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New-look All-Ireland GAA format looks as boring as Qatar’s World Cup

Imagine only one county is eliminated from the group stages of the All-Ireland and Tailteann Cup – 24 matches for just four counties to go out.

Ray Connellan of Westmeath celebrates with the cup after the Tailteann Cup Final match between Cavan and Westmeath at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile© SPORTSFILE

Sean McGoldrickSunday World

SO far the World Cup has definitely been underwhelming.

Apart for the exploits of Saudi Arabia and Japan, the tournament has been forgettable. It is a bad sign when none football issues continue to set the agenda even though the matches are up and running.

And, as a warning, GAA fans should be mindful that the new look All-Ireland football championship bears a striking resemblance to the World Cup in terms of its format. It will be every bit as long winded and possibly as boring as the preliminary stages of the Qatar tournament.

After the completion of the provincial championships, the All-Ireland series will be split into two competitions, the Sam Maguire and the Tailteann Cup. Each will have 16 counties split into four groups with each containing four teams.

But whereas in the World Cup only the top two teams in each group advance to the last 16, in both the Sam Maguire and Tailteann Cup only one county is eliminated after the preliminary phase. The second and third placed counties meet in a preliminary quarter-final.

Essentially the GAA is playing 24 games in each competition in order to eliminate four counties.

It reduces the possibility of dead rubbers in the final round of games – which is likely to be a feature of the final round of group games in Qatar. But the GAA system still looks woefully cumbersome.

The World Cup scarcely impinged on the GAA world until Ireland finally qualified for the 1990 World Cup. Inevitably there were fixture clashes.

Unsurprisingly the Ulster GAA Council refused to compromise. This resulted in an overlap between the Donegal v Derry semi-final in Clones and the Republic of Ireland v Egypt World Cup tie in Palermo. I was dispatched to Clones.

The belligerent mood of the Ulster Council at the time was illustrated by an incident in the press box. An official ordered a colleague to turn off a portable television which was showing the soccer game.

Only a few thousand turned up to see the game which Donegal won comfortably 1-15; 0-8. Mind you, it was probably more entertaining than the 0-0 yawn in Italy.

My abiding memory of the day is hearing Eamon Dunphy’s famous rant on television about Jack Charlton’s tactics while I was writing my match report outside the Whitehorse Hotel in Cootehill.

Eamon Dunphy left the RTÉ panel after the 2018 World Cup. Image credit: Sportsfile.© SPORTSFILE

With World Cup fever sweeping the country – even though Ireland exited at the quarter-final stage – there were fears that the GAA could be overwhelmed. Then fate dealt Gaelic football a huge favour.

The epic four-match duel in the Leinster championship between Meath and Dublin in 1991 captured an entirely new audience for the GAA. Suddenly the GAA was sexy and it has never looked back since.

I will end with a personal anecdote about the World Cup and the GAA. The death on Thursday of former GAA President Sean McCague reminded me of the story.

On June 22, 1986 Monaghan, then managed by Sean McCague surrendered their provincial title in a replay to Down in Newcastle. I covered the game for the Irish Press.

Though I don’t remember anything about the actual game, I vividly remember the journey home to Dublin.

In those days the permanent border checkpoint on the road between Newry and Dundalk resembled Fort Knox. It was an intimidating and often frightening place to travel through.

On the drive home with a friend, we were trying to catch snatches of BBC Radio 5’s live commentary on the England v Argentina World Cup game in Mexico.

The reception was awful but from the tone of the British commentators we were able to understand that Maradona had scored a controversial goal – later dubbed the Hand of God goal – for Argentina.

It was still 1-0 to Argentina when we were stopped by a young British soldier at the checkpoint. He no more wanted to be there than we did and was more interested in the match in Mexico than checking my driving licence.

I was just telling him about Maradona’s controversial goal when the radio crackled into live again and we heard the live feed of Maradona’s celebrated solo goal.

Needless to say he wasn’t best pleased with the news. We had to hide our glee until we drove out of the checkpoint!

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