Last weekend Congress – displaying the kind of knee-jerk, short-term thinking so typical of that particular gathering – cleared the way for the return of a semi-final stage to the NFL. Penultimate ties were done away with a few years ago in order to tighten the playing schedule a few notches but an utterly bogus argument about final round dead-rubbers (helped, one assumes, by the bullshit calculations made by Martin Breheny about the absence of semi-finals “costing” the GAA over a million big ones) has helped to bring them back in to existence. Bringing back the quarter-finals will be next on the agenda, I suppose.
It was refreshing, then, to hear Pat Gilroy describe the notion of playing NFL semi-finals as a “farce”. As Giller points out, this can mean that a team that has had an average enough campaign can either end up in the play-offs or being relegated depending on how they fare out in the final round. While this may help to bring some frisson to that final round, it’s not, as Pat says, what a league competition should be all about.
This reasoning is, I reckon, spot on and, if I had my way (which plainly I won’t) I’d go the whole hog and get rid of the final (all four divisional finals, in fact) altogether. I know that the GAA is firmly wedded to the notion of its competitions ending with a head-to-head winner-takes-all showdown and will, no doubt, point to this weekend’s upcoming Dublin-Cork decider as proof that the current system works.
But while Sunday’s Division One final should, I admit, be a tasty enough encounter, it’s also likely to be the exception that proves the rule. Most league finals are forgettable affairs – name one you can readily remember – and even the good ones are overlooked as focus immediately switches to the championship. It wasn’t for nothing that former DG Liam Mulvihill once correctly described the league as a tournament that starts with a bang and ends with a whimper.
Not only does the NFL final fail to provide a fitting end to the spring campaign, I would argue that having a final at all greatly devalues the notion of having a league competition in the first place. Surely the key thing about a league is that it involves every team playing the same number of matches (preferably the same number of home and away games – something that doesn’t happen in the current groups of eight) with the one who fares best over the campaign as a whole emerging as the winner. In this way, matches played in crappy conditions in February matter as much as those played in almost-summer weather in early April and you get the same reward for beating Kerry as you do for getting the better of us.
The winner of such a tournament would, quite simply, be the team that performs best on a consistent basis between February and April (last year that would have been us, this year Dublin). What it would rule out is a team coming with a late gallop, squeezing into the play-offs and pushing on from there to win it. I can’t be certain but, as an educated guess, I’d say that’s how a good number of league titles have been won down the years.
I’d go further and reorganize the league structure altogether (something that seems to happen on a regular basis in any event). Instead of 8 x 4 (with nine in Division Four due to London’s participation), I think we should go for 11 x 3, which would mean that everyone gets ten league games in a season, five home and five away. You could have three up and three down to keep things interesting (and put in a link to championship seeding to make it even more so) but the key thing is that, in each division, the winner would be the county with the most points at the end of the ten matches, not the one who comes out on top in a bogus standalone final.
Any such proposal would, I’m sure, evoke shrieks from several quarters about how it would take up too many weeks. However, the current system, with semi-finals reintroduced, requires nine weekends to complete and so a revamped version along the lines above would only take up one more weekend, which would only eat marginally into the Challenge Match Season.
The NFL has been subjected to plenty of tampering over the years and this constant chopping and changing has, I think, made the league less important in the scheme of things than it once used to be. Moreover, the practice in recent years of using the secondary competition as a test-bed for a whole wad of half-baked rule changes has had the effect of devaluing it still further. This latest short-sighted and utterly unimaginative decision to allow the reinstatement of a semi-final stage will do nothing for the health of the competition either.
The league will always, of course, have to play second fiddle to the championship but as the only other national title on offer each year, the GAA could do much, much more to increase its appeal both to the participating counties and their supporters. Turning it into a proper league would, I reckon, be a good start along this road.