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Conor Deegan and Conleith Gilligan call for reform to help Ulster sides shine on the big stage

By Declan Bogue

Published 16/08/2016

Beaten: Cathal McCarran is dejected after Tyrone’s All-Ireland exit
Beaten: Cathal McCarran is dejected after Tyrone’s All-Ireland exit

Two prominent Ulster football figures have called for the provincial Championship system to be scrapped in favour of a group stage competition.

Conor Deegan, a two-time All-Ireland winner with Down in 1991 and 1994, and former Derry player Conleith Gilligan have made their plea in light of Ulster having no representation in the All-Ireland football semi-finals for the first time since 2007, with both men blaming the ultra-competitive nature of the Ulster Championship.

Mayo take on surprise package Tipperary in the first of the two semi-finals this Sunday, with defending champions Dublin coming up against Kerry a week later. It represents a fallow year for Ulster football.

Deegan can foresee a drastic change in the structure of the existing competitions. The current Downpatrick RGU manager said: "For me, the only way around this is to make the Championship a Champions League format. You go into an open draw and cut out all the nonsense.

"I think what they will do with the provincials is they will have a Championship of sorts, and then your Ulster Championship will in effect become your McKenna Cup."

He points to Kerry's route to the All-Ireland semi-final, in beating Clare twice and Tipperary to make it to their meeting with Dublin, stating: "There is a huge disparity, but it has been there forever.

"Kerry have been able to saunter into an All-Ireland semi-final for years, as long as they beat Cork. I wouldn't say uncontested, but year after year they could develop and grow and peak as a team for August."

During Deegan's playing days, Down took Sam Maguire in '91 and '94, Derry won their only All-Ireland in '93 and Donegal picked up their first in 1992. Tyrone, meanwhile, made the 1995 decider.

However, Deegan does believe that, in general, standards may be tailing off across Ulster.

"You have Donegal, you have Tyrone, and when all is said and done, they made no impact. They didn't get through, so we are obviously falling," he said.

Former Oak Leaf player Gilligan thinks differently, countering Deegan's argument.

"It's down to the structures," he said. "I genuinely don't think that Ulster football is slipping.

"Monaghan should have been at the last stage, but again, having to come through Ulster was always going to be difficult because you have Donegal, Tyrone and Monaghan all at a very similar level and you don't have that in any other province any more. It tends to be Kerry, Dublin and then Galway or Mayo.

"The Ulster Championship is always going to be competitive, but the Ulster Championship does not serve its teams well."

He, too, would wish to see the GAA move away from their provincial system, pointing out how teams can be almost penalised for being successful, and how the provincial winners have no safety net against defeat.

"Tyrone's reward for winning Ulster was a quarter-final with Mayo," Gilligan pointed out.

"Derry came through the backdoor after being beaten by Tyrone in the first round and with a bit of luck, they could have been sitting in an All-Ireland semi-final.

"But I think all major competitions should now look to a Champions League-style competition. All other formats are designed to get the best teams to the quarter-final stage and to play the best against the best from there on."

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