Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 27 November 2014

We badly need a game-changer

Celebrations for Limerick's Declan Hannon but there's been little to cheer across the country so far
Celebrations for Limerick's Declan Hannon but there's been little to cheer across the country so far

Down on Shannon-side, Tipperary and Limerick delivered a hurling game for the ages on Sunday.

On the sideline, the Limerick manager and Zen master John Allen remained inscrutable, in control of himself, his team, unaffected by his destiny, win or lose. This softly-spoken man, given to overseeing training sessions in his bare feet, never comes into the reckoning whenever the lists of the great managers are compiled.

A lack of ego will do that for you.

We digress. The point of bringing up Sunday's game is that it provided a compelling argument for the retention of the Munster hurling Championship. Here in Ulster, we are familiar with the theme. We value our football Championship and guard it jealously.

Elsewhere though, the provinces are drying up, withering on the vine.

When London beat Sligo last month it effectively wrapped up the Connacht Championship, although it will limp on to its' inevitable conclusion on July 21.

In Munster, Kerry have played twice and Cork once. The average winning margin of these games is just a shade over 20 points.

In the past 20 years, both counties have carved up the Munster Championship between them. Next winter, three of the remaining counties will begin their campaign in Division Four. The other is Limerick who won Division Four earlier this year but were simply crushed by Cork.

Leinster is saved by the mouth-watering potential classic at the end of the month between Dublin and Kildare. The early rounds have not been bad either, with Wicklow shocking Longford and the entertaining meeting of Louth and Wexford last Sunday in Drogheda.

In general though, the football and hurling Championships have been a drip-drip affair, merely capturing the attention of the participating counties and not much else.

With a Lions tour in full swing and the return of José among other events, the GAA's shop window has been squeezed into the margins over the past month.

There has been much debate already on restructuring the competition to generate a little more spark. However, next Monday's draw for the qualifier series will shoulder the sceptics out of the room.

Galway, Tyrone, Derry, Laois, Armagh, Sligo. Teams with a recent or historic tradition, wounded and hurting badly and all badly needing to make a statement. Only after the pairings are made can we say that the summer has truly arrived.

The randomness of the qualifiers produces a different paradigm. Unable to plan for weeks to strangle their next opponents, teams are forced to play it as they see it. It makes for incredible encounters and occurrences such as the shootout between Derry and Donegal in Ballybofey in 2009, or the six amazing points Seánie Johnston scored for Cavan in their incredible comeback against Wicklow in 2010.

And just as it arrives, it whittles off half the teams. A week later, another bunch are cut and so on until we are left at the very start of August, with three games left in the football Championship to hold our interest to the end of September.

It needn't be like this.

How about setting tradition aside, and for a trial period of three years, ringfence a three-month block for the football Championship.

Start with scrapping the National League in favour of a bigger Championship.

Rattle it off in a group stage format with home and away games to make it worth everyone's while. Extract 16 teams to go through to a knock-out stage, drawn every week to keep things fresh. It would guarantee meaningful games, at the very least.

The GAA has a good handle on tradition. Throughout the worst excesses of the last decade, it's unwieldy democracy fire-proofed it against joining in the orgy of greed. Big GAA days certainly were able to capitalise on the increased cash flow swilling around the country, but it stopped short of becoming the Fianna Fail tent at the Galway Races.

Tradition of this type, of being wedded to a certain way of staging competitions, is dangerous though. The provincial model is no longer rising the sap of dedicated Gaels. And it certainly isn't drawing in many casual fans or occasion junkies.

You can still have the Ulster Championship, but run it off over four weeks ahead of the summer season. Stage the semi-finals as a double header and cram everyone into Clones or the new Casement. Add some pizzazz to the thing! Time to stick or twist, but sticking is no option at all.

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