Armagh’s first round championship farce not too far away

April 7, 2009

Dear Sir.

At a venue yet to be decided, Armagh will face Tyrone in the first round of the Ulster senior football Championship late next month. It’s that close. Such a fixture between such bitter rivals should be enough to make it the most important opening game of the championship in all of Ireland and create a real surge of excitement as the weeks pass toward the big day.

But the reality is different. It is a farce. Whether 60,000 travel to Croke Park, or 35,000 to Clones or 20,000 gather at Omagh they will witness a meaningless fixture where the losers stand a better chance of ultimate success than the winners. Where else in world sport is there such a circus?

There are two forces behind all GAA decisions which have not changed in a century and more, one natural, the other unnatural. The first is finance. The second is provincial power. Because the GAA is a centralised, amateur organisation (a polite term for a genuine Marx- Engels  system), finance is the core concern and the Back–Door was seen as a means of generating extra revenue, no matter about the obvious contradictions involved.

The second compromise in the decision was to maintain the integrity of the provincial system which meant that no matter how the Back Door would  pan out for teams, there would still  be a provincial championship. 

So the back door system was devised to maintain these two aspects of the game,  and what should have been the major factor–meaningful championship football– was literally stood on its head for a system that every right thinking person knows is a circus. Armagh are the provincial champions. Tyrone are the All-Ireland champions.

Some GAA people will say that in setting up the Back Door, the authorities at Croke Park were responding to concerns at the system whereby 16 teams at every level had only one serious game every year. They realised that they could no longer hide behind the old cliché that “there’s nothing to beat championship football”, meaning that the 16 losers who trained all year for a single game had done their bit to fill the coffers in the first round, and could now get lost.

But they replaced a seriously bad system with a worse one. So unnatural is the back door as a system of competition that if a hundred ideas were put on the table for discussion, it would be the first to be eliminated. Yet, it was the one chosen by the GAA and still being maintained. If the GAA were run by a single central body instead of five bodies, a genuine round robin system with equality of opportunity for all would have been put in place long ago. But the powers of the four provinces, the descendants of the old princes, chiefs and kings is too strong and so any new system had to be based on the provincial order or not at all. This is the conundrum awaiting two of Ulster and Ireland’s great rivals.

How are the teams and their respective managers going to approach this? Etiquette will more or less make them say publicly that they will go flat out to win and get through to the next round of the championship, even though they know well from the previous four years experience, that by going flat out to win they are signing their death warrant.

Every Armagh supporter knows in their heart that this is correct. They know that if the team surge on and win another Ulster title that they will more than likely be dumped by one of the resurgent back door sides who have the benefit of more games as things progress. These supporters know that the system is a monumental disaster. One part of them feels that they have to cheer their team on and hope that they beat their great rivals. But as soon as the final whistle goes after their victory, they also know that it is a false picture and the opponents will possibly have the final laugh. So what’s the point of it?

 From a footballing point of view, there is no point to it. It brings in revenue and keeps the Provincial bodies intact and that is its only purpose.

The Back Door is the culmination of a policy of putting the provinces before the counties. How do they expect teams to build up any sense of development and progress when the whole fixture list is clogged and cluttered and there is never any of the radical streamlining demanded.

Take Armagh, who have the worst scope for preparation. There had been no county football since the previous Wexford game at Croke Park in early August. Then in January came the Mc Kenna Cup series involving the universities when the county had a skeleton staff with university and Rangers players off limits. From an Armagh perspective it is a pointless series in the dead of winter.

Then comes the national league with Rangers still out of bounds and another series of challenge games disguised as serious competition. Many commentators speak about the importance of divisional status as if it were a real championship, as in soccer, instead of a very secondary competition and conferring no real status. But from the point of view of getting a team into shape, the whole winter and spring is quite useless as the manager rarely has his full panel available. If they are not available how can a system be worked out?

And then, to put the final twist in things. As soon as he does get something solid going, the GAA present him with a meaningless first round of the championship.

I was beginning to think that Armagh should do a Kerry and aim toward peaking later in the championship. Kerry can afford to let themselves be beaten by Cork in the Munster Final as they have done in recent years and begin their championship surge in August (notice they never lose to Cork second time around.)

But then again, Armagh have another problem in this regard. Tyrone could have the same idea and remember fondly their beating at the hands of Down last year which was the making of them. In fact everybody, including of course Dublin and Galway, other victims from last year, could have the same idea and the first round of the championship will amount to new ways and means of losing. 

Readers will say that this is getting farcical. It’s true. But that’s what happens when trying to be logical with such a system. I remember back in 1989 having a series of articles published in the Irish Independent and the Irish News on a new fixtures structure where every county had up to six serious championship games before the knock out began.

I had two phone calls. One man from Offaly told me that what I had proposed was good but that it would never see the light of day as the provincial chiefs stand guard to anything that would intrude on their position.

 Another caller, a man from Antrim, said I was being disruptive and anti GAA and bringing elements of foreign games into a great and proud tradition. Then again, Antrim is different. Back door or front door makes no difference to them. 

Peter Makem