Rothar Routes

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Alternative Fixture Proposal

I burnt the midnight oil last night trying to put some structure on those random ideas that were flying around in my head earlier while out on my cycle!

Like many others before the call for Proposals in 2016, I tinkered with a restructuring of the Fixtures programme to address the failings of the fixtures programme.

Time moves on but as the weekend has shown, frustration has grown with the inability to agree change. It’s concerning how this debate is framed. It’s always easy side with players but we shouldn’t deny the validity of other points of view. Far better we think independently than follow a herd mentality and get change for changes sake.

The one thing all were united on at Congress was that change is needed and it is needed sooner rather than later. There is a momentum for change and everyone has to now walk the walk.

Martin Wynne (@martywyn) tagged me in a post, and it was a bit of a eureka moment for me. He mentioned an interview with Cahair O Kane of the Irish News in which he talked about a radical change to the NFL. And that for me is one of the keys to unlocking the potential of reforming the entire structure.

Can this work? Maybe maybe not. There are probably flaws in this and I’d be interested to hear what they might be.

(1) It retains the provincial championships. Provincial Councils and their constituent counties have a responsibility to come up with structures for their Championships that are better than the present options. Leinster in particular, with 11 teams should be able to devise a competitive structure – the Ulster Championship being a good example for them to follow. I don’t buy into the defeatism around the Leinster Championship; small things have aided the strongest in the province. Remove seedings; insist on home venues for teams and remove in built advantages for the strong. It can be reformed. Ironically the period of Dublin dominance may be on the wane and the sands of time may bring a natural reordering in the province.

(2) It links the league to the All Ireland. There has been a call for more competitive football in the summer months for all counties. With tightened fixture scheduling it is possible to link the NFL with the All Ireland once the Provincial Championships are concluded. Rather than training ad naseum, players want to reduce the training to games ratio – it makes sense; we are obsessed with drawing out competitions longer than necessary.

(3) It includes all counties. Proposal B really failed a lot of tests in my opinion. No one is excluded here in this and the step up for lower ranked teams is incremental if they progress. In addition the Tailteann Cup is broadened out to include the last sixteen teams, which depending. on results, could in fact include teams from the top two divisions of the league. It’s suddenly a more attractive proposition and if the follow through is that the Final is indeed played alongside the All Ireland Final, then maybe it has a future.

How to solve the Fixtures……

I’m cycling in the dark of night on quiet back roads just over the border in County Laois. Gusty winds. Twinkling stars. I love these autumn nights on the bike.

Waiting on a call from Stevie Poacher. “I’ll call ye in 10”.

Seeking inspiration. How to solve the greatest mystery since the Incident at Dyatlov Pass.

I shuffle my phone playlist while I wait for the call back.

  • Ventura Highway by America. One for dreaming to.
  • I say a Little Prayer by Aretha Franklin
  • A Simple Song (from Mass) by Leonard Bernstein, one of Mary’s great choir pieces.
  • Sting singing Mo Ghile Méar accompanied by The Chieftains. Absolutely Class.
  • The Dixie Chicks belting out The Long Way Around. Great bike song.
  • Bruce and Born to Run
  • Willie Nelson On The Road Again
  • One – U2 & Pavarotti.

I revisit in my mind previous iterations I had devised in 2016 of how to restructure the Championship. Things have moved on since then. Demand for change is growing. Frustrated players feel they are not being heard and would settle for any change at this stage. But whatever we do it can’t be worse than what we have.

Each song raises my spirits; I’m cruising along past Killeshin GAA Club and ideas are flowing through my head. The bike is a great place for thinking. My 20kms passes in what seems like a few minutes. I’m buzzing.

Head in to the house and start typing the bullets flying round in my head before I forget them and have to do it all again!

The outline of what can be an alternative plan is formulating in my head. One that might provide players with more meaningful games, more opportunities for teams to develop, yet retains our Provincial and League Finals and provides ‘layer upon layer’ all within one season. It’s radical. Needs refining. Watch this space!

Stevie calls and he fills me in on the Down Championship semi finals and on the success of his Coaching Clinic last Saturday. A one man whirlwind.

Tweaking is Taunting

Language matters!

