Ciaran Deely MSc MA CSCS
There has been much debate concerning the proposed Gaelic Football championship restructure recently, and especially with Congress on this coming weekend and the County Representatives about to vote on it. Director General of the GAA, Pauric Duffy set forth his plans many months ago, and the reaction then, as now, is one of bewilderment from the vast majority of the interested parties of the GAA- the club players, the inter-county players, the managers, the fans, the journalists who follow all things GAA closely, the commentators. It must be said, however, that fans (and some players/managers) of some of the bigger ‘elite’ counties have remained strangely subdued and largely silent on the matter. This would have nothing to do with those being the ones who may most benefit from these proposed changes, of course…
Though welcoming the debate and discussion on restructuring the senior football championship, as I believe it is much needed, I fail to see the benefit to smaller, weaker counties of playing a round robin of games at quarter final stage only. I must declare a vested interest, of course. I currently manage the London Snr Football team- the weakest of the weak and smallest of the small counties out there, so apologies for my slightly biased stance when it comes to attempting to defend the interests of the smaller, less well-off counties. Everybody has a vested interest, of course, and mine is no different. But I am also a fan of Gaelic football, a player, a coach, an interested spectator to the direction as a whole of the GAA into the future. Lastly, as a professional Sport Scientist- with a particular interest in player welfare, performance, long term athletic development (LTAD), and elite player performance pathway (EPPP) models. I’ve played for Wexford, during the so called ‘Mattie Forde years’ (fun years they were too), and worked inside the scarily efficient and progressive Dublin GAA underage apparatus in the late noughties- which is obviously bearing fruit now. The point is- we all have an interest in the GAA, and in multiple capacities, with often conflicting angles. This does not take away from the point; however, that we all want what is best for the GAA…ALL the GAA! And that incorporates the clubs, the executives, the counties, the volunteer, the club player, the county player, and the fans.
This seems to me like a half-hearted proposal from Croke Park to reinvigorate the stagnating championship. Extra games at quarter final stage will be fantastic for the elite counties involved, for fans of seeing the big teams clashing more often (who does not want to see more of Kerry-Mayo, Cork-Donegal, Tyrone-Tipperary, Dublin-London!) and of course, the bank balance of the GAA. I struggle to see the benefit, however, to the much ignored clubs, club players, and smaller inter-county teams who can only dream of reaching the quarter final of the championship. Now, the inter-county season would be condensed and finished up in August (brilliant, great idea!), there would be more high quality inter-county games on show (again, another great idea), and we are told the extra income brought in will be filtered down to all counties and indeed clubs around the country- something the GAA as an amateur organisation does so well and must at all times be applauded. But why leave it at that- with the so called ‘#Super8’ concept (any concept worth its salt these days must have a # and a snazzy name also; we wait with baited breath on the Instagram account)? I look around at all the different sports and sporting competitions around the world and struggle to find another elite end competition that is predominantly knockout in nature, but then a Group of Death (two!!) round robin series of games, crowbarred into the middle of the season at Quarter Final stage before reverting back to a knockout series again. Bewildering! Is this the best we can come up with? So when we all sit down and analyse the merits, pitfalls, and opportunities of the current Gaelic Football Championship structure- both of underage, club, and county…THIS is what our governing body has come up with- tasked with improving the direction and structure of our top end competition?
Surely when looking to restructure a competition, you look to increase the volume and quality of games, for all teams and not just the elite. This proposal will serve only to increase the gulf in class even further between the so called big and small counties. Surely it would make sense to begin the competition with a multitude of matches for every county in groups, followed by knockout competitions for each county at their own levels. More, better games against teams of similar and slightly better ability, in a much tighter season is surely the answer to reinvigorating the championship, developing weaker counties, and aiding the plight of the much ignored club players.
The Club Players Association (CPA) have vehemently opposed the proposals, believing with much merit, that this will only serve to congest further the already congested fixture calendar. With the London footballers, we have worked together with the County Board, clubs, representatives and players to schedule as many club games as possible throughout the season, including throughout the National League campaign, and strongly encourage all our players to play as many games as possible. Not all counties, apparently, take the same approach. Though the CPA have now many signed up members (proudly a Wexford member myself through my home club Horeswood GAA), it seems they do not warrant a voice at this weekend’s Congress. Naïve perhaps, to expect the GAA to recognise them so soon, but still, must be commended for wrestling the narrative of this topic in the media and throughout the local clubs. Some fantastic work done already, and they have an engaging and important role to play in this coming fixtures storm I would think.
