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'Quick-fix solution' or 'cracking idea' - GAA players' view on two-tier football championship

We discussed it with five players from Division 3 and 4 counties.

Updated Nov 22nd 2018, 7:45 PM

THIS WEEKEND, CENTRAL Council will debate two proposals for a second-tier football championship, which could see the structure come into play by 2020.

John Horan gives his first speech to congress as President GAA President John Horan. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

If a proposal is passed by Central Council and then again by Congress in February, it would mean a return to a two-tier format in the All-Ireland SFC for the first time since the Tommy Murphy Cup was abandoned in 2008.

It’s the stated aim of GAA President John Horan to bring in a two-tier structure before the end of his tenure.

The two proposals up for debate on Saturday are broadly similar. The first is Horan’s vision, where a Tier 2 championship would feature all Division 3 and 4 teams who fail to reach a provincial final, which rules out the qualifier route for those counties.

The second proposal, which is favoured by the CCCC, would see Division 3 and 4 teams who don’t reach a provincial final or Round 3 of the qualifiers compete in Tier 2.

But what do the players themselves think?

The GPA released figures last month which revealed that 60% of inter-county footballers support a move to a tiered championship. What they didn’t include was a breakdown of the players from Division 3 and 4 – who would be directly affected by such a move.

We panelled five inter-county footballers that will feature in Division 3 or 4 in 2019, for a roundtable discussion on the issue of a move to a two-tier championship. Some answers have been edited for clarity.

The panel:

-Daniel St Ledger, Carlow (Division 3)
-Connaire Harrison, Down (Division 3)
-Neil Ewing, Sligo (Division 3)
-Seamus O’Carroll, Limerick (Division 4)
-Matthew Fitzpatrick, Antrim (Division 4)

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pjimage (2) Matthew Fitzpatrick, Seamus O'Carroll, Daniel St Ledger, Connaire Harrison and Neil Ewing. Source: Inpho

The42: Are you personally in favour of the GAA introducing a two-tier football championship? 

St Ledger: “It’s a funny one. If you’d asked me that question five years ago I’d have probably said ‘Yes’ out of necessity. But now, looking at where we’re at, you have a four-tier system at the moment with the league and that works really well. I don’t know if I’d want to have another league-sort-of-thing again in the summer.

We enjoyed the last two years especially but prior to that it wasn’t exactly hectic for us. I feel a bit fickle saying what I’m saying, but I just think we have our tiered competition and that’s the league. I don’t know if we need another one. 

“As far I can see there’s going to be something done fairly quick one way or another. I’ve heard there could be a Tommy Murphy thing again where if you lose your qualifier you go into the Tommy Murphy, so I don’t see why they’d go back to that again when it clearly didn’t work.” 

Harrison: “Personally, I’d be against it. For the simple reason that, yes we were relegated last year but our main objective would be getting out of Division 3 and back into 2 and competing. If you’re being honest and with the whole history of the Sam Maguire, that’s basically where everyone wants to be.

“I’d rather be competing with the likes of Dublin, Mayo and Tyrone – and that’s no disrespect to any other team – but those teams set the benchmark for the rest of the country. I think that’s where I would rather be trying to get to. ”

Ewing: “I wouldn’t be in favour of Tier 2 coming in. It’s the tip of the iceberg. It’s very much a quick-fix solution and it leaves so much unaddressed that’s just going to keep spiralling and spiralling.

You’re going to eventually be left with counties where interest in football starts to dwindle because you’re just sectioning them off into a Tier 2 competition and you’re not doing anything to address the root causes of some of the issues which have seen the gaps emerge between the counties.

“At the minute you’re left with a situation where, depending on what county a player is born in, he’s going to have access to different levels of resources to help him develop as a footballer.

“It might only be a small difference to each player on a panel but if you multiply it across 15 or 30 it’s ultimately a big difference. If the GAA were to look at every county in Ireland, I don’t think they could say they’re operating at an optimum.”

