The GAA Championship: A Winter Wonderland

by | Jul 7, 2020

Ireland is called the “Emerald Isle” for a reason. And holding this year’s All-Ireland Gaelic Football and Hurling championships in November and December will be… interesting. The Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) will certainly be hoping that the weather isn’t typical for… well… Ireland in November and December. Otherwise the 2020 All-Ireland finals might be 2021 affairs.

The GAA have been able to plan that far ahead because of the more (i.e. at all) organised easing of Coronavirus lockdown restrictions in Ireland than that “organised” by the UK’s gloopy government, although the fact that six of Ireland’s 32 counties are in the UK remains a complicating factor, in GAA as in life.

Nonetheless, the association has set an ambitious timetable, running off ordinarily summer-long championships in six weeks. This has necessitated hugely different formats (“more retro than different,” noted presenter Joanne Cantwell on the “Sunday Game” Irish state TV’s football and hurling flagship highlights and magazine show). And in football, this very arguably represents a glaring opportunity missed.

On 5th June, the GAA produced a ‘roadmap’ towards the “safe return” of football and hurling, which timetabled club championships within each of Ireland’s counties from 31st July to 11th October. And it commanded that the inter-county championships “to take place no sooner than 17th October,” with county teams only permitted to collectively train after 14th September.

All dates depend on the “relevant” governments being “happy” that lockdown easing plans are going to plan (such as they are planned in the UK…I can’t envisage Dominic Cummings Boris Johnson giving a f**k about the Cork senior hurling championship). But some club championships have been OK’d to start up to two weeks earlier than timetabled. And, all continuing to be well, the All-Ireland hurling final will be on Sunday 13th December, with the football final six days later.

The tone of command and proscription over the start of inter-county competition was struck to ensure that “inter-county” players were available for their clubs, something which has become less prevalent in recent years as the inter-county championships have expanded in pursuit of TV money (the most exact sporting analogy is probably cricket, where centrally-contracted England players have played less-and-less for their counties).

This award of primacy to the club game has been welcomed in many quarters. And there will surely be calls for it to carry over into ‘normal times.’ This will only intensify the already draining ‘club v county’ debate in GAA circles. But despite these present and potential future niggles, Gaelic Games returning has genuinely been the morale boost in Ireland that hopeless Health Secretary Matt “Nick could do a better job” Hancock so dismally sought from the English Premier League’s return.

In ‘normal times,’ June editions of the Sunday Game usually finish on Mondays, as there are games galore all over the country, and the programme’s set-in-stone 9.30pm start time doesn’t allow for highlights and analysis to finish before midnight. This June, the programme has been more a magazine than a highlights show. But the condensed championship schedule will surely mean a few November Sunday Games finishing on Mondays.

Hurling’s two provincial championships will be knock-out affairs, which won’t take long as there’s only five teams in each. Losers enter a “back-door” knock-out competition to determine two quarter-final opponents for the defeated provincial finalists, with provincial champions going straight into semi-finals. Bar the bizarre fact that the Limerick/Clare Munster championship match will double as the final of the National Hurling League (which was suspended in March), this was hurling’s championship format from 2008 to 2017.

Meanwhile, football is running its four provincial championships as originally drawn but with back doors closed, as the four provincial champions head straight for the semi-finals. This was football’s format from the year dot until 2001. All games in all competitions will be decided on the days (Saturdays and Sundays all), with extra-time and, making their championship debut, penalties.

An “open draw,” to which a 32-team football competition readily lent itself, looked on football’s cards for a while. And it would have allowed time for a “back-door” competition so that if two top teams were open-drawn together in the first round, one wasn’t knocked out ridiculously early, as nearly happened in 1991, when the Leinster Championship was open-drawn and unseeded and Leinster’s two best teams by a street, Meath and Dublin, were paired in the first round.

That year, one genuine All-Ireland contender was destined for an early exit. “Or so we thought,” said RTE presenter Michael Lyster, introducing a video recall of a four-game epic which, many have argued, heralded a new era of GAA popularity (especially, the more mischievous may note, as Dublin lost a tie they had countless golden opportunities to win). But this year, Donegal and Tyrone, as big a pairing as Meath and Dublin in ’91, meet in Ulster’s first round, with extra-time and penalties meaning an instant championship end for one of them.

