By Peter McDermott
When is a knockout competition not a knockout competition? When it's the All Ireland football championship. In recent times, along with its hurling equivalent, it has allowed a qualifying "back door" or "scenic route" to success in the Sam Maguire Cup, the most coveted trophy in Irish sports.
Many sports can choose from three types of competition structures: league, knockout or a hybrid of both. The pure league system is the one that has been used traditionally to determine the domestic champions in soccer nations. Then, there is the pure knockout competition, with the FA Cup in England being the classic example.
The crowded calendar generally and the Champions League in particular have pushed the FA Cup into third place and it has lost much of its sheen. But at its height this "glamour" cup had it all and it still has the potential to thrill. The clubs from the top two divisions in England enter at the 3rd round proper (there are also six qualifying rounds before the 1st round) leaving 64 clubs, i.e. 32 pairings, in the mix. Those figures are halved with each subsequent round. Its sudden-death quality contributes to the drama, and gives relatively small clubs the chance to be "giant-killers." It's also entirely unseeded.
The Sam Maguire Cup was once a pure knockout competition, albeit via the provinces. But instead of moving it towards a hybrid system, which would have been logical, the GAA decided to give beaten teams a second chance in a qualifier system. This, of course, takes some of the traditional fun out of the competition. It has also produced plenty of bizarre twists of fate. This year something remarkable happened. The All Ireland semifinals used to involve the four provincial champions, but in 2010, none of the eventual semifinalists even made it to their respective provincial finals. They'd all been "knocked out."
Many fans hate the system. My brother-in-law, who goes to every Dublin game at Croke Park, is one. Certainly, you could say it has helped the capital, and in fact was designed partly for its and the GAA's mutual benefit. The association needs as many Dub paydays as it can get. But city people tend to be soccer fans, too, and also less beholden to tradition. They wonder why things can't be kept simple. Surely, league and knockout systems or some combination thereof provide enough options to choose from? Instead, the All Ireland championship is decided by its rather peculiar down-but-not-out cup.
The problem is that the GAA is charged with both upholding tradition and getting as many fans through the turnstiles as possible. In the process, however, it has made a nonsense of the original structure of the provincial and the All Ireland championships.
If Gaelic football is to compete domestically with pro rugby and with the Premiership across the water - and just about everything else - it needs to worry less about tradition and much more about getting people into games. To that end, Ireland's biggest sporting association has to start a conversation about the best ways to achieve that top priority. Everything should be up for grabs.
Here's my plan:
1. Scrap the league entirely. The NFL has increasingly become a Cinderella trophy, a dress rehearsal for the real thing.
2. Replace it with provincial championships, which would be separate from the All Ireland. The four ruling bodies could each organize those as they best see fit.
3. The All Ireland championship, AKA Sam Maguire Cup, would be reorganized with a World Cup-type seeded group stage and then a knockout stage from the Last 16 onwards (though, of course, over several months, not the three and a half weeks of the World Cup finals).
4. All of this leaves open the possibility late in the year (or perhaps at the beginning of the new) of a challenge "Super Cup" competition in which the provincial champions that didn't win the All Ireland, whether it's three or four of them, play off for a game against the Sam winners.
I know people would have with all sorts of objections to the above plan, but let me put forward a few of the advantages.
First of all, in the case of the provincial championships, shorter travel distances would be a boon to teams and fans alike in the colder months (which is not to say that Kerry vs. Armagh, for example, or Wexford vs. Mayo challenge games can't be organized in the preseason.) Local rivalries, too, would add the heat that's been missing from the league. And there would be plenty of competition. Even in five-county Connacht, a round-robin league with home and away fixtures would mean that each team would get eight games apiece.
As for the All Ireland championship, one big advantage would be the utilization of the GAA's magical number of 32 boards. It's true that Kilkenny has not competed at the senior level since the 1920s, but as we've seen there's enough talent among the émigrés in North American and Britain, as well as in the colleges, to come up with a 32nd competitor.
The recent World Cup showed the beauty of the league/knockout cup hybrid (as does the club-based Champions League every season). The seeded four-team mini group with two qualifying always gives the unfancied sides a sporting chance of getting through. Consider, for instance, the plight of Limerick's footballers who've never gotten out of Munster, despite some fine performances in more recent times: they'd have a real shot at getting to the Last 16 and maybe further under the system I propose. And the media in every county would have a new focus: can their guys make it to the next stage?
The group stage would also guarantee three championship games for each county. Under the old system, players could train for the championship for months only to exit at the first hurdle. The addition of the qualifiers does admittedly give a team that second chance.
Still, everything about the qualifier-modified system seems lop-sided. So while the quarterfinals, a recent concept in the All Ireland, have added considerably to the excitement, there were complaints in 2010 that some teams didn't have sufficient recovery time before their games. The GAA should extend the wonderful drama of a knockout competition back another round and have the Last 16 start on a level playing field.
[This op-ed originally appeared in the Sept. 81-14, 2010, issue of the Irish Echo.]