In September 2011, there were scenes of joy all over Ireland as Stephen Cluxton converted a 40-metre free resulting in Dublin winning their first All-Ireland senior football title in 16 years. People were delighted to see a new crop of Gaelic footballers emerging and the start of a new era for the GAA.
At that time, no one thought that 8 years later, Dublin would become the first men’s senior team to win five consecutive All-Ireland titles and most people would be people crying out for Dublin’s dominance to come to an end. With this current football championship structure producing far too many one-sided matches, people are now turning to the hurling championship for enjoyable matches. The reason for such a hurling renaissance is down to the success of its tiered championship.
Dublin’s domination is not something that has come out of the blue. In 2002, the GAA decided that Dublin needed a major financial investment to improve the quality of its footballers. Despite taking over 10 years to reap the fruits of their investment, Dublin are now considered to be long time superpowers of the GAA.
Players like Dean Rock, Cormac Costello and Paul Mannion all shot onto the national stage at the start of the decade, after winning All-Ireland titles at underage level, and now are proving to be some of the finest Gaelic footballers in the country. While money certainly was a factor in providing the players with the level of training they required, no money in the world can train players to have the natural talent that these Dublin players hold.
The hurling championship for years was facing the same dilemma that the football championship is currently facing. Teams ran the risk of losing their first provincial championship match, losing their first qualifier match and being forced to end their championship campaign winless, despite only playing two games. Tipperary in 2013 had the unfortunate scenario of losing to Limerick by 3 points away in the Munster championship and then Kilkenny in the qualifiers.
It was then when the hurling community began to realise that major reform was needed. In 2018, the hurling championship was reborn with a five-team round robin group in both Leinster and Munster. This mixed with a five-team Joe McDonagh Cup which would allow teams like Kerry and Laois the opportunity to play both competitive matches and the opportunity to play against the third placed Leinster and Munster sides in the All-Ireland preliminary round. This new structure led to the 2018 Championship being dubbed one of the greatest of all time due to the increased number of competitive matches. The question now is why the GAA feel that such reform in the football championship is sinister.
On October 19th, a special GAA Congress will vote on trialling a two-tiered football championship. The proposed second tier championship is a straight knock-out tournament featuring the Division 3 and 4 teams who fail to make their provincial finals. This proposal is almost identical to that of the failed Tommy Murphy Cup which saw Division 4 teams compete against each other instead of entering the qualifier series.
The competition did not provide half of the teams with more games and was ultimately seen to quickly lose the interest of competing counties. The football championship needs saving, and this two-tiered proposal is not the solution. A complete revamp of the championship is needed, and the first port of call should be the abolishment of the provincial championships.
The idea of a Champions League format has merit and is worth discussing further but the GAA already have a championship format in place which has proven to be effective: the club championships. The honour of being county champions is one that every club craves for and regardless if it’s the Dublin senior championship or the Longford junior championship, the pride is the same.
Look at the Leitrim hurlers last June after winning the Lory Meagher Cup: The joy on the player’s and supporter’s faces after receiving a standing ovation at half-time during their footballer’s qualifier match against Clare was no different to Dublin’s joy after completing their ‘drive for five’. The five-tiered hurling championship has proven to be a massive success and there is no reason why the football championship can’t benefit from a similar structure.
Is a second-tier championship a solution? Do we need further tiers? Should we maintain the status quo and continue to watch the ‘weaker’ teams being held victim to Dublin’s dominance? The answer falls in which provides the greatest number of competitive matches, and that is in the club championship format. The current format is only supporting Dublin’s dominance and leaving the remaining counties behind. The GAA need to act fast otherwise the hurling renaissance will continue to blossom and leave Gaelic football behind.