A senior county official once remarked to me in a convivial, social setting that the GAA should consider a year with no inter-county activity. He wasn’t necessarily talking about letting the club player go free or pushing the narrative of the insatiable demands of county teams.
It was more along the lines of ‘be careful what you wish for’ or ‘see how you like it then’.
That was within the last two years. Little did we know that a laboratory test was coming down the tracks.
The problem is that the pandemic shutdown hasn’t been a planned exercise, a defined window in which carefully considered projects could be framed. To date it’s just been a response to conditions beyond everyone’s control.
In the circumstances it might have been a chance to tinker with the idea of an open draw in the All-Ireland football championship but that’s a proposal which, although popular in the past, now appears outdated.
It would have been a major shake-up for the old sudden-death championship of 20 years ago but in an era when there have been two decades of qualifiers and two recent years of round-robin quarter-finals, the novelty value of a straight national knockout competition doesn’t look as pronounced.
Feargal McGill, Croke Park’s head of games administration, answered a question on the subject at the end of last month when the revised inter-county blueprint was being launched.
He said that the open draw had ultimately been rejected for two reasons: it would reduce the number of titles on offer from three to one in hurling and from five to one in football and would do nothing to address an abiding problem of the current system – hopelessly one-sided matches.
The one-sidedness of provincial championships is now taken for granted. In the 31 matches last year, nearly a third – 10 – were decided by double-digit margins and six by 15 points or greater.
This doesn’t mean that nothing can be learned from the proposed inter-county championship.
By accelerating – of necessity – the old provincial knockout system, its flaws become obvious. In the past, attempts to undermine Kerry’s achievements were often based on the brevity of their championship: four matches to win the Sam Maguire and with just contender in the province.
That was at least spread out over an entire summer and the All-Ireland stages were an equal starting line. In the speed-dating procedures of the coming championship, being in Munster has the additional advantage of providing strategic breaks – every fortnight – in the scheduling for both of the likely winners, Cork and Kerry.
And that’s before the preceding two weeks of football league are taken into account although the idea that any county aspiring to be present at the business end of the season, which means winning their province, will be paying any attention to whether they end up being relegated is fanciful.
It will be different for other counties, as deprived of even the dreams of a qualifier run they will be more concerned to control the controllables and finish the league as best they can before rolling the dice in championship.
Although it had become by the time of its abandonment the least desired achievement in Irish sport, the Tier 2 Tailteann Cup would have had a perfect environment for its inaugural year in the weird restylings of 2020.
With ambitions curtailed by the knockout format, the relevant counties would have been able to regard the graded championship as a free shot and it might have helped to gain greater acceptance for the idea.
The decision to drop it from the schedules didn’t attract much attention and understandably given the pressures on a paralysed fixtures calendar but there would have been room to run it and maybe, like hurling’s McDonagh Cup, stage the final as a double bill with the All-Ireland.
There are four successive weeks after the last provincial championship concludes on November 21st, which would have been enough to accommodate the Tailteann Cup and there’d probably be even a bit more time depending on who reached the Leinster final.
As identified by Feargal McGill in his reference to one-sided matches, the most critical requirement in any sporting competition is meaningful contests.
They are more interesting for spectator and participant alike and give a sense of achievement to the winners as well as motivation to the losers. In the ESRI study of 2018, nearly a quarter (22 per cent) of inter-county players who gave up the games did so because there was “no chance of success”.
Landslide defeats for counties are not a modern phenomenon but has there ever been a time when they create so much despondency.
Take Louth in 2019 when the county had come unexpectedly close to promotion from Division Three, won their first championship match against Wexford and then got blitzed by Dublin before bowing out dispiritedly to an Antrim side, who had played the league in a lower division.
Manager Wayne Kierans said after the Dublin match that he still preferred the opportunity to have a crack at the best teams rather than be funnelled into a graded championship and that’s understandable but why not combine the two?
If the counties that exit early in the coming championship had the chance of contesting something else in a year when they wouldn’t actually be losing out on a qualifier place, the idea might be more palatable.
That possibility is however gone and there is also growing pessimism amongst senior GAA administrators that the public health environment will allow the redrawn inter-county season to get off the ground at all.
Should we end up with a year devoid of inter-county championship, it doesn’t mean that there won’t be a number of issues, which will merit consideration over a particularly long and bleak winter.