The prospect of a two-tier All Ireland Football Championship moved a step closer yesterday with GAA president John Horan suggesting it could be in place this time next year.
Speaking on RTÉ as he conducted the draw for the first round of this year’s Qualifier competition he revealed that a new Fixtures Group was being charged with producing three potential alternative scenarios, at least one of which would radically change the championship, potentially abolishing the Provincial Championships.
Last year’s All Ireland Quarter Final Series, which became quickly known as the Super 8’s was the first major change since the introduction of the back door qualifiers and was intended to be followed through as a three-year trial.
There will be tweaks along the way but now it could be that there will be something more structurally profound for 2020.
Horan suggested that Central Council’s meeting in June could agree to a second-tier competition in Football, that this could be approved at a special Congress in the autumn and in place for 2020.
It would likely be a bolt on to the existing structure if that could be accommodated within the fixtures. Would that though mean the end of the back door route?
One option is that it could be for teams in Division Three and Four after each year’s Allianz Leagues.
An alternative though could be that it becomes the competition for those that would have entered the first round of the playoffs, a neat 16 teams. With those who progress by winning the first round in their Provincial competition going on to compete for Sam Maguire.
Monaghan would be the biggest county to be in the second tier this year, with Mayo not due to enter the playoffs until the second round. Down and Tipperary would be in a similar position to Conor McManus and his crew while Sligo, despite being a division four team next year would be in the main competition by virtue of their bye to the semifinals of the Connacht Championship.
Anomalies will abound but none that would be insurmountable and the prospect of greater competition and relevant winnable fixtures for all is compelling.
At underage level, there is always the challenge of Championship or Shield. Win through in the early stages and you compete to win the main competition, lose early and you are into the shield, but next year the clock is reset and everyone has the opportunity, if good enough on the day to make it to the higher level.
That’s the blend of hope and reality that needs to be found.
A second tier Championship already exists in Hurling with separate tournaments catering for the weaker counties and a potential promotion and relegation system in place offering a glimpse of the top flight for developing counties.
Offaly dropped out of contention for the Liam McCarthy Cup last year, replaced by Carlow and while the smaller county may struggle against Kilkenny and Galway they can only get better by playing against better teams.
That’s one element that the Fixture Review Group will wrestle with, whether it is better to be competing against the best or against teams of more equal ability.
Dublin’s haul of 5-21 against Louth on Saturday night is being held up as a reason to do away with such one-sided contests and yet it was within this decade that Dublin conceded five goals themselves to Meath in a Leinster Final on the same day that Germany beat England in the Quarter Final of the World Cup.
I was on Hill 16 that day as the crowd, more engaged with their radio’s than the hammering in front of them, unfurled a German flag and started singing Deauthsland Uber Alles.
Meath, Laois, Westmeath and Kildare have all won Leinster titles since 2000 though Dublin have won each of the last eight, by an average winning margin of a little over 10 points.
For five years before that, between 2006 and 2010 Dublin beat five different counties in the Leinster Final – Offaly, Wexford, Laois, Kildare and Louth. In each of the first four, there was a crowd of over 80,000 at Croke Park.
Attendance is not just about the revenue it generates but the interest beyond the core that it is an indication of.
The excitement and anticipation around last year’s and this year’s Leinster and Munster Championships in hurling has elevated the small ball game to a higher level than football. But these things are cyclical and the Fixture Review group will be mindful of that.
Counties deserve their day in the sun, even if they are rare and that needs to be balanced against having as competitive a competition as possible among the better performing teams over time.
Every problem has a solution though. Now the challenge, in accelerated time, is to find it.