Happy New Year everybody. All that we ask in return is for you to respect our discipline in navigating the entire year (thus far) without mentioning the GAA fixtures list.
Anyway, we're officially back to work today so it's time once again to speak of it. (Sorry). The 2018 fixture list is revolutionary on a number of fronts, even leaving aside the fact it actually began in 2017.
The GAA have compressed a record number of matches into a shorter year, with April supposedly clear for club activities and the All-Ireland finals hauled back into August.
While not quite the casually-rip-it-up-and-start-again-while-nobody-is-watching-during-the-winter approach taken to the hurling championship, there have been a number of major changes wrought to the football championship, too.
The most obvious is the expansion of the quarter-finals from one-off turkey shoots to a round-robin format given the incongruously bombastic title of Super 8s. For the first time, each quarter-finalist will play three games: one at home, one away and one at Croke Park. This year, the Munster and Connacht championships will form a group with either the runners-up of the Ulster and Leinster championships or their qualifier conquerors; the second group will include the Leinster and Ulster champions along with the winners of the fourth round qualifiers featuring the Connacht and Munster championship runners-up.
Much of the criticism of the Super 8s has focused on a perceived favouritism to the elite teams in the country, with little to the restructure to help the
so-called weaker counties.
The bloating of the fixtures in step with the compression of the calendar to facilitate the revamp, however, has had a few subtle knock-on effects which may yet lead to the greatest change of all in the football championships.
One of the stumbling blocks to the organisation of a separate 'B' championship or a seeded, Champions League-style format in the football championship has been the power wielded by the provincial councils, and their desire to retain the provincial championships as integral to the running of the All-Ireland championships.
It is impossible to segregate the championships with the provincial championships providing the basis for the All-Ireland series, however, meaning that if we are ever to have substantial change, the power of these provincial councils needs to be lessened.
Consider these comments in 2015 from the outgoing Munster chairman, Sean Fogarty.
I would have been a huge advocate of the provincial championships when I was chairman, but now I am looking at it from the viewpoint of a neutral and my belief is that provincial championships, bar Ulster, have had their day.
With the running of our championships, the buck should stop with Central Council. It doesn’t. The four provincial councils are the all-powerful bodies. Central Council have to work with what they get and what comes out of provincial councils. That is the tail wagging the dog.
Provincial councils have too much power....
...We won’t get change, I think, until Central Council take over all responsibility for the running of all our championships. We won’t get change while we still have the same power vested in the provincial councils....
....I attended so many first-round Munster championship games, quarter-finals and semi-finals as Munster chairman. They were a pain, a waste of a Sunday. It was a penance to have to go to some of those games. I was at some quarter-finals and semi-finals and there was ludicrous scorelines which leaves you wondering why these teams should be in the same competition.
The new championship structure, however, has hinted a subtle and slow erosion of such influence. Up to now, the Ulster Council have persisted with their tradition of playing one game per weekend, meaning that the competition takes almost two months to complete.
Such custom has caused controversy even in the last couple of years, most notably in 2016. Tyrone and Cavan drew their Ulster semi-final on June 19th, with the replay fixed for two weeks later, on July 3rd, owing to the second semi-final being staged the following weekend.
This would cause havoc for the losers of the replay, who would face a zany five games in July to make it to the All-Ireland semi-finals. In spite of pleas by the GAA to fix the replay for the following Sunday. In the end, with the second semi-final drawn as well, the Ulster Council fixed both replays for July 3rd and July 2nd respectively.
That was one of just four occasions that there have been two Ulster championship games fixed for the same weekend over the last ten years. And only once has neither of those games been a replay: last year, when the preliminary round on May 20th prefaced the Donegal/Antrim quarter-final on the following day.
Under the new schedule, however, the Ulster championship has been compressed into six weeks, with more 'doubling up' than ever before. Donegal and Cavan meet in the preliminary round on May 13th, with Fermanagh/Armagh down for May 19th and Tyrone/Monaghan scheduled for the following day.
The second set of quarter-finals are on the same weekend, too: Down/Antrim is on May 26th, while the winners of the preliminary round face Derry on the following day.
The semi-finals are on June 3rd and 10th, with the final a fortnight after the second semi-final.
It's a small, subtle change, but it could be the first tiny step in a major change.