O’Carroll: “I would be in favour. I don’t think the current format is working. But it just depends whether it’s going to get the same recognition and coverage that it would deserve.

There were talks before about a Champions League format with four groups of eight but with Dublin playing the likes of ourselves in a group game, that’s never going to work.

“It would only be demoralising in that sense but definitely a two-tier would make more sense because you’ve only 10 or 12 teams that would be competitive and after that, the rest are in the same boat, the Division 3 and 4 teams.”

Fitzpatrick: “I am in favour. We got sent the proposals during the week. I think it was one proposal where you play your provincial championship, if you get beat you go into the first round of qualifiers and then you go into a B championship. 

I’m all for it to be honest because we haven’t won a championship match in the last three years, I think, so you have no real reason to keep it the way it is. To make the weaker counties better you do need more games for a start. I think it’s a cracking idea.

“It means you do get a chance to show you’ve improved because you’re still playing in your province and then in the qualifiers. So if you have made improvements year after year you’ll go further. But if you don’t, then you have that safety net of a B championship.”

Pat Spillane Pat Spillane and Ciaran Whelan on the Sunday Game's recent championship draw. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The42: Is there a concern that a Tier 2 championship would mean less media coverage for the counties involved?

St Ledger: “You could have ripple effects that you mightn’t expect. I know when we played Dublin a couple of years ago, we got a bit of a trimming but the reality was that did more for us amongst the Carlow people and nationally than winning 50 Tommy Murphys could ever do.

“People mightn’t understand what it did, but for youngsters even seeing us playing against Dublin it was phenomenal. Maybe that’s not enough reason just to keep things the way they are, just for that one odd day, maybe that’s not enough, but I just can’t see myself personally having much interest in a secondary competition.”

Ewing: “Coverage would be one thing and that would probably be a by-product of having a second-tier competition. You hear people talking about forcing broadcasters to cover a second-tier competition, which in itself is condescending.

“I don’t think it’s so much the coverage thing, it’s more have the GAA looked at every county in Ireland and gone, ‘Yeah the structures within your county are operating at an absolute optimum to ensure that you’re going to have a competitive inter-county team’?

“I’m talking, are your club structures what they should be? Are your underage structures what they should be? Then when you move into your county squads, is there a clear pathway for players to develop and be the best possible players they can?”

O’Carroll: ”It would be essentially a Christy Ring competition for football but the coverage that gets at the moment is not up to what it should be.

“It’s not getting the same coverage from TV with regards to highlights on the Sunday Game, it’s very minimal. It wouldn’t really entice lads. What I’d be thinking about is new lads coming into the panel be it from minor or U20, they wouldn’t really be enticed to play in the second-tier if they weren’t getting some bit of a return out of it in that sense.”

Fitzpatrick: “I don’t even think it’s so much media coverage, it’s more about importance. It sort of starts from the media, if they don’t cover it then it feels like no-one cares because it’s not out there.

“But in a B competition you have to give people something like an All-Star team as well where they have incentives at the end of the year. In soccer you have a Champions League and Europa League.

“If you win the Europa League it’s still a massive achievement and if you’re in the team of the season for the Europa League it’s a massive achievement. It’s not as if it’s a massive difference, it happens in nearly every other sport.”

Benny Hasson tackled by Thomas Walsh and John McGrath The Tommy Murphy Cup was last played in 2008. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

The42: Would a Tier 2 championship keep more players interested as they have a realistic chance at winning silverware, or would players walk away because they don’t want to play at a lower grade?

St Ledger: ”With Carlow in the Christy Ring, we’ve seen what’s happened. You’d be talking to some of the hurling lads and it is a forgotten thing. That would be the fear that it turns into a forgotten competition completely. I would be fearful that the whole thing could get a bit lost of that was the case.

“If the Tommy Murphy came in for championship, it would only increase my interest in from December to April. That’s when you’d really gunning for and after that you’d be like, ‘Whatever happens, happens.’”

