20,000 League formats under the microscope

His brand of gum, Doublemint. Trying to double your fun, eh, Bart? Well, I’ll double your detention. Heh. I wish someone was around to hear that.

Seymour Skinner, The Simpsons

I know how Skinner felt recently. Commenting on a retrospective on Eurogamer about the video game marvel that was Formula One Grand Prix, I noted that “the amazing thing about F1GP is how fully formed it was the first time round”. It’s a splendidly succinct observation about a truly great piece of video game history. So good that I’m going to recycle the thought for this piece on the turmoil engulfing the GAA in trying to find the correct format for the National Hurling League. Because the amazing thing about the NHL is that it isn’t fully formed even at the 81st time of asking. You could say that the NHL isn’t fit for purpose, except that would assume that anyone knows what it’s purpose is. For some, it’s handy preparation for the Championship. For others, it’s a vehicle for developing weaker counties. And for a few honest folk it’s a pain to be endured rather than enjoyed. The only thing everyone agrees is that it isn’t a competition worth winning in its own right, except on the day of the final. In an ideal world we would put the NHL out of its misery and move on to something better.

But hanging over any proposal to radically reform the GAA calendar is the fear that things could get a whole lot worse. Periodically someone online will come up with a convoluted proposal which involves abolishing the League and introducing a Champions League-style format for the Championship. Several pages of argument will follow with the argument being nitpicked to death by those who broadly agree with it and being bludgeoned to death by those ridiculing the amount of pointless games being generated for no improvement – weak counties will still get stuffed and the Big Three will still come out ahead. The argument will peter out, then zombie-like return a few months later with a new poster proclaiming that this time they’d got it right and anyone who disagrees sucks. And is probably gay.

Accepting a Panglossian view of the GAA calendar, the next question is how to make the NHL the least worst it can be. The first step is surely for the people who decide these things to know what it is they are voting for. Back in 2006, Congress rubber-stamped a proposal to direct any Division Four teams knocked out of their provincial championship into the Tommy Murphy Cup without giving them a second chance in the qualifiers. It became apparent that few people had bothered to look at their stamp as the realisation of what this meant hit home when the Championship came around. And we had something similar with this year’s changes to the NHL. How can a change get through despite being so universally reviled that Limerick can threaten to boycott next year’s League and not be told to stop being so stupid? The philosophy in the GAA seems to be to accept whatever the Central Council propose. If it works, fine. If it doesn’t, blame the big bad Central Council. The notion of thinking for yourself does not seem to apply.

So accepting that that there’s no ideal system, what’s the best system? It might be a result of being a child of the 80’s but the system that pertained in that decade is the one that appeals to me most – it certainly can’t have been Waterford’s performance in the League, padded out as our win rate was by being able to play in Division 3. While I hesitate to ally myself with the charming men who fret about lost revenue, that has to be a strike against six-team divisions from only as few as two home matches. Add in the truncated feel of a group with only five matches, reduced opportunity for blooding new players, and condemning developing counties to only ever playing each other before being bounced into the matches from the big counties – inevitably being followed by being bounced back out again – then it’s hard to see what anyone sees in the six-team setup.

Oh, that’s right – self-preservation. The sheer panic that enveloped counties in recent years at the prospect of being banished from the elite eight-team Division 1 would have made a Japanese horror film maker recoil with fright. The prospect of relegation – and let’s be honest here, Waterford are looking vulnerable now that we don’t have Dublin to kick around any more – looks less scary now that there are going to be two or three other top order counties in Division 1B. There would have been a simple way of reducing this fear in an eight-team setup though, a solution that was acceptable in the 80’s but seems to have passed everyone by this time around – have two teams promoted and relegated. Having scoffed at Limerick’s suggestion that they might boycott the League, it has to be said they have a point when they complain that they bust their hump getting out of Division 2 only to be told that they’d now have to play in Division 1.5. Waterford lost the Division 4 football final two years ago having topped the table. Imagine the furore had we been told we would now have to play Division 4 football again the following, a fate that befell Clare when they topped the NHL Division 2 that same year. Why do the GAA think it makes sense to make it so hard to get into the top division? Had they just let two teams go up, I’d hazard that there would be no clamour for six-team divisions.

Yet that is what we have, and that’s final. 2012 will see Waterford play five really tough games and in 2013 . . . God knows, because we’ll have a brand new format. Maybe we’ll stumble upon the right format eventually. But it’s about as likely as a new episode of The Simpsons coming up with a memorable quote.