Darver Centre of Excellence: the venue for last night's extraordinary County Board meeting.
Who knew Louth GAA could come up with something more controversial than Brexit?
Following a motion submitted by Westerns, delegates to last Monday night’s County Board meeting approved the introduction of an ‘all-county’ championship, to run in addition to the senior, intermediate and junior competitions, for 2019.
In an extraordinary development, should the draft fixture proposal be implemented, the respective championship finals will be played off by the end of July, leaving the autumn months free for the ‘all-county’ competition to get underway and be completed, which will see amalgamated outfits compete against the 12 senior clubs.
Westerns’ motion was jointly endorsed by Glyde Rangers and Sean McDermott’s, and gained a deluge of support, evidenced by the fact that well more than the 26 - all that was needed for it to be given the go-ahead - required were willing to throw their support behind it.
Pat O’Brien (Sean O’Mahony’s), Tommy McCann (St. Patrick’s), Gabriel McKenny (Ardee, St. Mary’s) and Pádraig O’Connor (Leinster Council) were key among those who contributed to the debate.
The draft fixture proposal, which lays out a calendar according to which all competitions will be fixed, leaves little-to-no wriggle room should, for example, there be poor spring weather as was the case in 2018. Postponements, and blanket ones at that, don’t appear to enter the equation whatsoever.
But, leaving practicalities aside, what exactly is this new venture?
Well, according to the motion, it’s based on a model pursued in Kerry, Galway and Cork, whereby club championships are played before an ‘all-county’ equivalent is rolled out to include smaller or lower division clubs, in unison, against the county’s main domestic competitors.
The draft fixture schedule advises the Winter League tournaments - Paddy Sheelan Cup and Kevin Mullen Shield - be played out, starting in mid-February and running weekly until March 24 - the proposed final dates, before the main leagues get underway, on the weekend of Sunday, March 31.
Divisions One, Two and Three, it proposes, would have three rounds played, taking the calendar up until the second week in April, ahead of the opening two rounds of the senior, intermediate and junior football championships, which run on the weekends of Friday to Sunday, April 19-21 and 26-28.
The latter round would be played just a fortnight before Louth enter the Leinster Championship against Wexford.
Following the championship openers, it’s said that seven league matches could between the start of May and end of June, regardless of how the county side fares, ‘star games’ included.
There is no mention of when the third round of championship group stage would be played - games which are compulsory to complete the respective championships given that Cooley Kickhams’ motion to have a knockout format implemented was rejected.
In any case, the month of July would then be devoted to finishing the championships - including the relegation play-offs, with the exception of the senior demotion final which would be fixed for October 5 (explanation to follow). July 20/21 and 26/27 have been earmarked as final dates.
A two-week holiday period would follow, prior to the ‘all-county’ championship getting underway on August 9 and running - with round 11 of the league and subsequently semi-finals, finals and play-offs - until the decider on, potentially, October 6.
The ‘all-county’ championship would include the 12 senior clubs and ‘x’ amount of amalgamated sides, compromising of all non-senior outfits in an area determined by the County Board, in conjunction with the respective committees and clubs.
Scenario: “If a senior team is relegated from senior status, they join their pre-agreed amalgamated side, e.g. if Newtown Blues were relegated from the senior grade they would play with the South Louth team in the following year’s championship.
“Likewise, if a team win the intermediate championship, they then will be a senior team for the following year’s senior championship, and therefore leave their amalgamated team for the ‘all-county’ championship.”
As earlier stated, during the month of July, all relegation play-offs of the main championships, bar the senior demotion final, would be played. The date for this has been advised for October 5 - the day before the ‘all-county’ championship final - as if a team in the relegation final progress to the ‘all-county’ decider, their opponent in the demotion encounter would automatically be relegated to intermediate.
For example: St. Joseph’s end up against St. Patrick’s in the senior championship relegation play-off, but reach the ‘all-county’ championship final, St. Pat’s are automatically sent down to intermediate.
In terms of Leinster representation, in theory, the winner of the ‘all-county’ championship would progress as Louth’s flag-bearer. However, if a combination prevails against another combination, the winner of July’s senior championship final would enter the provincial grade as amalgamated teams cannot compete beyond their respective county.
If a combination team were to face a club team in the ‘all-county decider’, the club side, regardless of the result, would advance on Louth’s behalf.
The Junior 2A, 2B and 2C championships would run in line with the ‘all-county’ competition.
- It is argued that the ‘all-county’ championship would cater for more players in allowing them to compete at a higher standard, while bringing the overall level up a notch.
- Increased revenue from more matches and a curious interest in how the competition will play out could also aid the County Board’s coffers.
- Another, as per the motion, is: “We have prepared this proposal as we want to protect and encourage our own club’s growth by providing an improved grade of football for our own better players to prevent them seeking that higher standard elsewhere.”
- The ‘all-county’ competition, it is argued, will ensure an organised and known-in-advance calendar, something which many have canvassed for over a prolonged period.
