You have to admire the GAA. Even though soccer is the most participated sport on the island of Ireland, its the GAA who have gone from strength to strength. The tribal love from supporters towards their county and their local clubs is the envy of the soccer world. As is the funding they receive to refurbish the likes of Páirc Uí Chaoimh, Croke Park, Semple Stadium, Walsh Park and many other projects over the years. With GAA stadiums around the country improving facilities every year and with large capacities, it makes the match day experience an enjoyable one for their loyal following.
But I do think the GAA could take something from their soccer rivals to help improve their game and in turn improve the level of some of the least successful counties. That comes in the format of the Sam Maguire All Ireland football championship. Currently we have the back door route which means lose your first game and you get another game, a second chance if you like, and if you lose you are out. That means all you training and preparation for months could lead to you being knocked out at the early in june, which in all fairness is total nonsense. Players need games to improve, to learn, to be able to compete. A team can never compete, learn or improve if the two competitive matches they play each year are loses just from the basic fact that they may play the best team in the country and possibly a similarly strong unit and then they are out. We are not talking about the Dublins of this world or the Kerrys, but the smaller counties who need help to improve and a chance to improve.
The Allianz league format at the start of every year (while being competitive) has always been treated as preperation for the Sam Maguire. Pre-Season friendlies you might say. Trying out new players, new combinations and perhaps new tactics. It has always been treated in this way from the supporters too. While they always want to see their county win, never has a county and their supporters gone into meltdown over not winning a league or generally based on their league form. So what can be done with the Sam Maguire to make it more competitive for all the counties?
A Champions League format would work like this :
8 Groups of 4 Teams
Play each other twice, so 6 group games each.
Teams would be seeded according to their Allianz League division. Giving an incentive in the Allianz League for counties to progress up the divisions.
If New York commit to playing there would be a group of 5 (33 teams). If not then a yearly game vs the All Ireland champions to be organised in New York to promote the game in America.
After the six games the top two teams from each group qualify to the Sam Maguire last 16 knockout stage. Table toppers would be seeded in a last 16 draw and would play a second placed team. The bottom 16/17 teams would progress into a ‘B’ Championship also a knockout tournament. If it’s 17 teams then the bottom team of the group of five would play the team with the worst record from one of the other groups in a play-off game to get into the last 16. Top seeding for the last 16 draw would be given to all third placed teams who would be drawn against a fourth placed team.
This would give every team a guaranteed seven games each summer which would provide the opportunity for players to gain valuable competitive experience. In turn the smaller counties players will no doubt improve in quality while also having an opportunity to win a trophy when qualifying for the ‘B’ Championship. These counties need a realistic goal and the ‘B’ Championship could provide that. Although a more appropriate name should be put on the trophy.
Not only would the players and teams benefit from this format but counties would benefit financially. More games and more meaningful games would bring in more revenue through gate receipts. In all, gate receipts represented almost half (48%) of the the GAA’s 2019 revenues at €36.1 million.
Overall the current format used to win Sam Maguire is unfair and hampers player and team development. Using the champions league format benefits everyone. It also brings more excitement and anticipation to games. It especially benefits the smaller counties in their bid to catch up with the traditionally bigger counties by gaining more game time and experience for their players and also the realistic opportunity to win a trophy.