Out for a cycle along the Barrow, listening to Saturday Sport discussion of the result of the vote on Proposal B. If this is going to move forward and be a positive, people need to bin the sales pitch. Talk of ‘tweaking’ the proposal is taunting those who opposed this; the points on which this was rejected weren’t minor matters – we are not talking tweaks here; we are talking fundamental change to what was proposed. It will have to be substantially different to what was proposed. The proponents of this proposal must recognise they got this badly wrong or we are doomed to repeat the mistakes again.

Sadly, balance has been lacking in the discussion on national media. Today being a prime example. There were four high profile GAA members interviewed – and all of them passionate but all were in favour of what was rejected. There was no voice representing the rejection of the proposal. Many presenters have been cheer leading the Proposal and nonchalantly dismissing the very valid concerns of those opposed to this particular proposal. Some presenters acted as Influencers. In saying this the provincial councils, when they got the opportunity, were far too defensive and dismissive in interviews during the past fortnight, with one interview being car crash stuff.

At times Saturday Sport sounded like Callans Kicks! I don’t mean to be cruel or demean people but some of the arguments put forward were spurious in the extreme:

Very little opportunity to get All Stars, win Provincial titlesAgreed but how does this Proposal change that?
Referees learning their trade in Division 3 & 4Agreed but how does this Proposal change that?
No opportunity for endorsementsAgreed but how does this Proposal change that?
Training to match ratio is a jokeAgreed but how does this Proposal change that?
Decision making process is a circus; replace delegates with a ‘group of elite level managers, GPA reps, couple of good business people, couple of ex PresidentsReally?

The reason I mention these things is because words matter. People are influenced by what they are hearing and when it’s wrong, they should be pulled up. And there should be balance in the programme.

One thing we all agreed on – even before the debate, change is needed. But it can’t be change for changes sake. Hopefully now that the debate has happened there is greater understanding about what the parameters for designing the structure must take account of.

The factors to be considered are becoming clearer, among them:

  • Unlinking the Provincial Championships not acceptable
  • Positioning Provincial Championships as a preseason tournament not acceptable
  • Competition must be merit based
  • Provincial structures must be improved. Taking Leinster as an example, simple advantages removed for stronger counties – bring in open draw. Dublin not to use Croke Park as a home venue. Teams drawn at home v Dublin play at home. Stop using neutral venues. The success of Ulster Championship is partially down to open draw – indeed winners often begin in the preliminary round – in away venue. Consider Div 4 teams play at home of drawn against team from higher Div.
  • The split season has merit. Define the inter county season. This above all will dictate what can be accommodated. Provinces will have to dovetail with that.

I think this can be done in a short time frame; the players in many counties are rightly frustrated with their lot and change has to come. However no competition structure is going to solve the vast gulf between counties when we have the vast disparity in funding between counties. There has to be a fairer distribution of resources. Centralisation of sponsorship? Spending limits? Central funding of team support structures? Lot still to be done in this regard and that debate may take longer to resolve!

The GAA’s Berlin Wall

It’s early morning after Éire Óg’s great win in the Leinster Club Championship Semi Final over Portlaoise.

Carlow Clubs will this year contest a 7th Leinster Club Senior Football Final since 1980 and a second Leinster Club Senior Hurling Final. 

Éire Óg first appeared in the 1980 Final when losing to Meath’s Walterstown. Éire Og were trained by Dan Carbery at that time. Dan was from an athletics background – he had ran in the historic first sub four minute mile to take place in Ireland, the first occasion five men had run sub four minutes in the same race. He was a lover of all sports and life long student of sports performance. Dan always claimed the reason they lost the Final was they never truly believed in their ability.

In other words they expected to lose.

Roll on to the glorious 1990s and Laois legend Bobby Miller, arrived into Páirc Uí Bhriain where he instilled that self belief and structures which enabled Éire Óg to transform from an underachieving club from a success starved county into the dominant club team of the decade. 

Five Leinster Club titles. Two All Ireland Final appearances.

They expected to win.

Fast forward to 2000, Éire Óg’s cross town rivals O Hanrahans (100 years old this year) picked up on that self belief and in a changing of the Carlow mindset went on to Leinster glory when defeating Na Fianna of Dublin 1-7 to 0-5.