Harrison: ”The majority of people will always want to represent their county. It’s the benchmark. It’s a hard one too, everyone’s going to have their own opinion on it.

“When you start off playing Gaelic football and you start watching county football, it’s always about the All-Ireland and the Sam Maguire. It’s not about another championship being brought in which is never going to be the same as the All-Ireland as it is now.”

O’Carroll: “I was only talking to the lads last night, we were travelling down for gym assessments. We were saying, the only way you’d keep players from leaving after the provincial championships would be if you have the B championship from the very start.

The problem at the moment is you’re getting two championship games and then you’re knocked out. If you lose your provincial championship and then you lose your first round qualifier you’re gone. There’s not enough championship games for the amount of time you’re training and the time you’re putting in.

“Fair enough, in the league games you’re getting that but you want to be playing championship and summer football.”

Fitzpatrick: “In the two proposals going to Central Council, essentially, you’re getting the best of both worlds. You’re getting a crack at both instead of just being in one tier. You may as well have a go because you’d like to think you’re improving every year and you do deserve a shot.

“Because it can be hard, you look at the Christy Ring – it can be hard to go up. You could be improving every year and you still mightn’t get up into the Liam MacCarthy from the Christy Ring. So I think it’s good to have the shot at it first and then if you don’t make it, then you have something like a Tommy Murphy Cup.”

Jason Sherlock and Jim Gavin look on Sean Murphy is tackled by Diarmuid Connolly in Carlow's 2017 Leinster SFC clash against Dublin. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The42: Do you have a preferred structure?

St Ledger: “The only change I’d make would be to bring your league system into your summer somehow and maybe play your provincials as your winter competition. That might take the emphasis off winter training as well.

Turn the whole thing on its head, have division winners with promotion and relegation, finishing up with a big weekend of football at the end with the All-Ireland finals.

“I know the league is our big competition so we’re going to do everything we can to be right for that for 26/27 January. If our league wasn’t until April, it would take the emphasis off winter training completely. Our emphasis would be to try peak to April instead of January.

“I don’t think you can have it that once you get knocked out, then you’re into your second tier. It’s kind of pointless really. I know they say you get more competitive games in the summer in front of crowds but they’re a bit of a nuisance more than anything else. 

“That would be my ideal scenario. I don’t know if Division 3 and 4 teams are really the big problem in all of this as such.”

Ewing: ”People will say club football is divided into senior, intermediate and junior, everybody’s playing at their own level and we need that for inter-county football. But the reality is club football is a lot different in that if you were to look at junior clubs in Ireland the population is probably significantly smaller than the majority of senior clubs in Ireland.

Now, there will always be a few outliers but with inter-county football every county in Ireland has a minimum of 18 to 20 club teams so every county should be able to produce 15 footballers that can be reasonably competitive. It’s not to say that your Division 3 and 4 counties are going to be winning provincial titles every year but I think you’ve seen when counties from those divisions have got their house in order they’ve been able to be reasonably competitive.

“At the minute, the only way that’s happening is if they’re lucky enough for all the structures to fall into place for a number of years in terms of development of players and for the three or four years in the lifecycle of that particular team, that they’re lucky enough that everything’s fallen into place for that to work out.

“But if there was a system in place where that was happening over 10, 15, 20 years, well I’m sure counties could definitely maintain a level of competitiveness given the number of players they have to pull from in each county.”

O’Carroll: “I was toing and froing between the two proposals going up to Central Council. But if they had a B championship with a Champions League format where you’re getting three to four games before you go to knock-out I think it would be a lot better.

And maybe condense the national league to a tighter timeframe and do away with the likes of the McGrath Cup and O’Byrne Cup because it doesn’t really serve any purpose.
“Maybe the finalists of the Tommy Murphy qualify for the Sam Maguire the following year. It would give teams something to play for and some sort of incentive at the very end of the year. Maybe even play the knock-out part of the B championship in conjunction with the Sam Maguire.”

