I’m confused. Do footballers want a Tier 2 championship or not? ‘No’ was the resounding answer in early 2016 when Central Council made a clumsy proposal.
Operating through the GPA, the players made it clear their opposition was so entrenched that if the GAA proceeded with a plan for an All-Ireland ‘B’ championship (admittedly the name wasn’t exactly imaginative) they would boycott it.
Last January, GPA chairman Seamus Hickey told the Irish Independent that “as of now, there’s no appetite among footballers for a second-tier championship.”
Apparently, by last week, the mood had changed. New GPA CEO Paul Flynn declared that almost 60 per cent of footballers surveyed now supported a Tier 2 championship.
“This represents a significant shift in player opinion since 2016 when squads from Division 4 unanimously voted to boycott a proposed ‘B’ championship,” commented Flynn.
So what has changed in two years when the GPA were prepared to press the nuclear button? Indeed, what has changed since last January when, according to Hickey, Tier 2 had little backing either? Yes, there were several one-sided games involving Division 3 and 4 teams in this year’s All-Ireland qualifiers, although no more than in recent seasons.
There were some very good performances too, notably Laois who ran Monaghan to five points, Longford who lost to Kildare by three points and Offaly who, despite their managerial upheaval, came within two points of Clare. Waterford and Leitrim enjoyed rare qualifier wins, beating Wexford and Louth respectively before both later lost heavily to Monaghan.
It seems odd that there should be such a dramatic shift of player opinion in favour of a Tier 2 competition.
Then again, it seemed strange that there was such fierce opposition when Central Council tried to introduce it two years ago.
Incidentally, Central Council are back on board with the idea, having unanimously agreed to explore the options at a recent meeting. No formal plan was put forward but hands shot up anyway.
Therein rests the problem, both on the GAA and GPA sides. However enthusiastic Central Council might be about a secondary competition, the reality is that they – and their predecessors – have repeatedly made a mess of it. First launched in 1990, it ran for ten years, usually late in the year, which wasn’t exactly a shrewd marketing strategy.
Indeed, the status of the competition was, perhaps, best illustrated in 1992 when the handle broke off the Cup after Wicklow captain Kevin O’Brien raised it following the win over Antrim in the final in Navan. The optics were awful – a sub-standard cup for a sub-standard competition.
The Tommy Murphy Cup (2004-2008) was run in summer but gradually lost momentum before being scrapped. It was difficult to know who showed least interest in it, county boards or Croke Park.
Yet, despite the previous bad experiences Central Council came back in 2016 with a proposal for a ‘B’ championship. Branding it with the ‘B’ tag was a serious mistake, leaving Croke Park on a loser from the start. And once the GPA intervened, it was all over before it even started.
The threat of a player boycott eventually forced Central Council into an embarrassing U-turn on the night before Congress when they decided to withdraw the motion.
Now, they are angling around it again, having asked counties to come up with proposals. And according to the latest GPA survey, almost six out of ten players are behind it this time.
How relevant is that, especially after their 2016 stance? A second-tier championship impacts on players in Divisions 3 (even then maybe not all of them) and 4, but presumably all players were surveyed.
Why should Dublin, Kerry, Tyrone, Galway, Monaghan, Donegal, Mayo etc have any input whatsoever into an issue that’s utterly irrelevant to them?
And when if it comes to a Central Council decision, why should representatives from strong counties have the same influence as counterparts from counties directly affected?
Democracy is a laudable concept, but in an organisation like the GAA it can seriously distort a particular situation. For example, counties from Ulster and Connacht had a vote in how to run the Leinster and Munster hurling championships when, with the exception of Galway, none of them were even in the Liam MacCarthy Cup tier. Nobody can deny that there are merits to a Tier 2 football championship, but if it’s to have any chance of succeeding, it needs to be very carefully structured.
The only way that can be achieved is through detailed consultation with counties in that category. GPA surveys can be helpful but how reliable are they if the opinions of players with no direct interest are given the same weight as those involved?
And how can anyone be confident that Central Council will get it right, given their previous track record with secondary football competitions?
The time may be right for Tier 2, but both the GAA and GPA need a much more coherent vision on how to structure and sell it than anything we have seen up to now.