Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Is Eugene McGee Having Trouble With His Sums?

Eugene McGee, in his capacity as Chairman of the Football Review Committee (FRC) of the GAA, has come up with what he described in yesterday’s Independent as the “Four Eights” proposal.

The Four Eights proposal is that both the Ulster and Leinster Championships will feature preliminary rounds featuring Ulster and Leinster teams from the lower depths of the National League. One losing team from Leinster and one from Ulster will be added to Connacht, and the two remaining Leinster losers will be added to Munster. This way, all four provincial Championships will feature an equal eight teams – hence, “Four Eights.”

Except that they won’t. Connacht has seven counties that currently compete for the Nestor Cup – the five native counties, plus London and New York. Seven plus two equals nine, not eight. So it’s either back to the drawing board with that one, or else it’s bad news for the Gaels across the water. Or perhaps Galway – one can always dream.

McGee also remarks that one of the reasons that this “Three Eights and One Nine” proposal is necessary is because the current structure disenfranchises the club player, who often sees the club championship fixtures postponed for as long as the county team stays in the Championship. And that’s true, as far as it goes.

The problem is that the counties who stay a long time in the Championship are very seldom those who play their league football in Division 4. How often could fixture congestion have been an issue in Wicklow or Waterford in the past 140 years? As for the rest, this proposal will have no affect on them whatsoever.

Nobody doubts the credentials of McGee or his committee, or their intent, or their ability. But they have put forward a wrong solution to something that isn’t even a problem in the first place. The rationale behind it is baffling.

Every year, whenever someone gets hammered in the Championship, a talking head appears on the Sunday Game or someone writes a why-oh-why column in one of the papers, bemoaning the “inequality” of the Championship. You can’t argue with a paper, but at no stage does Des Cahill on the Sunday Game or, God forbid, Michael Lyster, ask the moaner on TV just what exactly is it about the Championship that’s unfair, with specific reference to the provincial system.

The broad stroke theory is that some provinces are easier to win than others. But which is it? Is winning Leinster easy or hard? The same team has won Leinster for eight of the past nine years, and was unlucky to lose in the odd year of those nine too. Does that mean ten of the eleven football counties in Leinster are pushovers?

People think that the standard of Connacht football is poor. How is that the Connacht Champions have won three quarter-finals and two semi-finals against the other provinces in the past three years? Two quarters and a semi against Ulster teams who are to be added to the Connacht Championship to either give them a chance or else to beef up Connacht? It makes no sense. There is no clear thought here.

All people hear is the moan. Nobody takes the moan further to see if there is a rationale behind it, or if it’s just moaning for moaning’s sake. But the facts are that there is no evidence that the Championship is unfair.

The Championship is a knockout sporting competition. For every winner, there are 31 losers. Is that fair? Most people think it is. So at what point, as you work back, does the Championship stop being “unfair”? Most people think the Championship only gets fair after the August Bank Holiday weekend – “that’s when the real Championship begins,” say the pundits, as all the best teams are there.

But hold on – if all the best teams are playing at the start of August, surely the system that got them there must be correct? And you’re telling me it’s broken and needs fixing?

When asked for an alternative to the modern-day slave trade that is the GAA senior football championship, the plaintiffs like to point to the UEFA Champions League as the exemplar of all that is good and right and most of all, fair, in a sports competition.

This year, Zenit St Petersburg have got to the second round with six points from their group games. Napoli got twelve points in their group game, and are going nowhere. What’s so fair about that?

There is no perfect system. In sports, someone’s got to win and someone’s got to lose and it isn’t always the best team that wins – that’s what makes it so compelling, and such a true mirror to life. There is no structure, anywhere, in any sport, that is always perfectly, entirely “fair” because it’s so hard to define just what “fair” is.

Besides. The two greatest inequalities in the GAA have nothing to do with the competitions. They have to do with the fact that counties have different population sizes and have different access to money.

The only way of dealing with the population size issue is a transfer market. People have talked about this occasionally in hurling, and there are dark rumours of attempts to carry it out in football. But people are generally of one mind that when Mayomen no longer play for Mayo or Kerrymen no longer play for Kerry we might as well pack it in and play whatever garrison game best suits our particular part of the world.

As for the money – well, once the lid is off that jar it never goes back on. Eugene McGee himself wrote once that allowing shirt sponsorship was the ruination of the GAA, as it allowed money to become a factor. The GAA was seen as being heavy-handed in opposing Kerry’s famous sponsorship deal with Bendix washing machines in 1985. Perhaps if they had held the line better back then there wouldn’t be as much chequebook football as there is now. It’d certainly do the counties toiling in Division 4 more good than giving them a third chance of a hiding in a “Three Eights and One Nine” Championship format.