- Also, going by social media reaction, trying something different, although radical, is an attractive offering.
However, no matter how well plotted out the proposal is, its suitability is deeply questionable.
1. What happens if Louth seniors go on an extended summer run, potentially competing into July or August? The calendar would crumble and, in all likelihood, see the ‘all-county’ championship abandoned with insufficient time for completion. It’s already difficult enough for Wayne Kierans and his players to mount a challenge for Wexford in May with such an intense club schedule, including championship rounds, in the weeks just prior to the match, never mind for Dublin or any opponent beyond.
2. Another victory for elitism. Every senior player in the county gets the chance to compete in two championships: plenty of football. Whereas, only the “better” players get the opportunity from the intermediate and junior teams with combinations surely involving multiple clubs. If four sides formed a team for the ‘all-county’ championship, with an average of five going from every club, possibly 15 players (per club) who played in their club championship will be left with minimal football and little to play for beyond July, especially as most will be ineligible for the 2A, 2B and 2C championships. No action at the height of the season is hardly going to ensure player development, now, is it?
3. Provincial success, forget about it. Since 2013 three Louth clubs have returned provincial titles; two intermediate (Geraldines and Sean O’Mahony’s) and a junior (Dundalk Young Irelands). Ultimately, they used their domestic victories to build successful Leinster campaigns, entering the provincial sector within two-to-three weeks of winning in Louth; ensuring winning momentum was harnessed. Now, imagine the trio - or any other claimer of the Seamus Flood or Christy Bellew Cups - having to mount a serious Leinster challenge having had their team fragmented for the purposes of a divisional or amalgamated team. Imagine, four months after winning the county title, having to maintain sharpness and fitness levels ahead of facing a team who are fresh from a strong domestic finish. First round exits all round, yeah?
4. How do you divide teams up? For argument sake, do Roche Emmets merge with Cooley Kickhams and Cuchulainn Gaels, or Kilkerley Emmets and Naomh Malachi, which, given their proximity, would surely draw St. Bride’s into the equation, too? If Pat’s were relegated and joined with Cooley and Cuchulainn Gaels, blowing every other team in Louth out of the water, what would the reaction be? How you divide amalgamations up is one thing, but maintaining harmony in a club considering only a few of their players will get regular game-time at the height of the season, while the majority sit finger-twiddling, would be impossible. Even things like what jerseys the teams would wear? Who would train them? Who would pay the trainer? Where would they train? How would you organise training? And, realistically, would a mixture of mid-Louth junior teams be able to compete? Where do the Drogheda and Dundalk clubs come in?
5. Does a Joe Ward capture any longer harbour the same significance? The ‘all-county’ championship shows a huge amount of disrespect to the championships as they are. If a club team win the junior championship, it’s a time for a parish and community to rejoice and a victory which will be remembered for lifetimes to come. It honours the GAA’s heritage. Now, picture three of your club’s players winning with seven from over the road and five from the far side of the ditch, along with six from across the pond: great day for the parish, isn’t it! Ultimately, one thinks, a player’s season will be geared around trying to win with their own clubs, not winning with a concoction of neighbours, otherwise rivals.
6. In theory, the draft fixture schedule could work, but not practically. For it to run as per the circulated proposal document, there would have to be no disruption and with a bad spring weather run expected, that is unlikely. Also, the third group stage round of the championship was omitted, so it has to be accommodated for the championships to function. The county executive and fixture committees now have to determine how all these competitions are to be fitted in, and it will be far from an easy task. The only way the ‘all-county’ competition can feasibly run is by doing away with the Winter League competitions.
7. The idea that the ‘all-county’ championship would prevent inter-club transfers is fanciful and fickle. Rather, with many intermediate and junior players left idle, it will likely break clubs, already struggling in those divisions, that it’s designed to help, with playing numbers decreasing due to a lack of football.
8. Basing it off a model from Kerry and Cork is non-sensical. In the Kingdom, South and East Kerry teams are run on a more minute scale by localised overseeing boards, allowing for the organisation of, for example, a South Kerry Championship, with similar systems in place in other, larger counties. The County Board then run the overall championship. The entire model would need to be better thought out. It shouldn’t just be a ‘well Kerry are using it and they’re producing great players and teams, so, so should we’ approach.
Having processed all of the above, how does this “improve Louth football”?
While open to being corrected at a later date, on the face of it, it simply doesn’t.
An interesting number of months lie ahead, but there are major hurdles still to be negotiated before this motion gets put into practice.
Ardee, St. Marys’ motion to have the senior county final venue alternated from year-to-year until a new county grounds is ready to host was overwhelmingly passed.
A motion from Dundalk Gaels to add five extra league matches to the calendar by splitting the divisions at the end of the regulation schedule was rejected.
Another Mary’s motion, to have the summer holiday window done away with, also failed to attract sufficient support from delegates.