Shane Stapleton on the fallout from Congress
If we hammer out a Good Friday Agreement, surely we can manage a new GAA calendar.
If ‘God Save The Queen’ can be blasted out over the tannoy across Croke Park and over a Hill that was made from the rubble of 1916, perhaps we can let go of traditions. Tradition for tradition’s sake, it’s worth noting.
The notion that “this has always been the way” is the sort of pre-historic thinking that has seen us lurch from the outmoded All-Ireland championship structures through to the woefully inadequate qualifier systems, and now onto the myopic Super 8.
Of course those on the inside of the GAA tent like to tell us that it’s quite the opposite, that this is all part of the long game. Small steps on the road to progress. A small note though: smaller counties and club players must accept that theirs is a road to perdition, same as ever. Sisyphus probably wouldn’t have hurled on past minor if he was around today.
Thankfully, one tradition has been consigned to history: the first and third Sundays of September nonsense. The idea that the day matters is quite hilarious. The first ever All-Ireland hurling final took place on April 1st 1888, with the football equivalent following 28 days later. What is it about this first and third Sunday in September that is so sacred? Think objectively for a moment, is a date a reason to hold up progress?
Joseph P. Kennedy, right, talking with Dr. Douglas Hyde, at Phoenix Park in 1938. (AP Photo)
When you hear talk of tradition as a barrier to progress, feel free to scoff at it. Rule 27 was a tradition in the GAA from 1905 to 1971 - a ban on the playing or the watching of all foreign games. The rule survived attempts at deletion in 1924, 1925 and 1926.
Famously, our first president Douglas Hyde was banned from the GAA in 1938 after attending an international soccer match between Poland and Ireland, and he was also removed as a patron after 36 years. He was not reinstated for 11 years. It made sense to many at the time, but we would not honour this tradition in modern society.
Rule 42, another tradition. It’s now 12 years since the GAA opened its doors to rugby and soccer by a margin of 227 to 97 votes. Tradition, gone. Moving with the times. That’s what we need now, a push for modernity, irrespective of the championship structure change at Congress.
The main defence of Paraic Duffy and Super 8 apologists can be paraphrased as "it's not perfect but..." and therein is the nub of the issue. Because the bottom line is that almost every issue in the GAA structural fiasco has not been addressed: valueless pre-season competitions will continue to eat up time, a league system that participants continually talk down still takes up a large portion of the calendar, the provinces will still drag on both endlessly and tediously, and all while the club player's season remains a joke.
Jarlath Burns, Chairman on the Standing Committee on Playing Rules in the GAA, eventually accepted on Monday’s Off The Ball that there was no downside to the association sitting down with the GPA, the CPA, and other stakeholders to see what they could come up with. This after first insisting that no solution could be found. Perhaps the GAA should set up a committee to prove the futility, as it’s happy to see one up for everything outside of progressive, collective, modern, inclusive thinking on structures.
A reminder of the issue: This week a Plunkett's hurler detailed a story to the column. In April and May of 2016, his club had lost both of their opening group games in the Dublin Championship - meaning they were out. In February 2017, two months before we'll guess the new season starts, Setanta beat Plunketts in a 2016 relegation playoff. Super 8 and any window-dressing won't fix that; only a complete overhaul will.
Don’t get distracted by the details, or debating the merits of slow, supposed progressive change. When someone says we'll get a few more good games between top teams because of Super 8, that's just not the point. But let’s pick up their point.
There will actually be dead rubbers now, without doubt. Lose your first two games and why would you bother for the third? Conversely, let's say Dublin or Kerry win their opening two group games of the Super 8, the third outing won't matter to them as they face a side who could be in dire need of a result. Think of major soccer tournaments, like Euro 2004 when Sweden and Denmark played out a mutually beneficial 2-2 draw in the final outing to ensure their qualifications at the expense of Italy. This sort of result can now happen. We need an overhaul that’s made to measure - not another layer of skin to this Frankenstein that lurches on.
Players have been stirred by this debate, not to mention the GAA's refusal to allow the CPA take the podium at Congress. Apparently it's "inappropriate". I spoke last week with Derek Kavanagh (CPA fixtures coordinator) and their plan is now to put together the best model possible to present to the GAA. Declan Brennan has also been in touch saying this sit-down will take place in the very near future, and extended an invitation based on my format shown in this article. So, the issue is going nowhere.
The GPA have been pathetically impotent along the way, firstly blaming their inactivity on the changing of reins as Dermot Earley was unveiled as CEO in January. The GPA is inside the GAA tent and, if you’re being cynical, as we are, it’s hard to ignore that they agreed a funding packed with the GAA worth €1.6m in 2017, €2.3m in 2018 and €3m in 2019.
At least the issue captured the imagination of the players it purports to represent, as inter-county stars came out strongly. Richie Hogan, Joe McMahon, John 'Bubbles' O'Dwyer, Podge Collins and more shot from the hip on Twitter. Liam Kearns and Brian Fox have challenged the Tipperary board who voted against their wishes at Congress. Their team-mate, defender Alan Campbell, sent an incredibly detailed format proposal to me and two other journalists - one evidently put together painstakingly. Aidan O'Rourke has now put his structure proposal online.
The appetite for change is there. It’s now. It’s a GAA tradition to insist on slow change, to insist on baby steps – it’s time to leave behind this self-fulfilling prophecy.
Get all the stakeholders in a room and hammer this out. If an end could be brought to the Troubles by proper communication, this should be more than manageable.