Thursday, October 29, 2015

Reform the League, not the Championship

Whisht, a minute now, would ye whisht!
Conversations about remaking the Championship are as boring as ones about the gap between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres in rugby, and about equally pointless. This hasn’t put an end to them, of course. John Fogarty reported in yesterday's Examiner that there are eighteen – 18! – proposals to remake the Championship on their way to Central Council this very winter.

Here are some facts on which all concerned should reflect. The Championship will always be unequal for as long as only Mayomen can play for Mayo, Galwaymen for Galway, and so on. If that rule ever changes, whatever comes after will not be the Championship, or the GAA, any more. It will be something else, and the one cogent and successful expression of nationalism and patriotism since the 1916 Rising will be lost with all the others.

The inequality of the Championship used to be compensated by the fact it was a knockout competition. A lesser county may have no hope of an All-Ireland but it could certainly deny an All-Ireland to its bigshot neighbour. There was a certain joy in that – the Germans do not have a freehold on schadenfreude, after all. There’s nothing about schadenfreude you can’t tell a nation of begrudgers.

Beating your neighbour will always count for more than beating someone drawn out of a hat, whose county-people you don’t know, with whom you didn’t go to school or college, don’t meet at work, and all the rest of it. There can only be one winner every year, but the Championship was comprised of so many smaller Championships, between Laois and Offaly, between Galway and Mayo, between Derry and Tyrone.

That small compensation of softening a few bigshots’ coughs is denied the lesser counties by the back-door system. The story that the back door was there to favour small counties was only ever a lie. Laws, as a friend of the blog likes to remark, were never made for the poor.

However. The problem of inequality among counties was addressed in what your correspondent can only describe as a flash of genius from Kieran Shannon in an Examiner column of a few weeks ago. Shannon's simple proposal should be the Number One item on the bill for central council deliberations instead of the Champions-League knit-one, purl-two around the house and mind the dresser alternatives being proposed.

There are many reasons for the gap between haves and have-nots, most of them down to tradition, but the problem has become worse in recent years. It’s become worse because best teams play each other every spring in the National League, each honing their skills against the others. Other counties don’t get a look in at that highest level of football and then, when they do run into it in the Championship, they get destroyed without ever knowing what hit them.

James Horan, who has proved excellent in his second life as a pundit, remarked on Newstalk during the summer about how much he and Mayo learned from every single Division 1 game that they played. It is unfair that Mayo and others should have access to so much tutoring and other counties should not. Which is where Kieran Shannon’s plan comes in.

Shannon’s simple suggestion is that the League return to the 1A and 1B format. The current Division 1 and 2 can populate Divisions 1A and 1B, with the teams that finished first, third, fifth and seventh in Divisions 1 and 2 going into 1A and those who finished second, fourth, sixth and eighth going to 1B, and the same procedure used for filling 2A and 2B from Divisions 3 and 4.

The point here is that while the Championship structure is set in stone, the League is always open to reconstitution. So, instead of trying to change what you can’t, people concerned with inequality in the Championship should concern themselves with what they can change – the League.

There would be some kinks to iron out over who was promoted or relegated, and about maintaining the balance between the A and B sections of the divisions, but these are small details. The former Division 1 teams now only get half the benefit they used to get from their League games, while the Division 2 teams get to test themselves against the big guns and learn a thing or two before it’s time to load the live ammunition in summer.

People have entrenched views on the Championship while the League, once a competition of prestige, is now a red-haired stepchild to be kicked around the place. A simple change would benefit everybody, and there would be no thumps or spilled pints during the debate. Please note, Central Council.