By Adam Shaw
The Director General of the GAA, Paraic Duffy, last week launched what he believes to be an “achievable” blueprint for reform of the All-Ireland football championship.
Although it would create eight extra matches, his proposals will condense the Championship season by two to three weeks, clearing vital space for club activity. And the new format will benefit weaker counties, as Duffy aims to remove the “unhealthy predictability” currently surrounding the competition.
His suggestion is to introduce a group stage into the All-Ireland series, whereby the top eight teams are broken into two groups and the top two from each group advance to the semifinals.
The groups would be compromised as follows: Group 1 – Munster and Connacht champions, Ulster and Leinster runners-up, or the teams that beat them in Round 4 of the qualifiers. Group 2 – Ulster and Leinster champions, Munster and Connacht runners-up, or the teams that beat them in Round 4 of the qualifiers.
The provincial champions would meet in the first game at Croke Park, followed by a home game against team 3 or 4 and then an away fixture against the remaining side. The less drawn-out process would include the All-Ireland semi-finals being played across one weekend in August, while a blanket ban on replays – unless the game is level after extra-time – would address the ‘six-day turnaround’.
Less successful footballing counties would also be given a leg up in the qualifier series as they would be guaranteed home advantage in Rounds 1, 2 and 3 of the back door system whenever they are drawn against Division 1 or 2 opposition. Proponents of the system have argued that the extra income from the new group stage could also be ring fenced “for the development of our games in less successful counties”.
Many believe that the problem lies with the provincial championships but it was effectively impossible for Duffy to suggest reform at this level because counties would never vote in favour of it. Instead, he has taken a more pragmatic approach in the hope of getting his proposals approved.
“It would well be more productive to seek to find agreement now on more modest reforms than do nothing,” he said.
The respective county boards will pore over Duffy’s suggestions over the coming weeks before passing on their opinions to the Central Council in November. If the reforms are considered appropriate, they will be forwarded to the Annual Congress next spring where they will be voted on. If they receive more than two thirds of the vote, they will come into effect for the 2018 season.
In their proposal the GAA stated: “At Congress 2016 the Association addressed the issues of player over-training and burnout, the structure of the All- Ireland senior football championship and a fixtures calendar that does not provide club players with a fair schedule of games. Progress was made on improving the situation on over-training and burnout, but the structure of the football championship and our calendar of games remain unresolved problems.
“We must, therefore, continue to seek solutions to these twin dilemmas. This may take some time to achieve, but these are pressing matters. Our club players need a fairer schedule of games, and we must not let up in our efforts to achieve this. Our championship structure is regularly called into question, although it has not yet been possible to find general agreement on a new structure.
“It may well be the case that there will not be a ‘magic-bullet’ solution to either problem, and that the necessary structural reforms will occur on an incremental basis.
“Indeed, given the democratic nature of the decision-making processes of the Association and the great variance in opinion about the best solutions to be adopted, it could well be more productive to seek to find agreement now on more modest reforms than to do nothing in the hope that agreement on comprehensive restructuring can be found.
“It is in this spirit that the present proposal to make adjustments to the All-Ireland senior football championship is offered.”