Have we just seen the last 'real' Ulster SF Final?

Conor Glass of Derry in action against Jason McGee of Donegal during the Ulster SF Final. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Benny Heron lifts the Anglo-Celt Cup after Derry's victory in the Ulster SF Final. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Sean McGoldrick

It was the weekend from hell for Gaelic football.

Two of the four provincial football finals were turkey-shoots; the third was virtually unwatchable. Only the Connacht final offered any respite to the beleaguered football fan.

Everything wrong with the structure of the All-Ireland championship and the game itself converged in a perfect storm.

In a bizarre twist, the embryonic Tailteann Cup offered the only antidote.

The good news is the football championship will undoubtedly improve from this point on – it always does. So, the chances of another bore-fest to rival the Ulster final is unlikely.

The two teams mirrored each other’s style; this allied to Donegal’s near pathological fear of making a mistake produced the kind of sorry spectacle we endured in Clones.

This style of football won’t cut the mustard in Croke Park – particularly against Kerry or Dublin.

Derry don’t appear to have the capacity to score enough points to win championship games at the business end of the season.

As for Donegal, if they do reach the last eight, they could be different. But the mental meltdowns they have endured so often – remember they haven’t contested an All-Ireland semi-final since 2014 – militates against the prospect of a Phoenix-like revival.

We won’t dwell on the structure of the current championship other than to pose a question.

The GAA is drifting. There is a lack of vision from the top down and an unwillingness to lead from the front.

Take the state of Gaelic football.

Over the last quarter of a century it has evolved into a possession-based game revolving around moving the ball via the hand rather than the foot.

The GAA needs a Football Commission to determine what direction the game should take over the next quarter of a century. It won’t evolve unless there are rule changes.

Does football need something drastic like a basketball shot-clock? Should teams be banned from playing the ball back into their own half once they cross the half-way line? Should teams have to keep a minimum number of players in their opponent’s half of the field at all times?

Has the forward mark done anything to enhance the game? Why hasn’t the GAA introduced a match clock to aid referees? Could VAR be used to aid referees?

Nobody knows the correct answers to these questions. But they ought to be examined because the game is drifting into unwatchable territory.

The annoying bit is that players are better conditioned and more skilful than ever before. But the rules of the game don’t serve them well.

Armchairs fans might have been puzzled by a remark made by Derry manager Rory Gallagher after last Sunday’s Ulster final. “Maybe we’ve won the last real Ulster championship,” he remarked.

What did he mean? Next year the first seven finishers in Division 1 of the Allianz League are guaranteed a place in the round-robin phase of the All-Ireland series. The 2022 Tailteann Cup winners are assured of a spot as well.

Benny Heron lifts the Anglo-Celt Cup after Derry's victory in the Ulster SF Final. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

The eight provincial finalists will make up the other eight teams in the Sam Maguire championship.

So, before a ball is kicked in the provincial championship, eight teams are already guaranteed their places in the All-Ireland series.

Common sense and history dictates that the first seven finishers in Division 1 will be almost certainly the leading contenders for the Sam Maguire Cup.

This, of course, begs the question as to how seriously they will take the provincial championships. They might opt to do a heavy block of training during it in preparation for the All-Ireland series.

Certainly, they won’t be as focused as they once were on winning the provincial series in order to advance to the quarter-final through the so-called front door. That route has disappeared.

Regardless of how a team qualifies, they have to play three games in the round-robin phase of the All-Ireland series.

The top finisher in each of the four groups go directly into the quarter-finals; the second and third place teams meet in a preliminary quarter-finals.

The provincial championships could wither away by default.

By way of clarification, if any or all of the top seven finishers in Division 1 and the Tailteann Cup holders qualify for the Sam Maguire series by reaching their respective provincial finals, then the next best placed team in the league will qualify for the All-Ireland series.

Even by GAA standards it is complicated.

But it probably marks the beginning of the end of the provincial championships, which as we witnessed last weekend are well past their sell-by date.

How can any organisation justify a system which Derry had to beat three Division 1 teams in order to win their provincial title, whereas Kerry beat a Division 2 team and a team promoted from Division 3 to win Munster, while Dublin beat a Division 4, a Division 2 and a team relegated from Division 1 on their way to securing another Leinster title.

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