two-third to 60% makes it easier than it should have been before. So I’d be quite happy with that as it is.”

In two weeks’ time, the delegates at Special Congress will have a major opportunity to revamp the tired, outdated All-Ireland SFC in favour of a modern, fair and entertaining structure. 

Regular games between teams of similar standard in the height of the summer. A path for progression for all counties and achievable targets for every team across all four divisions. 

The GPA and its players will heavily lobby county board officers over the next 14 days to vote for the bold change that would, as Parsons put it, “reignite” the championship.

The ball now sits in the court of the delegates. The future of football lies in their hands. 

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Kevin O'Brien

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