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Those were the days, my friend - surprise All-Ireland football semi-finalists a thing of the past

Saturday’s GAA Congress vote to bring in the ‘super 8′ quarter-final format has ended the chances of another Fermanagh, Wexford or Tipperary fairytale summer run.

BRIAN FOX KNEW the question was coming – and he was prepared for it.

A key member of the Tipperary senior football team that reached an All-Ireland semi-final last year, Fox is captain of the Premier County for 2017.

His opinions on the proposed ‘super 8′ format for the championship, voted in for three years from 2017, were canvassed last week – and Fox didn’t hold back.

“For us making progress and to get back to the same stage, it makes it very difficult.

“The funny thing is, I wasn’t overly surprised (by the Tipperary vote). That kind of thing happens the whole time. Delegates are on a different wavelength whereas we’re in a bit of a bubble and we know what goes on because it directly impacts on us.”

Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Fox was referring to the decision of Tipperary delegates vote in favour of the ‘super 8′ proposal, 36-20. 

The decision flew in the face of the views of Tipperary’s players, management, and football committee.

But it’s since emerged that delegates attending the meeting believed they were voting on motions en bloc, rather than as separate issues.

By voting in favour of the abolition of replays and bringing back the All-Ireland final dates to August, they were, by default, also voting in the ‘super 8′ proposal, even if they didn’t want to.

Some have indicated privately that they would have voted against the ‘super 8′ suggestion if it was floated at the county board meeting as a separate motion, as should have been the case.

One of two things should have happened here. The county board’s top table should have made it clear that the motions were to be taken separately, or somebody from the floor should have known this and spoken up. Neither happened and consequently, Tipperary representatives attending GAA Congress at the weekend were mandated to vote in favour of championship reform.

Fox added: “Maybe our message is not going out to the wider audience but we’re not a political party either. You have a committee in each club but how many players are on those committees? That’s partially the fault of the players but it’s the committee’s fault too for not wanting younger lads.

“What’s happening is the feedback is not coming from the players to the top table, and then that’s not going forward to county board top table.

“But how can a club send out a mandate and say vote for it when they have no real information about it?”

Jason Doherty with Alan Campbell and Jimmy Feehan Tipperary pair Alan Campbell (left) and Jimmy Feehan (right) battle with Mayo's Jason Doherty during last year's All-Ireland semi-final. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Fox was quizzed about the issue again on Saturday evening, after Tipperary had beaten Laois in Division 3 of the Allianz League. 

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“Look, it’s definitely a money-making thing. As opposed to seven matches from the quarter-finals – that’s four quarters, two semi-finals and a final – now you have fifteen matches.

“You have twelve quarter-finals, two semi-finals and a final. It’s about revenue.

Basically, you are making sure that the top four teams every year – Dublin, Kerry, Mayo and Tyrone – are going to be in the semi-final whereas last year, by the luck of the draw, we played Galway in a quarter-final that was not as high profile and as a result we were in a semi-final. That’s what I personally think.”

It’s a view shared by the so-called ‘weaker counties.’ Dublin manager Jim Gavin has come out in favour of the ‘super 8′ but then again, why wouldn’t he? Gavin has an undeniable strength in depth at his disposal (remember how a third-string Dublin won the O’Byrne Cup earlier this year) while Tipp, in stark contrast, put out the same starting 15 for five successive championship games last year.

Kerry legend Pat Spillane has pointed out that in the history of the qualifiers, 23 counties have appeared in the quarter-final stages. That’s all well and good but how many surprise semi-finalists have we had in that time? Fermanagh 2004, Wexford 2008 and Tipperary 2016 – that’s the height of it.

Martin McGrath and Pat Kelly Fermanagh contested a 2004 All-Ireland semi-final, and replay, against Mayo. Source: INPHO

And that suggests, of course, that the cream will rise to the top, regardless. But surely the chance to repeat those feats is now gone?

It’s hard enough to catch a big team once at the quarter-final stage of the All-Ireland series, doing it twice is too big an ask. So, farewell to romance and hello, stark reality.

The weak will get weaker, and the strong will get even stronger. And you’re right, Brian Fox, it is all about revenue.

Because if the GAA were truly in favour of freeing up time for club fixtures, bringing back the dates of the All-Ireland finals, abolishing replays and leaving the existing championship format as it was would have been wholly acceptable.

The Wexford team stand for the National Anthem Wexford stand to attention before the 2008 All-Ireland semi-final against Tyrone. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

But the cynic in us would suggest that the potential revenue lost will be more than compensated for by extra games in the All-Ireland quarter-finals, with some estimates suggesting that GAA coffers could benefit to the tune of an extra €2m per annum.

We’re in agreement with Brian Fox – “it’s a money-making thing.” And it can’t be simple to make progress when your own county votes against your wishes.

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