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Split season format seems like it's the only way to go, now the key is discovering how to make it work

Task force have tough job to resolve critical details on how future may look

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Striking an acceptable balance between counties across the board will prove a formidable challenge for GAA chiefs

Striking an acceptable balance between counties across the board will prove a formidable challenge for GAA chiefs

�INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Striking an acceptable balance between counties across the board will prove a formidable challenge for GAA chiefs

Fixtures calendars and competition structures are like snowflakes - no two ever appear the same.

Look around the country right now and you may see some commonality between Championship formats - four groups of four being the predominant template - but add in the other constit­uent competition parts like leagues, promotion/relegation, quarter-finals, home venues - and there's a distinction between each one.

Which is why, even with the light of day of a split-season concept at national level blinding everyone with its current strength, finding a solution that even comes close to ticking every box still won't be easy.

Tomorrow night, the Fixtures Calen­dar Review Task Force intensifies its work around what shape the future may take. Having met two weeks ago to establish the principle of re-examin­ing a split-season concept, they'll now dig down into the detail.

But while complementary in so many respects, the issues of scheduling and format really should be looked at as separate entities. Otherwise, confusion will reign. And for change to happen, it really needs to be set out in the sim­plest terms possible.

Right now, to use the snowflake anal­ogy, the GAA again finds itself in the midst of quite a significant blizzard of ideas and formats.

Having made public their call for a shortened inter-county window - Feb­ruary to late July - early last month, based on the feedback their member­ship provided through the two pub­lished ESRI reports, the Gaelic Players Association have been putting the fin­ishing touches to their own proposals for a format that could fit that window, and it's expected that they'll present that to tomorrow night's meeting.

For their part, the Club Players' Associ­ation, now looking in from the outside after withdrawing from the process late last year, has published five differ­ent plans of its own, conceived prior to the split-season concept making its comeback, so each one has an April window built in.

In the meantime, the GAA has been working away at developing its own plans to shape future seasons to avoid conflict that has reared its head through April over the last two years and most years really as clubs battled with counties for access to players.

Dissenting voices against a split sea­son have been virtually, and surprisingly, non-existent so far. Concerns that players would be too long away from their clubs in the first half of the year and would have no break from an inter-county set-up, in addition to the promotional loss of August as a shop window to a broader national audience, having already lost September, have not even got off the ground this time. Having torn up the script because of Covid-19, everything is now being looked at through a dif­ferent lens.

Using a 2021 calendar and working back from the last weekend in October (to align with week-to-week provincial club championships in November) allows for All-Ireland finals to be played on the middle weekends in July (10/11 hurling, 17/18 football), short of the August Bank Holiday weekend that some would have had in mind as a nat­ural conclusion.

In reality, in any of the three formats put forward by the task force, clubs in a majority of counties whose inter- county interest would be parked up by early-to-mid-June would have much more than 15 weeks' access to all of their players.

To arrive at that mid-to-late July con­clusion, however, remains the trickier part. And that's where some degree of separation is required between sched­uling and format.

The task force provided three options last December, including one that kept the current structure but chipped away two weekends, bringing the total to 16.

The other two formats - a champi­onship based on the current league structure, and four provincial groups of eight - require 15 weeks, one more than the existing hurling champion­ship.

Work back 15 weeks from a July 17/18 All-Ireland football final and the com­mencement of either championship format would be the second week in April.

The challenge with a new league for­mat for the summer championship is to find a fair way to qualify for play-offs that respect the primacy of Division 1 while giving all other divisions a bridge to Sam Maguire. It shouldn't be more advantageous to mount a chal­lenge from a lower division.

While the conclusion of an inter-county season may align with most, the commencement is unlikely to.

The task force has suggested the existing league format for two of its three proposals with provincial round-robin leagues/semi-finals and final to preface a summer league, roughly 'flip­ping' the existing structure.

But both require 10-week windows and if April 10/11 drops the flag for pursuit of Sam Maguire, the end of January then still looks the most likely starting point for the inter-county cam­paign, a month off what the GPA has advocated.

Splitting the season looks like being the easy part. Catching the right snow­flakes in the blizzard remains the great conundrum.

Belfast Telegraph