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Seán Moran: If you think this season needs an overhaul, take a glance backwards

Problems remain but the player and spectator experiences have been transformed this century

A weekend of sunshine and surprises gave the championship an immense lift. For a few weeks, the outlook had been bleak. Low attendances and dismal weather combined or interacted to give the new season a low-key or even depressive opening.

Dissatisfaction with the provincial football championships began as a low rumble that picked up volume, as Leinster and Munster were arraigned on charges of dysfunction. Based on last year with cumulative winning margins of 35 points in the respective finals, neither was able to offer much persuasive evidence in their defence.

This century has seen extraordinary flux in both scheduling and intercounty formats. We are on year two of the current calendar arrangements. The imperative to fix the fixtures for clubs produced an abbreviated intercounty championship season with a greatly expanded club footprint.

For all the laments about the loss of autumn weeks and their unopposed opportunities for promotion, the consequence that means most in Croke Park is the sudden clarity of club fixture timetables.


Those unhappy with the condensed intercounty season have argued that if county committees grew a backbone, they could enforce whatever schedules they chose. Of course, that had always been the case.

Thirty years ago this month, then director general Liam Mulvihill in his annual report to the 1994 congress zoned in on the issue.

“While we have two marvellous field games and an excellent indoor game to offer, we are not giving our club players sufficient regular games and this has to be one of the priorities of county committees and of all in charge of our fixtures programmes.”

Yet nothing was done to address the problem until the current timetables were unveiled two years ago. Talk, of itself, materialises nothing.

The same caveat could be applied to GAA president Jarlath Burns’s musings on the possibility of getting the All-Ireland finals back to September. As he emphasised, the way to enable this was to agree a standardised club schedule for all counties.

Unfortunately – and the president more or less accepted as much – this is very much in the category of hypothesis, like my intention to buy a luxury holiday home as soon as I win the lotto.

Looking at the provincial championships, another observation of the president came to mind. He didn’t hold that office at the time but Burns created a context for competitive imbalance by pointing out that most teams in GAA championships are never going to win them or reach a final. They compete in hope of ‘one fine day’.

When it happens, whether beating a larger neighbouring club or getting farther than you have in decades, that becomes as joyful a celebration as lifting a trophy is for a regularly successful team.

This year, we have witnessed that sort of win for the Waterford footballers, as they defeated Tipperary for the first time in 36 years. That goes into the championship ledger even though Clare shut down their season a week later.

In hurling there are already Last Post’s being sounded for Cork and Clare, who play each other next Sunday after losing their opening match, with whoever comes out worse already being measured for a shroud.

That would mean the season is effectively over by the end of April even if formalities lasted for another month. I remember the abruptness of the first provincial round-robin championship in 2018 when Dublin beat Offaly on the weekend of the June bank holiday despite which both of their seasons expired there and then.

Nonetheless, these years of experimentation have brought such improvements. Go back that 30 years to when Mulvihill was still highlighting the unsatisfactory state of club fixtures.

The whole championship was run on a knockout format. One slip and you were out. Two snapshots from the same day, May 29th 1994: Clare that year ambushed league winners Tipperary, consigning them to oblivion before May was finished. A crowd of 18,215 attended Tipp’s only championship match that year.

Last weekend there were 20,055 in Ennis to see this year’s league winners go down in a match that was only the first in a series of four each for both Clare and Limerick. More matches, more opportunity and bigger crowds.

In an interview with the BBC, Burns named the 1994 Ulster quarter final between Derry and Down, also played on May 29th, as the best football match he’d ever seen – a view that was widespread at the time.

All-Ireland champions Derry had to fold their tents and not be seen again until the following season. At the same venue last Saturday, that team’s modern heirs sustained an unexpected defeat, expertly contrived by Jim McGuinness’s Donegal.

Now, however, the league winners simply head into camp for another four weeks and may have up to seven matches left in their championship.

Championship reform is dynamic and will evolve further in the years ahead. Each evolution is imperfect but modern formats have immeasurably improved the championship experience for players and spectators.

A glance backwards will confirm as much.