This coming September, my eldest daughter will swap the co-educational existence she’s had since starting school for a very different girls-only environment as she heads “upstairs” to the senior primary school. For her, that’ll be the end of co-ed, as the local secondary schools are also single-sex ones. Coming from the country, where such structures more or less disappeared a generation ago (with some exceptions, of course), this rigid division by gender in the sphere of education seems quite alien and fairly backward-looking to me.
But then I began to think about it and came to realise that it was all to do with the numbers coming through the system. Most of the single-sex schools across the country that used to be run by the nuns or the Brothers or whoever were forced, by dint of falling numbers, to amalgamate with each other to create unitary co-ed schools. If the numbers coming into those schools hadn’t plummeted, this wouldn’t have happened. In Dublin, falling numbers have never been an issue to the same degree – in recent years, the main problem has been in coping with skyrocketing figures in the opposite direction – so there has been no external change agent. And – surprise, surprise – no change.
As I was ruminating on this today, the thought struck me that it’s the same with the GAA and this godawful, fetid championship structure that we’re saddled with. A structure that’s riddled with stupid, indefensible characteristics, like the one that will keep Longford twiddling their thumbs for ten weeks before they get to play in the qualifiers. Or the one that could see Wicklow beat both Kildare and Laois and then lose in the provincial semi but not get a shot at the qualifiers while the Lillies and the O’Mooremen do. Or the one that allows the Kerrymen to awake from their slumbers every year around the middle of July, scratch their balls and – hey presto! – they’re back in the All-Ireland series yet again.
The current championship structure stinks to high heaven. The old system was bad enough but the 21st century version is far, far worse. The way the ludicrous, constipated scheduling early in the summer – that sees the Connacht championship, involving just six games, take over two months to complete – then gives way, for those fortunate to be still involved, to a mad frenetic Sunday-after-Sunday series of matches is just plain daft. There’s no logic to it and there’s no fairness to it either and the whole bloody edifice needs to be knocked down and rebuilt in a very different manner.
The problem, of course, is the huge popularity, warts and all, of the thing as it currently stands. Attendances remain high, there’s blanket coverage across all media for the whole summer, most of which is of the fawning variety (by the way, have you noticed how “the championship” has now become, in media-speak just “championship”?) With TV3 having now joined the live action party and digital TV coming down the tracks in a few years, the TV rights are becoming more and more valuable. “Why fix it if it ain’t broken?” I can almost hear the apparatchiks in Ceannarus squeal, as they salivate at the attendance figures, the enormous sponsorship lolly and the prospect of more of the same over the coming years. Maybe they’re right.
But, then again, maybe not. The current rotten structure is almost certain to deliver another All-Ireland to Kerry come September, thus completing a three-in-a-row they wouldn’t have achieved under the pre-2001 set-up. What then would be the chances of a four, five or six-in-a-row to follow? Pretty good, you’d have to think as the Kerry machine becomes ever better honed to get over that possible quarter-final trap, where they came so close to tripping up last year.
How would the punters react to such a scenario? I have my doubts that the queue for tickets would be all that long and, while attendances may not contract back down to those miserly numbers that witnessed Kerry’s All-Ireland semi-final victories in “The Golden Years”, I wouldn’t reckon you’d have too many problems getting parking within walking distance of HQ, potty parking ban or not.
Maybe this appalling vista of perpetually smiling Kerrymen is what is needed to shake the GAA legislators from their torpor and finally undertake the fundamental structural reforms that are required to make the championship into a tournament that provides every county with an equal chance of success. This is surely a basic building-block of any sporting tournament but the lopsided nature of the current provincial set-up means that it’s not one on offer at the moment, especially if you happen to be in Leinster or Ulster.
I think it’s fairly obvious at this stage that the provincial championships have had their day. Ulster is the only provincial football championship that is of any interest any more, simply because of its ferocity and its historical openness, but despite Ulster’s impressive haul of All-Ireland titles in the past fifteen years or so, I’d say a good number of counties within the province would happily kiss goodbye to this early-season dogfight for local supremacy. Elsewhere, the other three provincial championships have little going for them and I certainly wouldn’t shed any tears if the Connacht championship had to be jettisoned as part of a new and vastly improved structure.
What such a revised structure might look like was discussed on this site last year but I also like this idea that a poster on Hogan Stand came up with recently. The notion of using the league as the basis for determining the first, second, third and fourth seedings for an initial mini-league stage of the championship is both a simple and deceptively effective one: at a stroke, it would deal conclusively with the “it’s only the league” issue and give some much-needed cohesion to the entire inter-county season. In a four-team group, all counties would be guaranteed at least three championship games, which could be spaced a few weeks apart. That alone would be a vast improvement on the current ridiculous arrangement for scheduling championship ties.
Then, with the top two in each group entering the All-Ireland A Championship and the bottom two heading for the B equivalent, all 32 counties would have a strong incentive to progress in a tournament that is structured to give them a good chance of doing so. That sure beats, for the likes of Carlow, a walloping in Leinster in the middle of May followed by the twilight zone of the Tommy Murphy Cup sometime in July.
I’d then propose a novel twist to the first round of the knockout phase, which would be to play this round on a two-legged home and away basis, with the winner on aggregate over the two legs progressing to the quarter-finals. That would guarantee everyone five meaningful matches (with no prospect of draws, so complete certainty about dates and so no problems in scheduling club matches on those weekends when inter-county matches weren’t on) before the quarter-finals. The rest of the championship (sorry, the rest of “championship”) could then proceed, as at present, in Croker in front of the full glare of the media and with all the attendant ballyhoo that it currently gets.
It’s got to be better than what we have at the moment but even I’m realistic enough to know that we’re some distance away yet from getting any consensus about meaningful change to how the championship is structured. But, make no mistake, the numbers will out eventually (as, hopefully, they’ll do in relation to single-sex eduction here in the capital) and when they do, the notion of structural change will be back on the agenda. When this does eventually happen, let’s hope the GAA’s lawmakers do the job properly this time.