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Ulster sides' hopes set to be boosted by fixtures shake-up

By John Campbell

It's coincidental, perhaps, but the fact that the GAA has just released an updated version of its proposals to restructure the All-Ireland Football Championship will surely help focus minds even more sharply at the end of what was one of the longest championships on record.

Draws in both Ulster Championship semi-finals and a further stalemate in the All-Ireland final between Dublin and Mayo mean that county boards and provincial councils are scurrying to complete their competitions within a very limited time frame.

A document that eschews administrative jargon and, for a change, cuts to the quick in terms of assessing the plight of club players may yet, while certainly not proving a panacea for all ills, apply a soothing balm to what have been festering sores within the country's biggest sporting organisation.

Unnecessarily long intervals between championship games, a certain intransigence in bringing forward dates of the All-Ireland hurling and football finals, the futility of playing Allianz League semi-finals and the total preoccupation with replays rather than the more sudden-death element of extra-time have combined to impact adversely on the inter-county programme.

And for once, too, it would appear that GAA Director General Paraic Duffy, rather than paying lip-service to club players, all but offers an apology for the manner in which they have been treated in terms of fixtures planning over recent years.

Indeed, the higher the profile accorded to the All-Ireland Championship, the less the status attached to club competitions. Two sentences from the document put the club players' dilemma in context.

"There is an obvious truth about the GAA and its games that needs constantly to be restated," says Duffy.

"Our clubs, and therefore our club players, constitute the essence of the Association. An equally obvious and unacceptable truth is that the majority of our club players, specifically those not involved in inter-county teams, are not offered a fair, evenly distributed and planned schedule of club matches throughout the year," he states.

For many years now the provincial and All-Ireland championships have held sway over club competitions in the annual fixtures calendar, to the extent that the drain of talent from clubs has now reached quite alarming proportions. The new proposal for the All-Ireland series, which has already been highlighted, is that the current quarter-final stage be replaced by a group stage contested by the four provincial champions and the four Round 4 qualifier winners.

The group stage will be organised on a league basis with two groups of four teams, with each team playing the other three teams once.

Duffy's document robustly refutes suggestions that the group stage games are designed to earn extra revenue and confirms that the championship season per se will be more condensed.

It pours cold water, too, on the theory that a shorter championship span could impact on its overall profile, the response here being that it's the quality of fare on offer, not the timetable, that sustains the championship's presence in the public eye.

Certainly Ulster counties in particular will welcome any trimming of the championship season, although Monaghan will be left to reflect on the fact that Duffy's innovative thinking has come too late for them.

They won the Ulster Championship in 2013 and 2015 but lost their next qualifier match in each of those years.

Under the new format they would be offered a better opportunity of making headway in the group stage.

There is many's a slip twixt cup and lip but, between now and the start of the 2018 season, the wheels of change may turn rather more quickly within the GAA - and clubs will undoubtedly be grateful for that.

Belfast Telegraph


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