GAA Championship Week 11a: The Kelly-McGuinness Proposals

by | Nov 2, 2021

Last Saturday week, that most conservative sports’ governing body, Ireland’s Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) debated two huge proposals to re-format its All-Ireland inter-county Gaelic Football championship. Decades overdue. But still bold in GAA terms. So, naturally, both were defeated.

The very fact of such debates exposes the radical differences between the GAA and English football governance. Most stem from the GAA’s geographical organisation and amateur players, while English football went professional in 1885, sold its soul for broadcast money in 1992, continues hiving off the rest in slices and is only nominally geographically-based. But the GAA has commensurate ability to make mad decisions. Or, in this case, non-decisions.

The Championship’s straight knock-out structure, based on Ireland’s four unequally-sized provinces, never made competitive sense. Tweaks were made after…114 years (see “conservative governing body” above), with a “qualifiers” tournament introduced in 2001 to give beaten provincial championship counties a “back door” to the All-Ireland series. And mini-leagues were introduced in 2018, under the heavy misnomer, the “Super-8s.” But only for the quarter-final stage, because…erm…

Otherwise, the fundamentally-flawed idea remained that knock-out competition was how to determine the best team in Ireland. In fairness, this theory pertained in English, and Scottish professional soccer’s formative years. And the FA Amateur Cup was king in “non-league’ football until the 1960s. But being 60 years…and counting…behind England’s Football Association takes some doing.

And the clamour for fundamental structural change has grown due to the actual National Football League (NFL). Historically a very secondary competition, it’s structure has mutated as much as any virus. Since 2008, though, it has been a four-equal-division competition, with no geographical element, which has given many more competitive matches to counties of all abilities. And in 2020, a league/championship link WAS made. Covid curtailed that. But key principles seemed established.

Meanwhile, in June 2019, a “GAA Fixtures Calendar Review Task Force,” (TF) was formed, with terms of reference including inter-county competition structures. So, hopes were high that it would respond to years of bellyaching about inter-county football’s non-competitiveness, bellyaches which grew louder in 2018, as hurling’s radical new, league-based system had a startlingly positive effect. The TF was “in favour of” hurling’s format. And its December 2019 report outlined two new football formats, which morphed into the imaginatively-titled “Proposal A” and “Proposal B,” to last Saturday week’s Special GAA Congress.

But they were couched in complex rule amendment motions, which required 60% support from Congress delegates. And the need for a simple summary made me abnormally grateful for Sky Sports’ GAA coverage. By early July, the provincial championships had produced many examples of the one-sided contests which had long besmirched their reputation, especially Covid-ravaged Mayo’s 24-point Connacht Championship win over Leitrim, where Mayo declared as early as Liverpool did at Old Trafford recently.

But despite this free advertising for change, Sky’s three main football pundits, provincial and national champions all, were unconvinced by the proposals. Indeed, it was clear from their debate and other public discussions that Proposal A was a dud, while Proposal B was “the lesser of two evils” and/or “better than what we have now.” Hardly campaign poster material.

Sky’s summarised Proposal A as follows: “Provincial Championships retained as 4 groups of 8; Some Leinster and Ulster counties moved; 2 Round Robin groups per Province, with winners advancing to finals; The 2nd and 3rd placed teams (16 in total) would advance to the All-Ireland series; 4th-placed team in each group play in the Tailteann Cup; 3 rounds of qualifiers, with 4 teams reaching the All-Ireland Quarter-Finals; finish with traditional quarter-finals, semi-finals and final.”

So, apart from ‘equalising’ the provinces and introducing a second-tier competition with only eight teams, Proposal A offered no change. And Tyrone’s Peter Canavan said impishly that it would be “easier to suggest what doesn’t work.” He forecast “uproar” from counties asked to move provinces, and thought it did “nothing to deter” championship’s “one-sided nature.”

