Posted by Ewan MacKenna

2012 Leitrim Mayo 520x280

There are plenty of times post-match interviews flit by, without so much as an honest or interesting word being spoken.

They are background noise, space fillers, a necessary tradition even if no one quite knows why. But then there are the rare occasions where words mean something and after getting home on Sunday night in time for the highlights of the day’s Connacht match-up, you’d want to be as hard as granite and as cold as snow not to feel as Leitrim manager Barney Allen spoke.

“The lads are gutted in there,” he said after Mayo predictably swatted away his side along with the cobwebs. “I feel so much for them because they’ve put in such an effort. They come from Dublin, Cork, Limerick and all over for training twice a week so I’m gutted for them more so than anything else.”

It’s so easy to be dismissive of a side that disappears without ever causing a blip on the radar. They’ve been sent to the back door where they’ll probably lose again and then, with their ilk out of the way, the rest of the country can get on with their summers where they’ve bigger games to see and better achievements to be part of.

That’s a sad but real mentality because what has made the championship so good is that it belongs to everyone and what made the provincial championship so important was there was sometimes a trophy, often a final and always a meaningful scalp to make it worth the while of even the little guy. But notice the past tense. All of that was until now.

The greatest indictment of the football championship at the moment is that midway through summer, the biggest talking point has yet again been the format while the football has been a formality.

The days when Leitrim could challenge for actual silverware were great but we have to face facts. They are gone and will never, ever return. Of the major counties, only Galway and Meath have yet to get their house in order. That will happen soon though and when it does the instances of the weakest counties causing an upset will be as rare as a deep and meaningful Steven Seagal movie. 

We’ve spoken before about how the days of breaking tables and drilling passion into a team no longer works when it comes to facing a stronger side. We now live in a different world and whether it’s better or not may be open to debate, but what’s not is there is no going back.

It’s an extreme example but consider this. While Leitrim suffers emigration and only hard graft gets them by with their 31,000 people, handful of clubs and €20,000-a-year sponsorship in an era where football is about costly science as opposed to free sweat, Dublin with their million people and  €1m-a-year main sponsorship deal coast along.

They have their official water supplier too, official Easter eggs, official calendars, official clothes. They even have Aer Lingus as their official carrier of choice replete with low-cost trips to the States over the next three years for both players and wives while a chunk of the panel are now driving Renaults as part of another new deal.

It’s insane to let such extremes play ball together and expect a good game but that’s the way the championship is right now and it has to change. So how about this. A two-tiered championship with 16 teams in each division, complete with promotion and relegation.

We know the Tommy Murphy Cup didn’t work but it was brought in at a time when players were loving the idea of the qualifiers. That’s no longer the case and while it was innovative a decade ago, we now must move on, not just in baby steps but in giant leaps so we can keep pace with the rest of the changes in football.

Besides, the GAA at its most basic is based on club championships where winning at your level is every bit as important as winning at the highest level. It’s why a junior title is cherished as much as a senior title by club sides in every corner of the land.

Let’s break that down. Fifteen games of football across the summer, with six home, six away and three played in a Croke Park round so everyone including Leitrim gets their day on the big stage. Throw in a rivalry week in for good measure.

Such a format would allow for season ticket sales, for fans to structure holidays, for players to structure schedules, for managers to structure training and for clubs to structure fixtures. It would take a change of mentality but look back at the first seven weeks of the championship and tell us that a change of mentality isn’t needed.

With a league system there’s no more talk of Dublin’s home advantage or a bad refereeing decision being the decisive factor. There are no more excuses of any variety to be made because the best will always win out in a season of that length.

Earlier this year the GAA decided they’d tackle the publicity the European Championships were getting by holding a host of open nights. It was a good idea but such a system of meaningful and evenly matched games being played right through the best weather would add enormously to the attention they receive.

Indeed in the league, what makes later-round games interesting is the fact there is relegation issues to be decided as well as promotion and in a two-tiered system, why not bring four up and four down each year. If you are good enough, you’ll bounce back and if you were good enough, the tangible reward is a season ahead of facing off against the very best.

Think Blackpool in the Premier League and even if you lose regularly, one win matters because it can keep you up. Indeed the reason why the Championship is still one of the biggest leagues in Europe is because of the carrot that is there for all involved.

We’d keep the provincial championships too because it means far more to everyone than the league, which we’d scrap, allowing club and college games to be played right up until April. And those provincial championships would still maintain their intensity. It’s where a side doing well in the second tier fancies knocking out a side struggling in the top flight. And it’s where a side for whom promotion chances have already disappeared have one last shot at winning.

Such a format would make the provincial councils work to sell tickets for Leitrim and Mayo, Offaly and Kildare, Tipperary and Kerry and Donegal and Antrim on a Wednesday night and that's no harm either because right now it's all too cosy and it's all too lazy.

It would be the midweek cup competition and the weekend league, all intertwined, all giving us good, competitive football no matter the level.

Suddenly not just Cork and Kerry or Dublin and Kildare matters, Longford and Monaghan is important when it comes to who stays up, while Wicklow and Roscommon is important when it comes to who goes up. They are no longer some meaningless qualifier where the winners will just get a pasting if they dare to advance too far.

In the past we’ve tried to defend the system because we wanted to defend the little guy. But it’s now reached a stage where the system is actually hurting the little guy. There’s no one that wouldn’t benefit from some radical rethinking as right now everyone is being held hostage to a format designed for different times.

And when it's reached that stage, it’s time to modernise and time for that system to go.