There’s some talk in the Indo about a motion that might come before the next GAA Congress in April to widen the back door in the Football Championship. The issue has been raised by the Ulster Council secretary, Danny Murphy, who feels that the current system is unfair to provincial champions. He has, apparently, got support from Armagh’s Fat Controller, Joe Kernan (a man who could certainly do with a wider back door), who has experienced what it’s like to approach the All-Ireland series both as provincial champions and as a county coming through the qualifiers. Both feel that provincial champions get a raw deal, in that once they qualify (unbeaten) for the All-Ireland series, they get no second chance. If they lose (which they frequently do) in the quarter-final, then they’re out, whereas if they lose in the provincial final, they have a route back.
Murphy’s plan would see a reorganisation of the All-Ireland series. It would start with a pre-2001-style face-off between the four provincial champions, with the winners progressing to the semis, while the losers would face the two remaining qualifier teams. This means that the qualifier route to the All-Ireland series would be restricted to just two teams, instead of the present four, and that, as a result, the All-Ireland series would involve six rather than eight counties.
At the heart of this is the (at least implicit) concern about provincial champions having to sit around swinging the lead for a month or more, waiting to see who is going to emerge from the qualifiers to face them in the quarter-finals. The Fat Controller’s concerns are obviously a reflection of recent experience, with Armagh having to loiter for four whole weeks last Summer before coming cold into a quarter-final with born-again Kerry. The unfairness of the present system is further illustrated by the fate of Cork, Kerry’s conquerors in Munster last year. They trooped off Pairc Ui Caoimh on the 16th of July having comprehensively beaten their neighbours yet when they next took the field, at Croker in their All-Ireland quarter-final with Donegal on the 5th of August, they did so knowing that Kerry were already waiting for them again in the semis, having beaten Armagh earlier in the day. This meant that Cork’s reward for having beaten Kerry in Munster was to play Donegal for the right to meet Kerry again in the semis. There is clearly no logic in such a state of affairs.
However, I’m not convinced the Murphy plan is the answer either. If it does come to pass, it won’t be long before the two counties who reach the semis unbeaten will have cause for complaint about the lack of a back door for them too. This will almost certainly happen as they’ll be left waiting around to see who emerges from the back door to face them.
What this debates demonstrates is that, despite the success of the back door and the huge public appetite for big Championship matches, the current structure is fundamentally unsound. Sport should be about how teams fare in a competition where the underlying structure doesn’t favour one team over another. That patently isn’t the case with the current Championship structure.
For my money, Martin Breheny’s idea (can’t find the link to it, but I’ll keep trying) about redrawing the provinces and playing the provincial championships off by way of a mini-league format (similar to the Champions League), with the top two in each province getting through to the All-Ireland series, sounds like the best option I’ve seen so far. I know, I know, it devalues (somewhat) the provincial championships but the current system is so imperfect (we can, I fear, expect to see a Cork v Kerry All-Ireland semi-final virtually every year, by the looks of it) that more radical reform than what is now being mooted will be required. As an aside, the Indo also publishes figures to show how the various provincial champions have fared under the new system. It is, perhaps, surprising to note that Mayo are the only provincial champions from Connacht to make it past the quarter-finals since 2001. Both times we won Connacht, in 2004 and again last year, we made it all the way to the final. By contrast, Roscommon (2001) and Galway (2002, 2003 and 2005) have never, as Connacht champions, made it past the quarter-finals, although Galway did, of course, win the All-Ireland via the back door in 2001.