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GAA flip Majority of football managers back switching league to summer

Over 60 per cent of bosses say they would prefer competition ‘flip’

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Clare football manager Colm Collins: "There will just be way more beatings and more teams will be playing at a level that they are not able to handle at this particular point." Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Clare football manager Colm Collins: "There will just be way more beatings and more teams will be playing at a level that they are not able to handle at this particular point." Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

James Horan

James Horan

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Clare football manager Colm Collins: "There will just be way more beatings and more teams will be playing at a level that they are not able to handle at this particular point." Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

The GAA are committed to waiting until after next Tuesday’s Government update on restrictions to see what time they have to play with for 2021 competitions.

If it gets the green light for inter-county activity from April 5 or even April 12, there is confidence that all competitions, in some shape or form, can be played. But what shape or form that takes remains to be seen.

The conventional thinking is that an inter-county season would run straight through and conclude sometime in August to allow club activity to thrive at that point.

That would be a four-and-a-half-month window, allowing for a four-to-five-week build-up in which something would have to ‘give’ as a five-round league, followed by a provincial championship/qualifier championship, would, in all probability, not have the time, especially with 2020 club finals still to be played in several counties.

But what gives – the league or championship qualifiers? It looks the most logical choice and that was what we put to football managers this week, ahead of next week’s anticipated Government decision and subsequent GAA clarity.

Naturally, all managers would rather have everything as planned, including qualifiers that weren’t available to them in 2020, but there was pragmatism too from many that the time window for that simply isn’t there.

Forced to choose, 23 of the 26 respondents plumped for the league first, followed by a straight knockout championship based on provinces at the expense of going straight to a provincial championship followed by a qualifier element.

That aligns with the responses gathered by the Gaelic Players Association in recent weeks with players also preferencing a truncated league at the expense of a qualifier option later in the summer.

Of the 26 that responded, five were from Division 1, seven from Division 2, eight from Division 3 and six (excluding London) from Division 4.

The two managers who opted for a championship with a qualifier option at the expense of a league/straight knock-out were from Division 1 and 2. One of those was Down’s Paddy Tally who fears that there will be too little preparation time to incorporate a five-round (including finals) league.

The primacy of the league featured highly for most.

“For 50pc of the counties in Ireland the league is the most important competition,” said Leitrim’s Terry Hyland. “And I dare say for 90pc of the counties as far as that goes.”

Two of the managers, Cavan’s Mickey Graham and Limerick’s Billy Lee, were not averse to splitting the league and championship, either side of an extensive club window in the summer, just like 2020.

Graham acknowledged there were club and financial considerations (prospects of more crowds at games later in the year), while Lee saw community benefits for ‘giving clubs the summer,’ just like last year.

“I feel strongly that the GAA need to seriously consider giving the summer months (June to August) back to clubs, assuming the Covid numbers would allow them to do so with controls and strong penalties in place to prevent over-celebrating of county final victories,” he said.

“The country badly needs it now due to the current lockdown and each parish/community needs something to look forward to.”

On the broader question of a future season structure beyond 2021, some 95pc were in favour of change.

Only one, Mayo’s James Horan, favoured the current status quo of provincial championship/qualifiers/Super 8s.

Three options were presented, the status quo and the two options for change as conceived by the Fixtures Calendar Review Task Force which football managers were given a presentation of by committee task force member Conor O’Donoghue in January.

Some 61.5pc, 16 from 26, favoured the proposal which would see provincial championships played over seven weekends, including semi-finals and finals, in February and March followed by a championship based on the existing league structure between April and July when an All-Ireland final would be played on the third weekend.

Fresh from his recent call for the GAA to be bold in their outlook to competition reform, Dublin’s All-Ireland-winning manager Dessie Farrell saw more merit in the league-based championship.

The longest-serving football manager, Clare’s Colm Collins, sees no merit in transferring the weakest counties to another province, as per the ‘four eights’ proposal, if they lose their preliminary rounds in their own province.

“There will just be way more beatings and more teams will be playing at a level that they are not able to handle at this particular point,” said Collins.

A further nine preferred the league remaining in its current format and calendar slot with four eight-team round-robin championships for each province (two groups of four). That involves preliminary rounds in Leinster (three) and Ulster (one) to see which counties switch to Connacht (one Ulster, one Leinster) and Munster (two Leinster).

Of the eight who preferred this option, five were managing Ulster teams but Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney expressed a preference for the eight-team groups to be based on national seedings rather than primarily provinces.

Not surprisingly, there was overwhelming support for a league-based summer championship from managers of counties in the lower tiers, especially Division 4.

Wicklow’s Davy Burke described the move as a “no-brainer”, while Wexford’s Shane Roche also saw the value of a structure that provided more games.

At a minimum, a county in any province would be playing a minimum of 11 competitive games with the Tailteann Cup for Division 3 and 4 teams adding to that.

Carlow’s Niall Carew also favoured the league moving to summer but wants to see greater benefits for Tailteann Cup winners.

As it’s imagined, Tailteann Cup winners from Division 4 can’t be promoted two divisions but Carew feels this should be allowed if they are one of the two promoted Division 4 teams.

One of those who spoke strongly against the league-based championship was current Derry manager Rory Gallagher on the basis that the weighting of the play-off places on the basis that it “penalises strong teams which is wrong.”

As it’s laid out, the top five in Division 1 would go straight to All-Ireland quarter-finals where they would join the winner of Division 2.

The second and third teams in Division 2 and the Division 3 and 4 winners would play preliminary quarter-finals.

Gallagher’s logic is that competing
in Division 2 could be construed as a bigger advantage as it allows three teams to ‘survive’ beyond the group stages.

“We already have a National League that guarantees all teams seven games against teams at their own level.”

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