The inter-county based Gaelic Players Association (GPA) has been strangely and disappointingly silent on the whole topic. I am a huge fan of the GPA and its sterling work for current players and past players. I have spoken to former CEO Dessie Farrell many times and he has always been there to help and advice. I’ve recently used their services as a past player of career development and direction- the incomparable Fran O Reilly from @Amaze, who tells me I’m not completely craiced when I talk about wanting to use my sport science to train Olympic Athletes in the Central Asian Republic of Kyrgyzstan, or hop on the Trans-Siberian Railway and practice rudimentary Russian in Lake Baikal. Sometimes you just need a listening ear and someone to tell you that you are in fact quasi-normal in your future career and life goals! The work the GPA has done in terms of suicide and addiction awareness is, I believe, the most important work that they can do- just like the PFA do in the UK in football. But they also have a major role to play in this discussion, and though I will at all times support and argue for the work the GPA does, it would be good to hear their voice a bit stronger on this current topic. I hope new CEO Dermot Earley can be an as engaging and driving force for change as Dessie Farrell has been for the GPA and within the whole of the GAA set up.
From a London senior football team perspective, I know the players would have loved to have played more championship games in the height of the summer last year- a completely lopsided on paper first round fixture against the 2nd best team in the country Mayo, and a Qualifier against a resurgent Offaly- which would have aided their development and progression as individual players and as a team as a whole- but alas our, and many other county teams also, season ended after just two championship matches. I look to my previous work with Queens Park Rangers FC here in London and even Kerala Blasters FC in India- what makes professional football so popular- aside of course from the glitz, the glamour, the money, the characters, the skills, the controversies- it is the constant hope in the fans and the players, the managers and the executives, the grounds people and the tea lady- safe in the knowledge that though we didn’t perform today, we have another game next week just around the corner. That is the beauty of the soccer world, and one that we should be seeking (in an adaptive format) to replicate for both our club and county players. And really guys, really…can we not just do something with the Provinces?? I love watching Cork v Kerry, really I do. But after the 125th edition of it, it becomes a bit of a drag. Can we not change it up? Look at the National League- what a fantastic competition. Two weekends ago we had 32 teams, in 4 Divisions, of similar ability and development stage, playing off against each other all around the country. And the best thing- we have the same again the coming week. And again, on the week after that. This is what an appropriate, relevant, progressive competition looks like. Its brilliant- shows where you stand in the pecking order- with relegation, promotion, winners and losers at their appropriate level.
I remember once in the height of the 2006 summer, waiting 6 weeks for a Leinster Semi-Final after winning our hard fought Quarter-Final. We lost, I blamed the extended training period with no competitive game. Offaly probably put down their victory to that same exact training bloc. But that’s sport, biased by our own personal experiences. If there is a virus in the GAA, it is not the elitism that some will put on the inter-county set ups, and the GPA. It is a virus of fixture madness and 21st Century non-direction as an organisation. There needs a root and branch analysis of the direction the organisation is taking, with an all-inclusive progressive solution and approach, to maximise our great games for all.
Surely, with so much at stake, now is not the time to implement a token restructuring of our Championship, and a more concerted effort is needed to engage and include the thoughts, ideas and proposals of all the representative bodies of the GAA-. The CPA, the GPA, the County Executives, Croke Park Directors, why not include even those pesky well-read journalists with their sometimes on the money analysis of the problems and solutions facing the sport as a whole! Just don’t tell them their ideas sometimes have merit!
I admire Pauric Duffy and believe he is a progressive good man, but if Gaelic Football is to keep developing and maintaining its position as the predominant and most popular sport in Ireland, then more courage and foresight is needed to implement a more radical restructuring of the championship that will benefit all teams and the sport as a whole.
Yours in sport science,
Ciaran Deely MSc MA CSCS