“Democracy is a slow process of stumbling to the right decision instead of going straight forward to the wrong one.”
The most democratic of institutions, the GAA, will hold a Special Congress this weekend to clear up some motions that were deferred from February’s Congress. There are ten motions down for decision and a 60% majority is required for a motion to be passed. Most are administrative in nature and won’t directly affect the playing population of the Association. However, motions 18 and 19 are the ones that will garner most headlines come Monday morning’s back pages (the motion numbering system is held over from February). Motion 19 will only be voted on if motion 18 fails and both motions are concerned with a restructuring of the All Ireland Senior Football Championship.
Now, the football championship has not had too many changes since the inception of the GAA other than the introduction of the qualifiers at the turn of the century and then, the the introduction of the Super 8’s a few years ago. None were particularly earth shattering, the qualifier system in fairness did two things albeit somewhat inadvertent. Firstly, it gave counties a second chance. This was not necessarily a good thing for smaller counties. If you happened to get Kerry or Dublin on a bad day, then the second chance ensured the stronger counties were most unlikely to have two poor performances back to back and so stayed in the championship. Secondly, it allowed smaller counties to throw off the yoke of the provincial system and play competitive championship football against other counties against whom they might have no history.
The qualifier system allowed Fermanagh to reach an All-Ireland semi-final. Something unheard of for a county that has never won its provincial title. It also allowed Tipperary to reach the All Ireland semi-final in 2016. When Covid hit, the GAA pressed the reset button and qualifiers and super-8’s had to be abandoned and so we went back to a straight knockout system which saw Tipperary win a Munster title and progress to another All Ireland semi-final in 2020.
So, before votes are cast on Motions 18/19 this Saturday, delegates must surely have to ask themselves, is the format for the senior football championship broken? Because if it isn’t, then why would you fix it? Well most people agree the current system is broken. David Power described it on Extra Time as being ‘not fit for purpose’. And it is broken because the gulf between the best 8 teams in Ireland and the rest has never been greater. Indeed the gulf between the second best 8 teams in Ireland and the rest is also cavernous. And with the gulf as large and as depressingly predictable as it is, then motivation for smaller counties must be difficult if not impossible.
And speaking of gulfs, then the gulf in attitude between players and administrators is also worth exploring. The Leinster Secretary, Michael Reynolds, spoke on the Off the Ball program during the week and there certainly sounded like a disconnect between his views and the views of the Longford footballers, for example. The Connaught Secretary, John Prenty, whilst acknowledging a need for change, said it would be ‘dangerous’ to vote through either Motion 18 (Proposal A) or Motion 19 (Proposal B) this weekend. Tipperary captain, Conor Sweeney and manager, David Power, have both come out in favour of Proposal B. Both are honest in their assessment that neither A nor B are perfect but proposal B is certainly better than option C (doing nothing). One wonders what the Politburo in Croke Park makes of it all. Because change only happens if the powers that be are open to change. And over the years, the GAA seems to have little tolerance for change unless the top brass either conceive it or throw their weight behind it. And an imperfect status quo is often preferable to the unknown. Especially when most agree that neither proposal A nor B are perfect.
Many seasoned congress delegates could wax lyrical about the nuances of Congress and the hoops that have to be jumped in order to get motions passed. My rudimentary understanding is that any motion before Congress must cite any other rule in the Official Guide that might be impacted by the passing of a motion. And getting a motion to the floor of congress is no easy thing. For example, Rule 42 was a contentious rule in the GAA that prohibited ‘foreign games’ from taking place in grounds owned by the GAA. A motion to abolish Rule 42 was first debated at Congress in 2001. The motion was defeated. Attempts to debate the motion again at Congress in 2004 was ruled out of order by the Motions Committee and never got to the floor of congress to be debated. It was the exact same motion that was debated in 2001 but three years later was ruled out of order. And it is likely that the reason it was ruled out of order was because the majority of the Motions Committee were against it. For such a democratic organisation (perhaps too democratic for its own good sometimes), this was profoundly undemocratic.
The Tipperary County Board have taken soundings from players, management and clubs and have directed their five delegates to vote in favour of Proposal B. If passed, will the new structure be good for football in Tipperary? It is hard to know for sure but the answer is, probably.
Firstly, the Munster Football Championship will be played as a stand alone competition. It would be a round-robin competition played in February and March. With six counties in Munster, each team would play five games. Two home games and three away games or vice versa depending on the draw. The group winner would go to the provincial final directly. The second and third placed teams would play a provincial semi-final with the winner going on to the provincial final. So, no more of wanting to avoid Kerry or Cork, or hoping that Cork and Kerry play each other and one gets knocked out. Everyone plays everyone else and the three best teams are left standing, one of whom is directly into a final. But there is a Rubicon that is about to be crossed here, namely, winning the Munster Football Championship doesn’t count for anything, other than simply winning it. It does not guarantee entry into the latter stages of the Championship. Thus, in some minds it will be diminished. A Munster senior football medal is a wonderful achievement if you are a Tipperary footballer, or a Waterford one etc.
But I think it is fair to say that no young boy grows up in Kerry dreaming of winning a Munster senior football medal. I don’t believe this element of the change will relegate the Munster Championship to a de facto McGrath Cup, i.e. a pre-season competition that some counties take more seriously than others. Dublin and Kerry will probably win their provincial titles but will have to work harder to do so, and will have to travel to some provincial out posts to do so. It would be great to see Kerry back in the Clonmel Sportsfield for a Munster Championship match for example. Ulster seem to be against the Proposal probably because their championship is the most competitive and probably garners more crowds and therefore more income.
That is only part of the change that Proposal B offers. The Championship will be tied to the league and will be played between April and July. Four divisions, eight teams in each as is currently the case. Now things get complicated, so let us look at it, focused entirely on Tipperary. We are a Division 4 team and will play seven matches in Division 4 as before. If we win division four then we would qualify for a preliminary all Ireland quarter final against the team that finishes second in division 2. We would be competing for Sam Maguire. We would also gain promotion to next years Division 3. Were Tipperary not to win Division 4, then we would enter the Tailteann Cup along with remaining teams in Division 3 and 4 and New York. This would be a knock out competition and the Tailteann Cup Final would surely receive a big enough billing in Croke Park to reward the two teams that make it there.
I hope you got all that. The net effect of this from a Tipperary viewpoint is more games against comparable teams. ‘No more mis-matches’ the architects of Proposal B tell us. But here I have some misgivings. Because I don’t believe we are a Division 4 team. We are better than that but find ourselves in Division 4 as a result of poor performances in 2021 when a truncated Covid league campaign consigned us to the bottom tier. This, only a year after winning a first Munster title in 85 years and reaching an All-Ireland semi-final. And I want young boys in Tipperary to dream of winning bigger football matches than a Tailteann Cup final. But those misgivings must be sacrificed at the alter of progress. Progression is the challenge for Tipperary football now. Progressing out of Division 4 and then the following year, progressing out of Division 3 and taking our rightful place amongst the top ten teams in Ireland. To progress we will need more competitive games than we have had over many years, not just the recent past.
We are where we are, and proposal B offers the best path to plot a route to the top table and Croke Park. Let us hope that the status quo is not seen as being more attractive, as it so often is when tough decisions have to be made. We will watch with interest.
Join Ronan for the Extra Time sports program on TippFM every Monday night at 7.