While the Gaelic games action on the field is now dominated by county championships around the country, October 23 could be a pivotal day in how the future of gaelic football looks.
The GAA will hold a Special Congress – in person in Croke Park, rather than remotely – dealing with motions that were held over from the virtual Congress of last spring. The primary issue at hand is the potential restructuring of the senior football championship, with delegates having three options to choose from.
For either of those formats to take effect, they require 60% support from the delegates in attendance; should neither manage that, then it’s likely that the 2001-17 system – back-door for provincial losers but without the Super 8 group format All-Ireland quarter-finals – would come back into force.
Pros and cons
Former Mayo player and Roscommon manager Kevin McStay, now an analyst on RTÉ, believes that Proposal B has the greatest merit, but he would tweak it to ensure that the provincial system was not diluted to the point of unimportance.
“Up to now, the debate has been quiet, which is classically GAA,” he says, “though, in fairness, the proposals have been out there in a very transparent fashion from the association for months upon months.
“I have a preference but I wouldn’t be happy with all the details of that preference. I think that, while Proposal A and Proposal B do have merit, they’re too prescriptive.
“Proposal A – with the eight-county provinces – mathematically is outstanding, but I don’t think it has a chance of floating because you’re asking anything up to five counties to march into a foreign land. There’s just simply too much history and tradition.
“Proposal B has significant merit in my mind, but it has one significant downside, the springtime provincial championships. They’re not championships, so let’s stop calling them that – they’re the FBD League or the O’Byrne Cup dressed up.
“I’ll readily admit that the provincial championships are badly broken – bar Ulster, of course – but even then, if you statistically analyse that, there were a lot of big wins there as well. Even so, I don’t want to walk away from the idea of the Connacht championship or the Munster championship or the Ulster championship or the Leinster championship. So, whatever the solution is, it has to have some element of that. That’s where Proposal B is weak.
“I have a suggestion – I’m very happy for Proposal B to happen, but then you’d call a halt at the end of the league and execute the promotion and relegation in that current year, to establish the top 16 and the bottom 16.
“How do you get the provincial championships from that? Very easily, in my mind. I did it for 2021, where you had three Connacht teams in Divisions 1 and 2 – Galway, Mayo and Roscommon – four in Leinster, four in Munster and six in Ulster.
“In Connacht, you’d have two teams playing a semi-final and the other one getting the bye to the semi-final – you’d have two massive games. The fight is to get into that: if Sligo were to get promoted from Division 3, then you’ve four teams in the Connacht championship, with two semi-finals.
“You’d have massively competitive national leagues, because it would establish the seedings and you can nuance all sorts of benefits to finishing higher, like home advantage or having the higher-ranked teams getting byes in the provincial championship.”
Of course, there will be opposition to the stratifying of the championship – though it should be pointed out that Proposal B would still theoretically offer the Division 4 winners a chance to make it through to win the All-Ireland – and McStay accepts that, ideally, it would be a case of trying to make every county competitive.
“This is putting the cart before the horse in a lot of respects,” he says.
“We should be putting our energies into raising the standards so that we can have proper competition; instead of that, we’re tweaking formats to exclude the less-competitive teams. What we should be doing is putting massive investment into Sligo and Leitrim and wherever else, but instead we’re saying that we’re going to cut it down the middle at 16 teams.
“If that is to happen, then a league-championship system is the fairest. What the league does is provide a lot of matches for teams against sides of a similar level. You feel you’re playing for something.”
Appetite for change
And what does he think will ultimately happen?
“I’d hope that Proposal B happens, but I can’t read it,” he says.“I think that things will ratchet up now as the Special Congress approaches.
“Some journalists seem to have been briefed that neither Proposal A nor Proposal B will get enough support and we’d end up with no change – that it would go back to the status quo, minus the Super 8. I would find that very disappointing because I think there is an appetite for change, but the 60% threshold is a big one.
“If the status quo is what emerges from a gathering called especially to look at this, it will be a very down day for the likes of Leitrim, Sligo, Fermanagh, Carlow and Wicklow and so on – it’ll be a sense of, ‘Who’s interested in us?’”