Westmeath votes in favour of revolutionary football championship proposals

After a low-key discussion on Wednesday night, Westmeath GAA clubs backed the much-talked-about ‘Option B’ proposal for a radical reform of inter-county football championships, which will be voted on at the GAA’s forthcoming Special Congress on October 23.

The proposal, supported by Westmeath’s senior players, would separate the provincial and All-Ireland championships and see the latter concluded as early as July (see our panel below for an in-depth explanation of what ‘Option B’ would mean for Westmeath).

At Wednesday night’s first ‘in-person’ county board meeting since the outbreak of Covid-19, which took place at the Mullingar Park Hotel, there was a relatively low attendance of delegates – 37 out of a potential 69 – a surprising development, given the revolutionary nature of the changes proposed.

Chairman Frank Mescall, in initiating the discussion, said that he assumed that “clubs and delegates were familiar with the contents of the two motions which were radical and innovative proposals that will bring significant change”.

Des Maguire, chairman of the football committee, was the first to reply, and informed delegates that both Jack Cooney, Westmeath’s senior football manager, and the senior county players had voted in favour of ‘Option B’. It provided more games, more worthwhile competition and had the potential to create ‘a more positive training environment.’ It was also his own preferred choice.

Caulry delegate Ger O’Kelly Lynch expressed a concern about the impact ‘Option B’ would have on the provincial championships referencing the fond memories Westmeath supporters had of the county’s lone provincial title.

Mr O’Kelly Lynch said that he did not want to see the Leinster SFC become “a virtual O’Byrne Cup”. It was great to win “a provincial title in high summer as opposed to a winter tournament” and it would be “terrible to lose the chance of winning a decent provincial title”, he added.

Westmeath GAA Operations Manager Patrick Doherty expressed some concern about what he termed the ‘unanswered points’ associated with the ‘Option B’ proposals. The impact of the changes on the finances of the association had not been addressed or explained. There was a need for caution as clubs and counties had benefited from the funding supplied by the provincial councils.

Mr Doherty was also concerned about the impact the playing calendar associated with the proposal would have on the Westmeath calendar. “Would it allow us to play our championships as currently structured?” he wondered. “We don’t want to end up with unintended consequences of change and to immediately have to change our championship structures.”

Aiden McGuire (The Downs) also expressed similar reservations.

“The club window is becoming squeezed again; there is not a hope in hell of continuing with these championships if either motion succeeds,” Mr Maguire explained. He said that The Downs club was not in favour of either motion, adding that “the survival of the provincial councils is at stake and this had financial consequences for the Westmeaths of the GAA world”.

Mr McGuire expressed his belief that it would be far better in the long term to a have an ‘A’ and ‘B’ All-Ireland championship with a promotion and relegation system in operation.

Despite the concerns about the future of the provincial structures, no delegate attempted to make a case for ‘Option A’, which retained the provincial championships as part of the All-Ireland championships, albeit in a restructured format.

Westmeath Central Council delegate Tom Hunt suggested that the ‘Option B’ proposals were effectively an ‘A’ and ‘B’ championship. as the Tailteann Cup was a ‘B’ championship equivalent. The proposed new system was “a merit-based championship” with counties competing at their own level for a place in the All-Ireland championship or the Tailteann Cup.

The average winning margins in the 2021 football championship were the highest since the early 1900s, Dr Hunt informed the delegates, and there was need for championship reform.

Vinny Cox (Rosemount) had concerns about the impact the proposed changes would have on clubs, and their ability to retain players over the summer months with very little club activity.

Mr Cox said that while county players might be in favour of ‘Option B’, they constituted less than five per cent of the playing population. They might have more games but the remaining 95 per cent could have less and less games. The “squeezed season” with championships possibly not starting until mid-August had the potential to initiate a “mass exodus of players”.

Barry Kelly (Mullingar Shamrocks) questioned the wisdom of including the winners of Division 4 in the knock-out stages of the proposed new series as he focused on the “inequalities and anomalies involved in Option B that pitted what was the 24th or 25th best team in the competition against one of the top teams in the country”. Nobody would dare suggest doing this in the Westmeath championship.

Chairman Frank Mescall justified the inclusion of the top team from Division 4, as it allowed all teams compete for the Sam Maguire Cup.

At this stage the less than enthusiastic debate concluded; the delegates unanimously rejected the proposed ‘Option A’ and the 37 delegates present voted on a 20-13 majority with four abstaining to support ‘Option B’ at the Special Congress.

Frank Mescall, Pat Reilly and Pat Doherty were approved by the delegates to attend Congress, as well as Central Council delegate Tom Hunt.

What ‘Option B’ would mean for Westmeath

If ‘Option B’ is to succeed at the Special Congress, it will need to get 60 per cent of the delegates votes. If this happens, the Leinster SFC will become a standalone competition with no connection to the All-Ireland SFC.

The Leinster championship will be played in February and March on a round-robin home and away basis with one group of five teams and one group of six teams. The top two teams in each group will play criss-cross semi-finals and the winners play in the Leinster final provisionally scheduled for the first week in April.

The All-Ireland championship based on the National League structure will begin on the second weekend in April and conclude on the third weekend in July. Westmeath are in Division 3 and if the team tops the group promotion to Division 2 will be the reward and a place in the Sam Maguire Cup starting with a preliminary quarter-final against either the second or third team of Division 2. The winner will then play a quarter final against one of the teams finishing in the top five of Division 1 or the top team of Division 2. The inter-county season will be over for the loser.

If Westmeath do not win Division 3, the county will compete in the Tailteann Cup with the other 6 non-qualifying teams from Division 6 and the seven teams of Division 4 and New York. The Tailteann Cup is provisionally scheduled to begin on the second weekend in June with the final scheduled for the weekend of the Sam Maguire final, the third weekend in July.

Under the proposed ‘Option B’, Westmeath would be guaranteed a minimum of 12 competitive matches. This is a worst-case scenario. If Westmeath were draw in the Leinster group of six and qualified for the Leinster final and followed this by reaching the final of the Tailteann Cup (or the later stages of the All-Ireland championship) this would involve a programme of 18 games stretching from the last weekend in January to the third weekend in July.