Posted by Ewan MacKenna

 

2012 Eugene McGee 520x280

It’s a good start. The worry when the FRC was named earlier in the year was that those involved didn’t have enough experience of intercounty football this generation and why they were the ones chosen seemed to be a great mystery.

Indeed back in 2010, after the opening weekend of fixtures that involved no more than Tipperary-Kerry, Carlow-Wicklow and Armagh-Derry, I found myself on Newstalk with the chairman of the newly formed committee Eugene McGee.

I mentioned that the first weekend of any championship was tentative, it was too soon to judge and besides, the previous summer was the highest-scoring and in my opinion most entertaining and best championship we have ever had.

He scoffed at the idea and used that default Kerry-Dublin-golden-age line as a marker for which everything else should be measured against.

Therein was a huge problem. How can you improve the game when you don’t know what good football should be and what the problems stopping the modern game getting better are?

But credit McGee on this one because he has written to the various stakeholders in the game to get their opinion rather than considering himself and his committee big enough and important enough to alter what millions love and care about deeply.

But it can’t be merely appeasement and a way of making those same people written to feel important before going off on a solo run anyway. Instead the FRC need to listen to what people think, look at empirical as well as anecdotal evidence, can’t assume that things were better before because that’s how they remember it and they need to enact positive change.

It’s a good start but now comes the battle. For what it’s worth, in my eyes there are three major barriers to improvement.

 

1. Style

We saw it at the weekend as Mayo forgot they were a football team down the stretch and briefly considered themselves a rugby team when hauling down opposition players to stall for time and deny goal chances.

We saw it when Kerry decided to haul down whichever Tyrone player won the short kickout in order to deny their opponents a fast break in their qualifier.

We’ve seen it with Donegal all season long as they foul far enough out the field to avoid getting caught on the scoreboard and they then stand in front of the freetaker in order to get their defence set.

This is not a competition for the ugliest team or about trying to lay blame at the feet of certain sides. But it shows the biggest problem facing football right now and that’s cynical fouling. Indeed Gaelic football is the only sport on the planet that actually rewards cynicism.

The cop out is to blame referees for a lack of consistency on this one but they are left facing the prospect of being ridiculed for sending eight players off in a game if they actually book players for these indiscretions.

The rules have to be altered surrounding this area and a sin bin is needed for cynical fouling. On top of that, just like in basketball, team fouls are needed.

Of course the specifics would have to be investigated but be it three or five cynical and professional fouls per team, it should result in a 21-yard free. Thus cynical fouling actually hurts the team doing it and that will slowly eradicate it.

We aren’t talking about all fouls, just this one specific type that are ruining the sport.

 

2. Structure

Right now, it simply doesn’t work. Too often we see the best meeting in spring but not in summer and it’s why we’ve had to wait until the semi-finals before seeing what we should be excited about each and every weekend.

On top of that there’s no other way to call this, but the league is the greatest waste of time in any sport. Nowhere else do teams play the majority of their seasonal games in a competition that no one actually cares about and that includes both supporters and players alike.

Besides, what kind of competition rewards a team who experiment and avoid relegation more than a team who play their best and actually win it? It’s a joke and has to go.

Our alternative suggestion is radical, and sadly too radical for some, but remember what we have now is a system that has been tinkered with once in over a century and a quarter. A lot needs to change for the GAA intercounty calendar to catch-up.

So here goes. With the league gone, we suggest running the championship from April to August. And we suggest it’s run on a league format with two divisions of 16 teams with each playing 15 matches split into home and away.

The top four in Division One go into play-offs for the All Ireland, the bottom four are relegated while the top four in Division Two are promoted. Such big shifts give everyone something to play for until late in the season, keep the divisions fresh, and it gives plenty of games and a structured calendar.

That in turn gives players, supporters and clubs the chance to plan ahead and it removes county board’s excuses when it comes to getting out there, selling season tickets, merchandising, creating brands and atmospheres  and making money to pay for the near-professional sport we now have.

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.

At this point in time there’s little use in Leitrim playing Mayo and Dublin playing Louth. We want to see Mayo play Dublin and Leitrim play Louth and if being in Division One meant something, then both games are relevant and appeal to people.

Throw in a rivalry week where each team plays a near-neighbour, a Croke Park week where everyone gets their day out, and a retro jersey week and slowly we are in a place where we aren’t crawling across the summer waiting for teams to be disposed of before we can get excited.

Plus at the end of it all, keep the Railway Cup and turn it into a weekend festival that's passed around the cities just as All Star weekends are in America.

But what of the provincial championships, you say? There’s room for them too. Indeed they should be played midweek across the summer and run parallel to the actual championship.

If Antrim are struggling along in the main competition and run into Donegal on a Wednesday night in the provincial championship, it gives them something to lift themselves for. It’s no different to the cup and league running side-by-side in European soccer.

All in all, it gives us not just more games, but more closely-contested, high-quality, interesting games. It’s too much for some but right now what we have is too little for most. Besides, it would lead to an average of 17 games per county per season.

Last season, between league and championship, Dublin played 14 and still spent the majority of their time training while fans spent the majority of their time waiting for them to play.

 

3. Surroundings

Last week, the new plans for a new Páirc Uí Chaoimh were unveiled and they are impressive. What we’ll have by 2015 is a 45,000 all-seater arena but other counties need to improve their own facilities.

Of course they all don’t have the money for such a major project, but in most cases it should be quality over quantity. Too many GAA stadiums are built big but are never full and all the while they lack basic facilities. In Newbridge the toilets barely work, in Carlow for years there was a wasps nest in the press box, in Portlaoise you can't hear the public address system in large parts of the ground, everywhere else you’ll struggle to find a covered terrace or more than one seated stand. T

he dressing rooms in most grounds are inadequate as are the facilities for supporters. Rarely are there shops selling merchandise, rarely is there anywhere to get something to eat that isn’t out of a chip van, rarely is there somewhere to get a drink that doesn’t involve traipsing through the town to find a bar or decent coffee shop, rarely is their music that doesn't involve pipe bands and proper on-field entertainment before and during the intervals of games.

What rugby has done so well is it has made games more than games. It has made them events and occasions and Gaelic football needs to catch onto this and give people something more than standing in the cold and the rain watching a bad game of football that means nothing.

This may take the longest, and may be the least important change needed, but it’s needed nonetheless.