Mount Leinster Rangers Hurlers fed off this new found self confidence in Carlow club to claim an historic first Leinster Senior Hurling Club title when beating Oulart-the-Ballagh 0-11 to 0-8 in 2013.

Last week St Mullins emulated Rangers by qualifying for this years Leinster Club Final having taken the scalp of two time All Ireland winers Cuala in the opening round and Rathdowney Erill in the semi final.

Two Carlow Clubs contesting the two provincial Senior Club finals in the same year.

There are four senior hurling clubs in Carlow and eight senior football Clubs!

Carlow Senior hurlers and footballers have also achieved ‘above their station’ in recent times.

Despite the great progress of the senior hurlers, they were relegated unnecessarily out of the Leinster SHC. The same fate possibly awaits Laois in 2020. It shouldn’t.

And now the GAA are intent on football apartheid by denying Division 3 and 4 Counties the opportunity to play for the Sam Maguire. Second class citizens of a supposedly community based sports organisation.

Where we all belong’ Yeah right. Slick marketing campaigns may be catchy but are meaningless and insulting.

A genuine dual county. A tiny county.

I compare it to the Berlin Wall. 

An artificial man made barrier dividing the same nation. 

The super powers (GAA HQ) sometimes complete a prisoner exchange and allow a limited number through Checkpoint Charlie. The top 2 teams in Division 3 escape and the bottom 2 in Division 2 are incarcerated.

But the masses have little chance of penetrating that barrier. 

For years we knew little about life in East Germany. It will be like that in the Tier 2. Forgotten. Out of the media spotlight. No opportunity to promote the game. We will become a wasteland.

The sad part is that some of our counties have voted for this.

In the words of the great Jim Larkin, ‘The great appear great because we are on our knees. Let us rise’.

The reason some counties voted for this ludicrous proposal is because their expectations are at an all time low. They have stopped believing.

Dan Carbery was right. 

Bobby Miller was right. 

Henry Ford was right. 

‘Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right’.

Thank you Éire Óg. 

Thank you O Hanrahans. 

Thank you Mount Leinster Rangers. 

Thank you St. Mullins.

The Trail of Tiers

As I cycled my way across the border counties of Cavan, Fermanagh, Monaghan, Armagh and Down from Thursday to yesterday, the invisible border beneath my wheels was often on my mind.

Customs Post at Ballyconnell?

I thought of the impact of Brexit on these communities and those thoughts were interspersed with thoughts of the construct of another invisible border, 350kms away, by an Association that prides itself on creating and supporting communities, the importance of the parish and the county.

By the time I weaved my way towards Armagh, where I met young Ciarán Corrigan, All Ireland U131/2 Road Bowling Champion practising road bowls with his brother and father, around a bend of the old Navan Fort Road, the deed was done.

We had been fenced off. Excluded. We are now Associate members.

The British people were sold a pup by Brexiteers. The establishment pushed a spurious argument that will have consequences for years to come. Self inflicted harm on a national scale.

Brexit is an illusion.

So too is the tiered Championship. 

When a competition has to be dressed up – (curtain raisers in Croke Park, All Star Tours) to be sold to counties it is because it does not stand on its own merits. We are told this competition is to support the ‘weaker counties’, give them a realistic opportunity of winning silverware…..

This is not going to do anything to promote, improve or develop football in the affected counties. Rather it will weaken it, irreperably.

TWO COUNTIES have harvested 13 of the 19 championships played since the new millennium began. Just two counties.

Isn’t it shocking that the other ‘weaker counties’, rated from 3 to 16 have no such competition to participate in and give them a realistic chance of winning…. 

If this tiered competition is so necessary and correct, surely the logical extension now is to also exclude these counties from the provincial championships….after all the history books will show that the provincials are also dominated by a small number of counties. Yes even the Ulster Championship, which has had just four counties win the Anglo Celt Cup since the year 2000…..

I find it truly amazing that suddenly money can be found for more ‘All Stars’ Tours when the weaker counties struggle to make ends meet. These junkets are a sham. Meaningless, non productive, a vulgar display of wealth by an Association that cannot devise more equitable ways of distributing largesse.

