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The structure of the All-Ireland football championship has undergone more changes in the last 20 years than in the previous 113.  

The structure of the All-Ireland football championship has undergone more changes in the last 20 years than in the previous 113.  

The structure of the All-Ireland football championship has undergone more changes in the last 20 years than in the previous 113.  

PERISH the thought but the most exciting thing in the GAA this side of Easter is the first ever zoom GAA Congress.  

Ok before your eyes glaze over let me explain.

Occasionally Congress impinges on the public consciousness.

Incredibly the decision to remove the ban on so-called foreign games created front-page headlines as late as a generation ago.

More recently, the vote to open up Croke Park to soccer and rugby was front page news.

What will be debated at the 2021 Congress at the end of February has far more profound implications for the Association’s elite players than any of those two ground-breaking decisions.

So, to borrow a favourite phrase from the late, great Con Houlihan: Now read on…

The structure of the All-Ireland football championship has undergone more changes in the last 20 years than in the previous 113.

There was the introduction of the back-door format in 2001 which gave teams beaten in the provincial championship a second chance.

More recently came the Super 8s, which controversially introduced a league format at the business end of the series.

Next month delegates will vote on another new format.

Technically the delegates have three choices – (1) They can opt for the status quo or (2) An eight-county provincial championship with a back door and a straight knock-out format from the quarter-finals or (3) A Champions League style structure.

This envisages the football season being flipped with the provincial championships taking place prior to the league and All-Ireland series.

The key element is a complete break between the provincial championships and the All-Ireland series, which will consist of two competitions: (1) For the Sam Maguire Cup and (2) for the new Tailteann Cup, which will cater for counties who play in Division 3 and 4 of the Allianz League and which will also include New York.

Entry will be determined by league performances. The provincial championships, which would be played on a league basis, will be stand-alone competitions.

Instead, the top four finishers in Division 1 would qualify for the All-Ireland quarter-finals along with the top two teams in Division 2.

The top teams in Division 3 and 4, together with the fifth-placed team in Division 1 and the third-placed team in Division 2, advance to the preliminary quarter-finals.

The second-tier Tailteann Cup would include all the teams in Division 3 and 4 apart from the top-placed teams who qualify for the preliminary round of the Sam Maguire championship.

Both competitions would then run on a straight knock-out format. Every team is guaranteed at least five championship games, seven in the league and a minimum of three in the provincial series (though most would have at least four in the latter).

The fly in the ointment are the provincial championships.

There is a significant danger that once their umbilical cord to the All-Ireland series is cut, they will diminish in importance, effectively becoming pre-tournaments akin to the McKenna and O’Byrne Cups, which, by the way, will be abolished under the new plan.

Power and money dictate the outcome of most GAA decisions.

The four Provincial Councils’ power is based on the revenue they generate from their provincial series.

They have legitimate concerns that, over time, the loss of gate receipts due to falling interest in the provincial championships will weaken their power base.

Ironically, the chief executive of the Connacht GAA Council John Prenty was a member of the Fixtures Task Force which drew up the plan.

But his Ulster equivalent Brian McAvoy has expressed his opposition to the proposal in his annual report. He argued that the new plan would devalue the provincial championship and they could end up becoming irrelevant.

He pointed to the fate of the now defunct Ulster hurling championship, which lost its prestige once it was excluded from the Liam MacCarthy Cup.

“I fear the same would happen to the Ulster football championship if this proposal was to be adopted,” he wrote.

So, it looks like a case of Ulster says no again.

Interestingly, the GAA invited current team managers to a webinar earlier this week at which they were given details of the new proposals.

Clare boss Colm Collins and his Offaly counterpart John Maughan were enthusiastic about the Champions’ League-style format.

But managers from the more powerful counties might be less enthusiastic.

After all, the provincial championship route virtually guarantees the likes of Dublin and Kerry – even if it didn’t happen for the Kingdom this year – a place in the All-Ireland quarter-finals.

Meanwhile, Cavan had to win four competitive games to secure the Ulster title and a place in the latter stages of the All-Ireland series last year.

Stand-by for an almighty bust-up in the coming weeks. For most of it the language will be almost ‘parliamentary’. But this debate is about money, power, and the soul of the GAA.

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