Donegal’s Jim McGuinness agreed. While Kerry’s Kieron Donaghy didn’t “even read the rest of it” after the first line, which amused McGuinness hugely. “You can’t have a team’s history shot,” Donaghy added, giving Proposal A previously unheralded time-travelling powers. Although if the Proposal COULD go back and kill baby Hitler…

Sky presented an abbreviation-heavy Proposal B: “Links League and Championship, each team playing 7 matches filtering into an All-Ireland series; In the ‘preliminary’ All-Ireland Q-Fs, 2nd and 3rd in Division 2 drawn to play Div 3 and Div 4 champions; In the All-Ireland QFs, the top 4 teams from Div 1 would be drawn to play against 5th in Div 1, Div 2 winners & preliminary QF winners; The Tailteann Cup provides for the teams from Div 3 & 4 that do not qualify for the All-Ireland series; Provincial championships retained as pre-season competitions.”

Donaghy disliked the bottom line here, as it broke the link between the provincial and All-Ireland championships. But “to contradict myself,” he liked “provincial championships” in pre-season. He and McGuinness opposed lower-division teams advancing further than bottom-half division one teams. And McGuinness REALLY opposed devaluing championships “we fought all our lives to try and win.” He insisted that “history” would be “washed away,” as if such devaluation was somehow back-dated. I mean, the Premier League hardly “washed away” Football League (EFL) hist…OK, bad example.

The pundits backed the Tailteann Cup…with conditions. “Talk is cheap,” Donaghy declared, begging questions about Sky’s pay rates. “It has to be live on TV,” he added, angling for more punditry work, whatever the pay. He suggested holding the final on an “All-Ireland final weekend,” which could become “a big thing.” Live on Sky, natch. And McGuinness agreed that “every Tailteann game” should “precede” a “top-ranking game,” as minor (under-18) championships once did.

Indeed, he touted such arrangements in a 2015 Irish Times article, echoing 2012 proposals espoused by ex-GAA President Sean Kelly. These “Kelly-McGuinness” proposals linked league and championship, but with provincial champions having four out of 16 All-Ireland series places, with 11 going to the NFL’s top finishers, seeded by league finish. In order, Division One’s top six, Division Two’s top two, Division One’s bottom two and Division Two’s third-placed team. The 16th place? To the holders of the second-tier competition.

McGuinness, and Donaghy, fleetingly referenced these proposals’ existence, without detailing them. However, Derry’s Joe Brolly, a controversialist ex-pundit for Irish state TV channel RTE, made near-identical proposals on BBC Northern Ireland podcast “The GAA Social,” two weeks later. They soon ‘gained traction’ among GAA people. But, as McGuinness said on Sky, “(Proposal B) is (what) we have to vote on.”

Ulster, in part, said no. But this was unsurprising, as their provincial championship is the only even semi-competitive one. Ulster GAA CEO Brian McEvoy backed Proposal A, though his feelings if his own county Down was catapulted into Connacht were unclear. He was clear that Proposal B had “significant weaknesses” and was “quite certain” that “a number” of players union members hadn’t read it. But it was soon clear that “a number” of people hadn’t read his views, as Down (and the players union, after canvassing its members) eventually supported it.

Conflicting reports emerged of Proposal B’s financial impact. “An annual £10m gate receipt bonanza,” proclaimed RTE of the “main finding” of TF member Conor O’Donoghue’s “financial review.” But GAA director of finance Ger Mulryan believed neither proposal would be more lucrative than the pre-2018 structures to which the championship would return if both fell.

Yet momentum built for Proposal B, with support from big counties such as Cork and lower-division team managers, although Carlow boss Niall Carew’s view that he’d support Proposal B “if the gun was put to my head” was not uncommon, if uncommonly colourful. Then, on Congress Eve, Mayo announced opposition to both proposals, whose goose was cooked. Proposal A scraped 10% (TEN) support. Proposal B got 50.6%, which not even arch-Brexiteers could call the will of the people.