When a county owes Croke Park for ticket sales, the funds must be handed over next day. No ifs or buts, yet when Croke Park owes counties money, it’s a struggle to get reimbursed despite the strains on cash flow in most of our counties. City Hall truly is all powerful.

The relegation of counties to tier two is going to affect their ability to attract sponsorship. They find it hard enough to do so currently when there is some opportunity to have a big name county visit and create massive promotional opportunity for the locality. Take that away….. we could literally be looking to the local chipper to buy a set of jerseys…..

There is nothing in the new structure that will replicate the promotional opportunity that we had when playing Qualifier games with the likes of Tyrone and Monaghan in Netwatch Cullen Park. These games were bigger than the result and the impact on children, on our clubs, our supporters cannot be replicated anywhere else. Players from both sides mingled with both sets of supporters on the pitch afterwards. Don’t tell me that Tyrone or Monaghan got easy wins either. They got real tests. But sadly that will NEVER  EVER happen again.

There is no need for a second competition based on tiers. The league is the tiered competition. How difficult is that to understand? The Championship was never about that and in the new reality it still isn’t – for counties 3 to 16 it is still about ‘the big day’, an opportunity to cause an upset, a shock and create a little bit of history, to try make a little progress. They are not going to be winning All irelands under the new set up either.

This new tiered competition is going to rehash the national league fixtures to a large extent. What is attractive to the public about Carlow travelling to Carrick On Shannon or to Limerick, or to Corrigan Park? What if players cannot justify in their own heads that the effort required does not match the reward on offer? These are the true amateurs after all. 

If it is not attractive enough then attendances will be small.

It will still cost these counties the same amount of money to prepare for the Tommy Cooper Cup as for the All Ireland Qualifiers, but with less income to offset the level of expenditure. This competition will be a loss leader. Playing the finals as curtain raiser to the All Ireland will not result in one euro additional income to the GAA – Croker will be sold out anyway!

Make no mistake central funding by GAA will be concentrated on the teams taking part in the Sam Maguire. The gulf widens further.

What are the chances of a reduction in allocation of All Ireland Final tickets to the tiered counties!

There is no development for counties in this structure. Playing the same teams year in, year out is not going to improve the standard in these counties. Croke Park has given up on us. We are not on their radar or if we are, we are that pesky drone that has invaded their air space and needs to be taken out.

The only way to improve is to test yourself against teams at a higher level. This ensures it will NEVER happen. EVER.

How could counties vote for this??

They say history repeats itself. It’s certainly true in the GAA. The same counties dominate. The likelihood is that the tiered championship will be dominated by the teams that sit on top of Division 3. The Leitrims, Wicklows, and Carlows may never win it, mighty never make a final. How attractive will inter county football be then to players and spectators in these counties?

I am sure heaven and earth will be moved to start this tiered championship with a bang, promises will be made but soon forgotten.

Much talk is made of the success of the Joe McDonagh Cup etc in hurling but ask Carlow and Antrim about how promises turned to dust. A day in Croke Park isn’t the measurement of the success of these competitions.

The GAA is in crisis. All of it of our own making.

Some of the biggest reasons are dreadful competition structures; the only learning we seem to take on board is how to make them worse.

We love to play God and tinker with playing rules, yet cannot address the most problematic, the tackle.

We eulogise about the Club but crucify it with how we have pursued elitism in the inter county game – we are in danger of killing the goose that played the gold egg.

The push is on to become more elite. We cannot sustain it.

Those at the top envy the internationalism of other codes and are chasing the exposure and opportunities those codes can attract – TV rights, corporate sponsorship. In doing so we move further and further away from the objectives for which the Association was founded.

We don’t need to ape them. We have something they do not have – a vibrant community based grass root structure that is at the heart of everything that happens in our parishes and counties. Kill that and we are no different.

Associate Members.

Some more photos of a fantastic cycle along the proposed Turas Columbanus:

Upper Lough Erne from above Cleenish Island
Cleenish Island where Columbanus was educated at St. Sinnell’s Monastery
Deerpark Forest Trail, Virginia
Deerpark Forest Trail, Virginia
Glaslough, All Ireland Today Towns Winner 2019
Tynan Cross
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