TAKING into account that we are still in February, it’s a credit to the GAA that the quality of league football has been so high. Indeed, I would go as far to say that the league is now a better product than the championship.
Obviously, the All-Ireland semi-finals and finals are still the pinnacle but in terms of interest and enjoyment, I believe the leagues are a superior product. You only have to look at the coverage the league games are getting on TG4 and RTE this year to show that the interest is there.
As an Armagh fan, I can attest to the fact that the atmosphere this year and last in a packed Athletic Grounds is up there with championship. You look at the game in Tralee last week with 16,000 people, the attendances in Castlebar and Ballybofey.
This phenomen is not limited to Division One either. Louth beat Meath in a heaving Páirc Tailteann in Navan at the weekend and the crowds have returned to Páirc Esler in Newry also. I think there is a very clear reason behind the level of interest in the league. Simply put all leagues are competitive because all teams are at a similar level.
It’s not possible to laud the success of the league without bemoaning the fact that the championship has major issues, particularly at provincial level. If we give some thought to the dynamics of the provincial championships, it’s clear they are no longer fit for purpose as a spectacle. Ulster aside, the provincials simply aren’t interesting as they are comprised of teams of vastly varying qualities.
To highlight the disparity between the leagues and championships I will throw a few fixtures at you for your consideration. Mayo v Kerry, Armagh v Galway, Dublin v Derry and Louth v Meath. I would plan my Sunday around watching any of those fixtures.
Obviously if Armagh are a t home I’ll be in the Athletic Grounds with my kids and a bucket of sweets an hour and a half before throw in just to get a seat. In the championship you could have Antrim v Armagh, Kerry v Limerick, Mayo v Leitrim and Dublin v Carlow. Outside of those from the aforementioned counties, would many neutrals be interested in watching these? I’d wager not.
The provincial systems have tradition attached to them and I respect that, however as a product they are flawed. In club football, every county in Ireland has Junior, Intermediate and Senior Championships. There is a clear pathway to rising up the ranks as well which allows development. The club provincial championships are a far superior spectacle than county provincials in my mind, for the same reasons.
Provincial championships are teams thrown together geographically and with no grading involved. Imagine club championships adopted this model. You would have strong senior teams devouring minnows from the junior grade. A notion that sounds ridiculous but one that remains in place at county level.
The Tailteann Cup was a relative success in its maiden year though I remain sceptical about the long-term success of it. The issue I have with it is the cohort of teams that do not want to be in it. So you have your Louths, Kildares, Meath’s etc, actively trying to stay out of it.
What is their motivation if they find themselves in it his year? It’s a great thing for your Westmeath, Laois, Carlow etc. as it’s a championship they would like to win and has the carrot of progression to the Sam Maguire the following year.
I believe the county system should be graded into three streams akin to the club championship model. Furthermore teams should be placed in their respective graded championship at the start of the year and linked to the previous year’s league position.
That allows teams to set out their stall at the start of the year as opposed to spending the league trying to avoid a championship they have little interest in.
Simply put, the leagues are working and should be used as a basis to restructure the championships. This year we at least will see some link between league and championship with the new group structure, and hopefully in the future that becomes even more pronounced.