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11 November 1999 Edition

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Sportsview: Radical proposals for Championship

by Dan O'Neill

Imagine the scene. Tyrone's Peter Canavan puts over a last gasp point against Roscommon on a sunny June afternoon to secure a place in the Ulster Championship semi final. Not too far away in Croke Park, Dublin's easy win over Cork (yeah, some chance) puts them top of their league table, ensuring their provincial semi-final place. Not to mention Antrim's B Championship semi-final win over Carlow guaranteeing them a place in the quarter-final of the All-Ireland football championship!

This may sound a little crazy or the stuff of fiction for us old-fashioned, traditionalist GAA followers, but this is the football championship 21st century style if the Football Development Committee (FDC) get their way.

Not too long ago it was said that change in the GAA came at a snail's pace. In the last couple of years though, the opposite has been the case. It's hard these days to keep up with the annual restructuring of the National League and the new `back door system' of the hurling championship. But the biggest change in the GAA's history looks set to come.

On Monday night the Football Development Committee launched new proposals for a radical overhaul of the present football Championship. These proposals include the abolition of the much-criticised National Football League and the early rounds of the provincial championship, which would be replaced by a revolutionary League Championship.

The new Championship League would be based on two regions, North and South. North would be comprised of the top seven counties in Ulster, plus the top top four in Connacht. South would be made up of the top seven in Leinster and the top four in Munster.

All remaining counties would be accommodated in a third group, competing for the B Championship.

The season would start in March, with all counties playing ten games in League format up to the end of June, after which those eligible to play in the championship would be decided based on their placing on the League table.

The four teams from both Leinster and Ulster who finished highest in their groupings would qualify for their provincial semifinals. The top three from Connacht and Munster would qualify for their provincial campaign, featuring one semi-final with one team getting a bye to the final.

The top four teams in Section Three qualify for the semi-final of the B Championship. The two sides who reach the B final have the bonus of progressing to the All-Ireland quarter-finals, playing the other provincial winners on a rota system.

The four counties from each province which finished lowest in the League table would be relegated to the weaker section for the following season and replaced with the highest finishers from each province in the lower section.

Despite the radical nature of the proposals, there was little opposition voiced by the county and provincial officials present at the launch.

Committee members Colm O'Rourke, Dr Pat O'Neill, Eugene McGee, Tony O'Keefe and chairman Noel Walsh spoke at length about their enlightened plans for a new club and county structure, though they made clear the flesh has yet to be put on the bones of their plans.

Some of the guests at the launch did warn of a negative impact on the club scene, particularly in dual counties. It most definitely will mean the end of the dual stars, though to be honest they are a dying breed in today's game anyway. There is also the possibility of creating an elitist band of players and pushing the game further towards professionalism.

Another problem will be by what standards will a county be selected for Grade A or Grade B groupings. Is it by championship history, championship results of recent years, or current National League status?

Some counties will also be deprived of football from June/July until the following March - if they fail to reach their provincial semis or the B final. I imagine competitions like the McKenna Cup in Ulster and the provincial Railway Cup will be back in vogue to provide more games during these months for the sides who fail to reach the provincial semis.

The huge financial gains expected from the proposed new League Championship should sway the four provincial councils and the 33 county boards when the issue comes up at next April's annual congress. Each county has been said to expect a rise of £50,000 to £70,000 in their annual income. Although provincial boards may lose out in gate receipts, it is expected they will be compensated for such losses. If passed at next year's Congress, the new `super championship' will begin in March 2001.

I have long been an advocate of abolishing the present league and championship format and replacing it with such a `round robin' championship format.

It hasn't been fair that many counties have trained for months on end only to play 70 minutes of championship football per year. At least this system allows for at least ten competitive fixtures per season. I also feel that weaker counties could benefit rather than lose out under this system. The incentive to reach an All-Ireland quarter-final will make the B Championship very competitive. Accepting change will be difficult, especially as we have been used to the glamour of the knockout system for so long. But as long as club football is not neglected and a gulf not created between county and club players, I would back these proposals. These are interesting and testing times for the GAA

McCarthy's Turkish mission

This weekend the Turks visit Lansdown Road for the first leg of that crucial European Championship qualifier. They are a formidable opposition, as they proved in their recent win over Germany.

Mick McCarthy's Irish soccer stars shot themselves in the foot giving that late goal away to Croatia. Then there was that other lapse in concentration in Macedonia that cost us an automatic place. In between we had the scare in Malta.

It has become something of a habit for Irish qualifying campaigns to go to the wire. We all remember Scotland's 87th minute winner against Bulgaria that ensured qualification for Euro `88. Then there was that night in November, when Alan McLoughlin equalised in the hate-filled atmosphere of Windsor Park, which, combined with Spain's 1-0 win over Denmark, was enough to book a place in USA `94. More recently, we have had the heartache of the play-off defeats to Holland in the 1996 Euro campaign and the 2-1 defeat against Belgium that diminished our hopes of going to France in 1998.

Mick McCarthy deserves a lot of credit for bringing this Irish side this close to qualification. To be honest, when the draw was made for the Euro qualifiers I wasn't too optimistic of our chances of making the finals. We do have a limited pool of players to choose from, many of whom are not playing at the top flight in England. Certainly the talent that was at the disposal of Jack Charlton is not available to Mick, but the team has a good chance of defeating the Turks.

Central to those plans of course will be the two Keanes, Roy and Robbie. Big Niall Quinn has also been in great form for Sunderland lately. With Kinsella missing through suspension, Lee Carsley should get the nod in midfield. Injuries to Staunton and Gary Kelly may see the welcome return of Ian Harte, who has been playing out of his skin for Leeds.

An Phoblacht Magazine


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