Time to change football championship format

In these austere times, if GAA supporters (consumers ) are going to pay their limited cash at the turnstiles to attend games, they expect to be entertained.

It is a pretty basic requirement. A fundamental part of the purchase contract: "Bang for your buck" as the yanks say.

Likewise, if intercounty players are expected to make massive efforts for the honour of wearing the county jersey, they are at least entitled to expect their team will be competitive, or have a chance of winning something.

Players need to believe there is some return on their time investment, which often includes a loss of earnings.

I was co-commentating with Radio One on Saturday at Croke Park for the double-header between Kildare and Offaly and the total mismatch that was Dublin and recently-promoted to division one Westmeath.

The second game in particular was miles away from genuine entertainment, and Kildare always looked like having too much for a defiant Offaly in the first game too.

In order to be entertaining, there has to be some degree of competitiveness between the sides, and in the Dublin and Westmeath joust, there was none.

It was hard going, and Dublin's star forward Paul Flynn was candid when he described the game as a "low intensity work-out".

Elsewhere last weekend, Kerry beat Waterford by 26 points, 4-21 to 1-4. They have also recently trampled Tipperary, as Cork did to Limerick. And lest we forget, Mayo did the same to Galway in the Connacht championship. Average margin of defeat more than 10 points.

Earlier this week an Irish Examiner study revealed the average margin of victory/defeat in the opening 13 games of the All-Ireland football championship excluding Leitrim v New York was over 10 points.

If these type of mismatches continue on an ongoing basis - two things will happen.

1 ) Supporters will stop going to intercounty games until near the conclusion of the championship.

2 ) Inter-county players in the weaker counties will drop off county squads and give up county football as a bad job, and a waste of their time and effort.

Such is a massive difference and gap in standards between the top seven or eight counties and the rest, it is surely time for some sort of a change.

There is no real incentive in the current set-up for footballers from Waterford, Carlow, Tipperary, Laois, Fermanagh, Longford, Limerick, Antrim, London, or Offaly (should we include Galway, Sligo or Roscommon in that list? ).

Those teams and many others, are light years from the standards being adhered to now by Donegal, Dublin, Cork, Mayo and Kerry.

So what can be done? Former GAA president and current Fine Gael MEP Seán Kelly has consistently called for a major revamp. He wants to split the championship into two cups following the completion of the four provincial campaigns.

He wants to link the league and championship with a county’s NFL finish, influencing whether they compete in the Sam Maguire or Tommy Murphy Cup (16 teams in each competition ).

The Sam Maguire Cup will be played by the two finalists in each provincial championship (4 x 2 teams ) with the other eight teams in year one being selected on their finishing place in the National League.

After year one, the Tommy Murphy Cup winners and runners-ups would qualify for the Sam Maguire Cup with the best six placed teams in the league then making up the 16.

Like the Tommy Murphy Cup, the premier All-Ireland competition would be played on a straight knock-out open format, but with the provincial winners guaranteed home advantage.

Speaking in the Irish Examiner on Tuesday Kelly said: “ The gap between the top and the bottom is widening despite all the great work in initiatives like development squads and reforming competitions down to schools level. 

“Because of population and finance, which is just, as if, not more important, a two-tier structure should be introduced.”

It is impossible not to acknowledge Kelly has a reasonable point. The current status quo needs to change, because, at the moment, the strong are getting stronger and the weak are being left behind.

Unless there is some action taken, a situation could develop in the coming years where some counties may not be able to field an intercounty football team.

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