Sean Kelly: It’s a knockout: Throwback Championship may be needed

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Brian Adam
Professional Blogger, V logger, traveler and explorer of new horizons.

NO WAY BACK: Tipperary’s John Leahy clears from Limerick’s Declan Nash in the 1996 Munster Hurling final, the last year before the ‘back door’ was introduced. Seán Kelly believes the 2020 Championship should be a straight knockout system. ‘The thrill of do-or-die games could bring some excitement and maybe even nostalgia to proceedings,’ he argues. Picture: INPHO

One could almost say that the 2020 GAA season was doomed from the outset. The anticipation was evident following the thrilling opening-day league draw between 2019 All-Ireland finalists Dublin and Kerry, a game that had all the skill level and intensity of a Championship match in mid-July.

Those who watched it were left with huge excitement for what the rest of the league campaign would bring.

It wouldn’t be long, however, before things started to get a little messy.

Only a couple of weeks later, disruptions began with the arrival of Storm Ciara, causing a number of games around the country to be postponed. Next, it was the turn of Dennis, another big storm that rolled into town in mid-February, disrupting high-profile fixtures. To make it a trilogy, Storm Jorge entertained us when a gust of wind caught a shot by the always-accurate Dean Rock, carrying it over to the corner flag.

Perspective is a funny thing, however. Today, GAA matches are barely in our minds as we all do what we can to abide by the restrictions and recommendations aimed at limiting the spread of the Covid-19 virus.

Storms and the disruption they brought to the GAA calendar feel like a distant memory.

Football, hurling, and sport more generally might seem irrelevant and unimportant this week. Unprecedented steps have been taken by Government to stop the spread of the virus, with people instructed to reduce social interactions as much as possible. Additionally, we have seen schools, colleges, and childcare facilities close, and gatherings no longer permitted.

It is during times like these that we realise how important sport really is to us. This past weekend, millions of people around the world missed their weekly ritual of supporting their team.

Sport means community, it means friendship, and it means an escape from the everyday routines of life; the societal importance of this should not be underestimated.

Sport is not just a contest between two teams on the field. It is the collective anticipation and excitement of a town or village in the weeks leading up to a big game, the endless debates about tactics and team selection at the dinner table at home, in the pub, and in the local shop. It is the county colours lining every mast and pole in every county, town and village during Championship season; the children playing on the street pretending to be their inter-county heroes; the hunt for tickets ahead of a final; and the long drive to Croke Park in the hope that today might be the day that your team finally does the business.

And while sport is such an important part of all our lives, equally it isn’t important at all.

It is vitally important that we follow the Government advice. Losing sport is unfortunate, but public health and the greater good has to be the priority.

There is an obligation on us all to do what we can to protect vulnerable people by following the instructions we are given. If it means saving the lives of people at risk, then we can all go without our sport for a while until the situation goes back to normal. Many GAA clubs and their members, to their great credit, have been organising to help the most vulnerable in their communities in recent days.

These are the selfless and caring actions that can make a big difference to people’s lives during testing times, and we should applaud everyone involved.

I will certainly miss sport in the weeks and months ahead but absence will make the heart grow fonder, and I am already looking forward to the day when our games are back, at a time when experts consider it appropriate.

From an administrative perspective, these unprecedented levels of disruption bring clear challenges for the GAA, and particularly for the current and incoming Úachtaráin.

Difficult decisions will need to be taken and some outside the box thinking will be needed when it comes to the 2020 GAA calendar.

The first big question to answer: What to do with the league?

Realistically, it could be summer before games can go ahead and there will be few weekends available. Just this week, Uefa decided to postpone Euro 2020, which had been set to run from mid-June to mid-July. Although our games wouldn’t involve the same level of travel, this postponement suggests we are likely some way from games being given the green light.

Assuming there won’t be time to play the remaining league fixtures, I think the decision has to be taken to conclude the competition as it stands, and either declare the team on top to be the winner, or, if time allowed when games resume, organise a final between the top two teams.

