A motion tabled for the AGM of the Gaelic Players Association in Dublin next Friday calls on the players’ body to carry out a review of the current senior inter-county football championship and publish proposals for an alternative model.
The motion comes on the back of a number of player surveys which have indicated a growing appetite among Gaelic footballers for changes to the existing format.
There has been a lot of public comment over the past few years about the effectiveness of the current set-up where the traditional Provincial Championships feed into a Qualifier system and in turn to the All-Ireland series.
In particular the value of the Provincial Championships is increasingly being questioned, particularly as the Qualifiers have proven just as effective a route to All-Ireland football success since they were introduced in 2001.
Things changed somewhat this year when all four Provincial winners went on to contest the All-Ireland semi-finals but there is a growing sense that they are really a pre-amble to the main competition which kicks off at the quarter-final stage in August.
Advocates for a new system tend to favour a ‘champions league’ style model, where counties are split into qualifier groups, based on seeding and a draw.
One option is to arrange counties into eight groups of four, with pre-qualification used where necessary for any uneven number of competing counties.
Teams could be seeded on the basis of league performances which in itself would add weight to the spring competition.
With two seeded teams heading each group, the remaining counties would be drawn with the prize for the top two winners in each group being a place in the knock-out last 16 competition.
Critics of this format point to the potential for ‘dead rubbers’ where teams would be playing out meaningless contests where qualification is beyond but such a scenario could be avoided by the re-introduction of a secondary championship such as the now defunct Tommy Murphy Cup.
And matches could be played on a home or away basis which would give some of the weaker counties the possibility of pulling off a giant killing act on home turf just as we witness in the Qualifiers every year.
The benefits of such a model are many including the potential to condense the period of time afforded to the inter-county championship as it stands, freeing up valuable calendar space to run off club competitions which are often put on hold by many counties during the summer.
Some would argue that it doesn’t make sense to reduce the period of time allocated to showcasing the GAA’s marquee games but a group format would concentrate the action at the commencement of the competition, opening the championship with a bang rather than a whimper.
This year, for example, the football championship kicked off in familiar low-key fashion with one Ulster championship fixture. Contrast this with the potential commercial appeal of 16 games over one weekend with a slew of novel pairings . . . Kerry travelling to Breffni Park, Dublin away to Clare.
To suggest that the current structure is broken would be a step too far but there is a sense that we are treading water somewhat and that we are not maximising the full potential of the competition.
Of course, ditching the Provincial Championships would be a serious break with tradition and would provoke serious opposition but there is no reason why these competitions couldn’t be preserved through the current pre-season provincial competitions.
The GPA now plans to consult with various stakeholders before drafting any proposal on the matter, something that would then serve to stimulate proper debate.
The 2011 football season was a success and games were well attended despite the recession but this, in part, was due to Dublin reaching the decider and bringing large attendances to GAA headquarters.
The GAA took a big step back in 2001 when it changed the traditional knock-out format and it helped catapult hurling and football into the new century.
Many believe the time is rapidly approaching when we need to take the next big step.
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