It has been common knowledge for some time now that the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship, in its present form, is a joke. Although there are some genuine All-Ireland contenders in each province, some have a much easier route to glory than others.
Take Kerry for instance. Every year they play a Munster Championship with five hurling counties. That’s a no contest right from the outset. In Connacht, Mayo are also rampant and Dublin rule Leinster with an iron fist. All of this leads to a Championship that is boring and predictable and also eats into valuable time for club matches.
While we’re on the subject of Provincial Championships, let’s take a look at the average winning margin in each province. In Ulster the margin was four points. In Leinster, it was ten. In Munster, it was nine. In Connacht, it was ten. This once again proves that the only real Provincial Championship is in Ulster. Yet, there is still an appetite to compete in Provincial Championships all over the country. I can’t understand why. As far as I’m concerned, the system needs to change.
I promised I’d show you my alternative and here it is. I’ll break this into smaller sections and look at the pre-season competitions, the Provincial Championships and the National League.
Every year before the regular season starts, there are pre-season competitions held in January. Here, college teams take on inter-county sides in a competition supposedly meant to unearth new talent within the college ranks. It’s pointless though. It only serves to put pressure on younger players to pick colleges or counties and the crowds don’t turn out for these matches. I would scrap these competitions.
Having looked at the average winning margins in each province, it’s not hard to guess what I’d do with the Provincial Championships; I’d scrap them as well. The winning margins in all but Ulster are part of a trend that has been going on for the last decade or more and it’s reflected in the crowds coming to matches. Attendances are falling in Leinster, Munster and Connacht and the gap between the top teams and weaker teams in each of these provinces is getting wider. As well as this, the majority of teams in these three provinces only get two games per year – with Ulster sides surviving a little longer.
Each inter-county side in Ireland deserves to be playing to at least late July/early August, and the template I would use is the National League.
This template is perfect. There are four groups of eight teams, and each of these divisions is competitive. Matches are played on a home and away basis with each team getting at least seven matches in the league. This competition should be taken more seriously. This is what I’d use as my alterative for the Football Championship.
There would be four divisions of eight teams; the same as the National League. Each team would get 14 matches a year – played on a home and away basis – so everyone plays each other twice. Each division has a trophy for that division’s winners, with the prize being promotion for the top two teams in each division and relegation for the bottom two in each.
The new Championship would start in late April, with the first two matches in each division. The third week of the season would be devoted to club action in each county in Ireland. Then there would be a gap of one week. Following this, games three and four in the new Championship would take place, followed by club action, another break, and so on and so forth. Eventually, the league element of the season would conclude on the first weekend in August, with the final round of matches in the leagues.
Following a break of two weeks, teams that top divisions two, three and four, are promoted automatically and are awarded the All Ireland title for that division. Teams who finish second and third in these divisions would play off in finals at Croke Park to decide who the second team to be promoted are. The bottom two teams in divisions one, two, and three, are relegated based solely on their league performance, the same as in the Premier League.
To decide who wins the Sam Maguire Cup in the top division, the top four teams would qualify for the semi-finals. Teams who finish first and second will get a home semi-final, with the first placed side playing the fourth, and second playing the third placed team. The idea is that the higher up the table you finish, the more likely you will get a home draw against easier opposition. The winners would then qualify for the All Ireland Final.
The All Ireland Final and the Division Two play-off final would be played on the Sunday, with the play-off finals in Divisions Three and Four being played the evening before. This would create a carnival atmosphere in football across the whole country throughout the weekend.
So to sum up the main points. Weaker teams would get the opportunity to play on the same day as the All-Ireland Senior Football finalists, thus raising their own profile. The gap weeks allowing for club action would ensure there is no backlog of club fixtures near the end of the year – in October and November. Most important of all, every inter-county team in the country will get at least fourteen games in a season that ensures they all get to play until at least the first weekend in August.
By Ultan Sherry