Tony McCarthy, Aidan Forker, Mark Collins, Mark Hayes and Paul Flynn Tony McCarthy, Aidan Forker, Mark Collins, Mark Hayes and GPA CEO Paul Flynn during a recent GPA Reps Workshop in Portlaoise. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

The42: Given the GAA’s recent proposed changes to the rules and competition structures, is there a frustration among players that they’re not part of the decision-making process?

St Ledger: “Totally, totally. I’m 28 nearly 29. I’ve probably got two or three shots at inter-county football left in me once, hopefully, the body holds up. I was looking at some of these rule changes that might be coming in, if this whole three handpass thing came in for example, it would completely ruin a league for us because it would end up being a farce.

I know some colleges played games recently and all managers said it was absolutely unworkable with three handpasses. I saw the GPA did a survey and the players completely voted against it.
“But you still have it being mooted that it could go to Congress and come into pass. You’re just wondering, ‘What is the point in everything if you’re not going to be listened to, regardless?’”

Harrison: “They’re tampering that much with the rules now, they’re starting to ruin the game a bit if we’re being honest about it. A lot of the rules, some of them are absolutely ridiculous. I don’t agree with that at all.

“I would say the majority of players would like to be consulted. There would be players who’d sit on the fence and not say too much about it. But definitely them top players in the country would have different views on it and maybe they’d listen to them going forward, with the rule changes they’re thinking of making.”

Ewing: “There probably is an element of frustration. It’s not so much that they aren’t asking the players to be involved but, are there people or expertise they could pull in that would give them a better steer on how they could ultimately develop the game? To ensure generations to come get the same enjoyment out of it that I have myself and I hope I’ll get for years to come supporting Sligo.

It’s not that the players have all the answers – and I don’t think that in any way – maybe the players have some suggestions but there is other expertise they could pull in.

Maybe it’s about looking outside the world of GAA. Everybody looks at American sports, a very corporate entity, but even within American sports they’re able to see the light and say, ‘We have to build in some elements of fairness into how we run our system.’”

O’Carroll: “We’re asked for our feedback and it’s like as if it’s just completely ignored and that committee just makes up their own recommendations and rule changes themselves. It’s not going to work. The rule changes that came out there that they were proposing, you’d need two referees – one in each half – to be able to manage that because there’s just too much going on for the referee.

He has enough to try and look after at the moment besides trying to count handpasses, marks and that type of stuff. It’s just too much for the referee to take in and manage. If players were asked, I’d be in favour of a 13-aside championship. It would make football more appealing. You’re going to stop the blanket defences with 13-aside and have more attacking football.

“I wouldn’t be in favour of limiting the handpasses in defence, but once you reach the opposition’s half the handpass should be limited to three before you have to kick. The mark is a good option inside but I’ve never seen teams over the last three or four years kicking high ball into a full-forward line.

“That way of playing is gone from teams. I know they’re trying to improve the game of football because it’s fallen way behind the hurling championship but if you’re bringing in those proposals for inter-county how is that going to be monitored with club championship?

“You can’t have two different systems of play between club and inter-county championships. So however hard it is to referee inter-county, it’s going to be impossible to ref games at club level.”

Fitzpatrick: “100%. At the end of the day, we’re the ones that have to carry the rules out so surely if we’re not deciding them, we should have a massive say in the decision making. Some of the rules they’re proposing are completely stupid and mental.

You’re going to get to a stage where, especially club games, you’re not going to be able to referee them. There’s already a shortage of referees and if you don’t have a referee then you can’t play. Just leave them. If I was a referee and I heard of all these rule changes, honestly I’d say, ‘Fuck this, I’m not doing that. For 30 euro? Fuck that.’

“The game’s fine. Obviously it’s gone defensive and all but the game is still fine at the end of the day.”

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About the author:

Kevin O'Brien

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