It will be contentious but, regrettably, I think there’s no alternative but to cancel promotion and relegation for this year. Counties on course for promotion will be disappointed to miss the chance to compete at a higher level next year, and the financial boost it would bring. However I don’t see any fair way around this.

The other option is to simply declare this year’s league null and void; not ideal, but we are not blessed with options.

The next question: How to organise the Championship?

In football, ending the league would allow us proceed to Championship when games resume, and to run the Sam Maguire and Tailteann Cups. This needs to be the priority at this point. If time allows, the Championships can run as scheduled, however it seems increasingly likely there will be a need for a shortened version.

In that case, what better solution than to go back to what worked for a century before we changed the structure of our competitions; a straight knockout system — first at provincial level, and then onto All-Ireland semi-finals and finals.

If time doesn’t allow for this, we may have to consider a full open draw at national level. We would need 32 teams for the first round, so without Kilkenny, either New York or London could be added, assuming they are allowed to travel. They could play each other in a preliminary qualifier to decide who gets the spot in the draw. The five rounds of the championship (last 32, last 16, quarter-finals, semi-finals and final) would then be run over five weeks, culminating in the All-Ireland final.

The first and second rounds should be home and away as far as possible. If a team plays at home in the first round, they should be away in the second round. If teams drawn together in Round 2 were both home or both away in the first round, a toss of a coin would decide who plays at home, unless both agree on a venue. Quarter-finals would be at a neutral venue, with the semi-finals and final held in Croke Park as usual.

One tricky aspect of this scenario would be the Tailteann Cup. Two options here — either it is postponed until 2021, or the beaten 16 teams from the first round of the Sam Maguire go into the first round of the Tailteann Cup. The problem is that an open draw risks two top teams being drawn together in the first round, with the losing side going into the second tier competition; not what was envisaged.

Having for years been one of the biggest supporters of a second tier championship, it is a pity we may have to wait a while to see it played in the intended format, but again, this would be an unavoidable consequence of the situation we are.

All of this could certainly make for an exciting few weeks of Championship football in July and August. No back door, no second chance, make or break every weekend. What an achievement it would be for Dublin to retain the Sam Maguire under those conditions!

The hurling season is different, but again a similar plan could be an option. A separate open draw could be made for each of the McCarthy, McDonagh, Ring, Rackard and Meagher Cups, eventually determining the winners of each in a shorter-than-usual format.

Again, not a perfect solution, but the thrill of do-or-die games over a period of four or five weekends could bring some excitement and maybe even nostalgia into the summer’s proceedings.

The big remaining question is the club season.

If there isn’t enough time for the club championships to be completed, some flexibility should be allowed for them to roll the season over into next year where necessary, particularly the latter stages of the All-Ireland Club Championships. At that stage, only a few clubs are competing so the disruption to next year’s fixtures should be manageable.

County boards will need to be open to allowing club and county fixtures to proceed in tandem, perhaps running on alternate weeks, and with games played midweek where possible.

Everything must be organised as fairly and as practically as possible, where time and the calendar allows.

We must also bear in mind that good planning will be essential to ensure the GAA is prepared for all eventualities — fail to prepare, prepare to fail.

The GAA’s leadership must act now and quickly come up with a set of plans to cater for all possibilities; if restrictions are lifted in May, we go with Plan A, if it is June, we go with Plan B, and so on, so forth. This is not only logical, but it also vital in order to give some certainty and guidance to players, managers, and supporters. Otherwise, we will all be going around in the dark, idly speculating about what will happen.

These plans could be drawn up quickly and approved via emails and videoconferencing; it does not need to be overly complicated.

All of this is of course dependent on how the Covid-19 situation develops in the weeks ahead. The number one priority for everyone must now be to keep themselves and their loved ones safe, and follow the instructions of Government and the health authorities.

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