And the inequities of the provincial championship system have only been magnified by the compressed timescale. Cavan and Monaghan need four wins just to be provincial champions. In other provinces, Galway and Kerry, need only two, with one game an easy one on paper. And there are further complications as the games affecting promotion and relegation issues in football’s national league, suspended mid-steam in mid-March, will be played in October. Cavan, involved in a tight Division Two promotion struggle with Armagh and the mighty Roscommon, will be the most knackered All-Ireland champions in history, should they win it.

The GAA rejected the open draw. But the declared explanations, from GAA director of games, club and player welfare Feargal McGill, were a work of almost complete fiction. The idea of “four teams with silverware at the end of the year” made sense. Little else did. McGill claimed that “usually people” thought an open draw would “solve” the problem of one-sided pairings. “An open draw does not solve that, in fact it might add to it,” he said, correctly. But this was a classic straw-man argument, put forward by virtually no people, “usually” or otherwise.

McGill was also correct that it would “cause mayhem for 2021” if “you went into January, February with your championships.” But his certainty that an open draw would cause this was entirely evidence-free. A 32-team open-draw competition would last five games/weeks. Via provincial championships, TWENTY-EIGHT teams will require five or six wins to be All-Ireland champions. McGill said that “later, it’ll make more sense as to why we did what we did.” Well, he might be correct again. Because it makes feck-all sense now.

Of course, cynics might suggest that the arguments over systems are merely about how Dublin win their sixth All-Ireland in-a-row. But while an open draw did seem to offer more potential excitement along the way, with fewer of the inequities, “others” have other considerations. Even in amateur sport, money can have a word. And provincial councils whose provincial championships generate huge amounts of their finance were surely ready to listen.

Perhaps predictably, GAA broadcasters thought the open draw rejection a “missed opportunity.” Sunday Game pundit Pat Spillane, with eight All-Ireland medals to his name (and a ninth for talking about them) was a wordy proponent of this theory. And fellow pundit Ciaran Whelan noted mischievously that the provincial championships took football “back to the flaws of 20 years ago…that was how Pat won his handy All-Irelands, playing two games to get to a final.”

Overall, though, morale in the Sunday Game studio was buoyant, occasionally gushing to the point of incomprehension. Hurling pundit JJ Delaney dismissed the theory of winter conditions ruining the hurling, with a curious reminiscence. “You couldn’t see five yards in front of you and it was a great spectacle,” he said of his Kilkenny team beating Limerick in 2014’s rain-lashed All-Ireland semi-final.

Kerryman Spillane, meanwhile, made a goulash of a Joni Mitchell lyric, arriving at “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone” via a very circuitous linguistic route. And he was little more comprehensible in pretending that Kerry’s Munster championship semi-final with Cork would be a “toss-up,” after Kerry have won the last seven, as Whelan and Cantwell nearly p*ssed themselves trying not to laugh

At least Dubliner Whelan didn’t pretend that the Leinster Football Championship was a competition. Dublin haven’t lost in that since the very hour that Frank Lampard’s “goal” for England against Germany in the World Cup finals wasn’t given, despite the ball bouncing yards behind the goalline. And the Dubs aren’t going to lose in it this year either.

The only thing certain about this year’s All-Ireland championships is the uncertainty. Even Dublin are not quite as nailed-on for their sixth consecutive football title as they would be in normal circumstances. Kerry should win Munster, the winners of Donegal/Tyrone should win Ulster, and Connacht is a three-wayer between Galway, Mayo and the mighty Roscommon. Nothing is nailed-on for the semi-finals though, in darkest November. And there’s no nails anywhere near the hurling.

Ireland has been in lockdown for as long as the UK should have been. And the effect of such circumstances on amateur sportspeople is more unpredictable than on cocooned employees of professional sport. Even the weather isn’t entirely predictable. Sh*te, yes. Ireland…Emerald Isle…etc… We just don’t yet know how shite.

And it all relies on the Covid crisis continuing to ease. But the very fact of a 2020 championship has cheered many. “When the GAA is back, Ireland is back,” Sunday Game pundit Donal Og Cusack gushed last week. And for all the problems which may lie ahead, you know what he means.