The summer months are upon us and that means it’s time to savour the supposed pièce de résistance of Gaelic football’s unique (i.e. messy) and full (i.e. overcrowded) calendar: the championship.
For over 100 years the quest for football’s biggest prize was quite straightforward. Win your province, win your All-Ireland semi-final and win your All-Ireland final. That was it.
But those were simpler times and at the turn of the millennium the GAA recognised that intercounty players were giving too much time and effort to simply be turfed out of the championship after 70 minutes of football.
The back door was introduced in 2001 and you would have to say that it worked. Additional games helped to strengthen traditionally weaker counties, and the GAA should be commended for breaking with tradition at the time.
That was 20 years ago and 20 years is a very long time in this age of information. Counties who had been uncompetitive for decades now have access to professional-level resources and expertise. Preparation and training has become very serious business and players, whether they line out for Dublin or Fermanagh, rightly feel as though they deserve a fair crack of the whip.
Training all year for two or three championship games, with virtually no chance whatsoever of going all the way and winning the competition, doesn’t feel like a fair crack of the whip to the no-hopers. And make no mistake, there are plenty of no-hopers.
Before this year’s championship got under way, 25 of the 33 competitors were at least 100/1 to lift the Sam Maguire. 13 counties were 1,000/1 shots or worse. If you were to be realistic about it, it’s probably a four-horse race (and one horse already has a few furlongs to spare on the chasing pack).
It’s only natural for there to be a disparity between the strongest and weakest teams in a competition but it also stands to reason that the more teams there are, the wider that gap will be.
From a player’s point of view, there’s no enjoyment in being hammered by a team that’s far too strong for you, and there’s only fairly hollow satisfaction to be gained by hammering a team that’s far too weak for you. The same goes for the supporters of the sides in question, and casual viewers don’t like these kinds of games either.
The answer seems to be staring us straight in the face: let teams play other teams of a similar standard. The National League works and that’s exactly why it does.
Dividing the championship into tiers is controversial in some people’s eyes but I see no good reason that it can’t be a success, and with the formation of the GAA Fixture Review Group now imminent, big changes could be on the cards at Congress in 2020.
The first of the two proposals that are currently being floated would see Division 3 and 4 teams entering a second tier championship unless they reach their provincial final. The second would see them entering the qualifiers instead, and then moving down to the second tier if they lose their first or second round game.
That might be a step in the right direction but if we’re going to revamp the championship, why not go all in? Players, both club and county, have been railing against the Gaelic football calendar for years. If the GAA are serious about affecting change, surely this is a great opportunity to do it properly.
One of the biggest complaints about the current schedule is the fragmented nature of the fixtures. As certain club competitions can’t be played without intercounty stars, club teams can often go many weeks without playing and there is often uncertainty about when exactly matches will be scheduled.
In fairness, the situation in Kerry isn’t as bad as it seems to be elsewhere. The month for clubs has worked very well in this part of the world and the Kerry County Board deserve great credit for running the Club Championships off so efficiently throughout the month of April.
In Kerry, players love the Club Championships because the games are played in quick succession and all in one go. You have your schedule and that’s that. You know exactly where you stand. Senior clubs play senior clubs, intermediate play intermediate, and junior play junior. The games are competitive and exciting. It’s all overwhelmingly positive.
So why not stick to that winning formula for every competition?
Completely restructuring the calendar is easier said than done but I think it’s worth looking at very seriously if we really want to rescue an ailing football championship, while also making life a bit easier for club players who in my opinion have been underappreciated by the association for far too long.
For what it’s worth, here’s my proposal for a revamped county and club calendar which would include linking a three-tier All-Ireland League with Senior, Intermediate and Junior All-Ireland Championships.
Let me know what you think on Twitter (@AdamMoynihan) or by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
The four Provincial Championships are played in February. These are standalone competitions that are not linked with the All-Ireland League/Championships. Open draw.
All-Ireland Football League
The All-Ireland Football League replaces the National League and is played from March to June with a one-month break in May for club football. No finals. Teams are seeded in their respective championships based on their performance in the league.
- 12 teams
- 11 games each
- 1st place wins the league
- 1st to 4th advance to All-Ireland Senior Football Championship quarter-finals
- 5th to 12th advance to All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Round 1
- 10th, 11th and 12th are relegated to Division 2 (unless they win the All-Ireland, in which case 9th is relegated)
- 11 teams
- 10 games each
- 1st place wins the league
- 1st and 2nd and All-Ireland Intermediate Football Championship winners are promoted to Division 1 (If 1st or 2nd win the All-Ireland, the team who finish 3rd are promoted)
- 1st to 5th advance to All-Ireland Intermediate Football Championship quarter-finals
- 6th to 11th advance to All-Ireland Intermediate Football Championship Round 1
- 9th, 10th and 11th are relegated to Division 3 (unless they win the All-Ireland, in which case 8th is relegated)
- 10 teams
- 9 games each
- 1st place wins the league
- 1st, 2nd and All-Ireland Junior Football Championship winners are promoted to Division 2 (If 1st or 2nd win the All-Ireland, the team who finish 3rd are promoted)
- 1st to 6th advance to All-Ireland Junior Football Championship quarter-finals
- 7th to 10th advance to All-Ireland Junior Football Championship Round 1
All-Ireland Football Championships
The All-Ireland Senior Football Championship is comprised of the 12 teams in Division 1 of the All-Ireland League.
The All-Ireland Intermediate Football Championship is comprised of the 11 teams in Division 2 of the All-Ireland League.
The All-Ireland Junior Football Championship is comprised of the 10 teams in Division 3 of the All-Ireland League.
These championships are played in the month of July. In the quarter-finals, teams are seeded based on their final league position in their respective divisions.
Mar County League (3 games)
Apr County League (3)
May Club Championships (3-5)
Jun County League (3)
Jul County League (2), County League final (1)
Aug County Championship (4)
Sep County Championship (1), County Championship final (1), Provincial Championship Rd 1 (1)
Oct District Championship (1-4), Provincial Championship semi-final and final (2), All-Ireland SF (1)
Nov All-Ireland Club final (1)
Feb Provincial Championships (1-4)
Mar All-Ireland League (4)
Apr All-Ireland League (4)
Jun All-Ireland League (3)
Jul All-Ireland series (1-4)