“Cart-before-the-horse” comes to mind. Like Brexit, practical discussions followed the democratic process they should have informed. The GAA President who set up the TF, John Horan, urged delegates to pass Proposal B and “tidy it up” at February 2022’s main GAA Congress. But if even supporters felt it needed tidying up, why wasn’t it? The TF supposedly consulted widely. McGuinness’s ideas were well-known. And they met so many objections to, and contained such obvious improvements on, Proposal B that had they BEEN Proposal B, it would surely have passed.

All championship structures should incentivise participation and apply maximum sporting integrity to determining the winners. Competitive leagues achieve both, as I’ve long-advocated to my seven regular readers. But the GAA’s provincial championships need accommodating to get anything passed. And the Not-So-Super-8s exposed deficiencies with latter-stage league formats, too. Kerry’s drew a classic with Donegal in 2019. But with both sides still in the Championship whatever the result, the crescendo of excitement had it been a knock-out game was replaced by mass shoulder-shrugging.

I’m still unconvinced by EFL play-offs. But league/knock-out structures have worked in hurling, where problems at lower levels are more attributable to culture and non-sporting politics. Club football championships generally have three-tier structures (senior, intermediate, junior); separate competitions, with finals treated equally, and promotions/relegations. Likewise, Ladies Football, whose All-Ireland championships only began in 1974.

As Brolly noted on the “GAA Social,” if you wanted club structures changed “so that everybody’s playing in the same championship,” you’d be considered “absolutely mental.” And he continued: “It’s like asking a club cyclist ‘would you like to compete in the Tour de France?’ He’d say ‘Brilliant, this is amazing.’ But he’d finish a week after everybody else. He’d have to be hooked up to intravenous drips. It would be a humiliation from start to finish.

“Because they were newer, the ladies set up structures which made sense. They play their All-Ireland finals weekend. Each final gets exactly the same respect. It has quickly become a very attractive weekend of football. Can you imagine suggesting that they go to our structure? They’d fall all over the place laughing.”

The Kelly-McGuinness proposal, bar bringing the film ‘Top Gun’ undesirably to mind, seems a solution. Brolly thought it a “brilliant proposal” for “incentivising teams at every level” and, “absolutely critically,” treating “everyone with respect,” with teams “playing at the level they’ve earned the right to be at.” Why it wasn’t before Congress, “I can’t understand.” Especially as even ‘no’ voters accepted the need for change. There was even consensus on WHAT needed changing with Proposal B. And the Congress debate would have informed this…if we weren’t all informed already.

And I mean “we.” I live in suburban Surrey. Despite, until recently, having spent more time on Galway pitches celebrating Roscommon provincial titles than on my garden, even I knew what was wrong with a provincial championship-based system and what would work instead. Infinitely more importantly, Sean Kelly knew in 2012. Jim McGuinness knew in 2015. If the TF consulted Kelly, whose ex-GAA Presidency gives him a Congress vote, why was his proposal shunned? And if they didn’t, why not? Absolutely mental?

What now, then? RTE pundit and Kerryman Pat Spillane won eight All-Irelands from 1975 to 1986, playing, tops, three meaningful games-per-title. He KNEW the old way’s competitive flaws. So, he urged the GAA to “act quickly,” adding: “We need a tiered structure, a top-16 and a bottom-16.” And he said dumping Proposal B was the “correct decision” because “the provincial championships should have an input (and) provincial champions should be rewarded.” This resembled “Kelly-McGuinness” to the point of copyright breach. Yet he didn’t “know how” to facilitate provincial championship input. And his preferred next step? “We need a Task Force.” Absolutely mental.

So 2022’s Football Championship will return to 2001-2017 structures. Structures which facilitated too many poor, one-sided and/or meaningless matches. Which did more to encourage players to spend summers in America than play for their counties in qualifiers. Which the GAA hierarchy has spent two years supposedly trying to consign to the dustbin of history. Well done everyone. Absolutely mental, indeed.