Oisín Mullin, who emerged as one of Mayo’s finest GAA stars during 2020, can look forward to 2021 with optimism and enthusiasm. PHOTO: SPORTSFILE

A shape of the GAA world to come

MARTIN CARNEY'S GAA COLUMN

In our world of Gaelic games we are left with barely a moment to reflect on what has elapsed before being forced to cast our eyes to the future and imagine what is to come.

While the memory of All-Ireland Saturday, December 19, is still fresh in our rear-view mirror we nonetheless have to look forward with a sense of anticipation and hope to a new season which begins in mid-February.

While nothing has been officially announced, sufficient leaks have given us a fairly accurate outline on the changes that are due next year.

In looking forward to the coming season I, like everyone else, am hoping that we will see a return to a games schedule where spectators are once again a normal part of the match day ritual and grounds become a restless cauldron where noise and atmosphere replaces the eerie sounds of silence with which we became too familiar during 2020.

In light of the recent announcements on travel restrictions, it may be some time before this wish is realised.

As per these new restrictions, elite sport may continue as before so senior inter-county panels, as far as I know, are allowed reassemble from the weekend of January 15 onwards.

From a Mayo perspective, this gives those who have soldiered to the recent All-Ireland final little time to recharge their batteries before once more having to engage with a season which, though short in many respects, will still bring fresh challenges.

From a playing personnel point of view all eyes will be on the new panel to see how many, if indeed any, of the veterans will still be involved.

Having made it clear last year that his focus was on building a new team, James Horan may continue in this vein and dispense with many of those who have given Mayo sterling service over the last decade or more. It’s a topic that will provoke much interest and debate.

But back to the senior football calendar.

That the GAA has split the county/club scene once again into two separate pockets is for the most part a good move.

My one misgiving is that the attendant publicity and promotional value for the code is compromised somewhat by staging the finals of the inter-county season in July.

The near exclusive traditional August/September slot always generated huge interest and captured the imagination of sports lovers countrywide, if for no other reason that there was nothing else to compete against it.

Now that the county scene straddles the period from February through July, club football has cornered an uninterrupted season from the weekend of June 24/25 until October 23/24.

The nett outcome is that both club and county can operate independently of one another and thrive as a consequence.

Unlike last year, the club season will continue with the club provincial championship, which will now conclude on the weekend of November 27/28.

This year it was a shame that Knockmore were deprived of the opportunity of competing in the province. With the quality they showed in capturing their first county title since 1997 it would have been a fair bet that they would have had a fruitful run and done themselves proud.

The All-Ireland club semi-finals will take place in December and the club final is surprisingly scheduled for early January 2022.

As far back as I can recall the FBD competition was the usual precursor to the serious business of league and championship in Connaught.

Ulster, in turn, had its McKenna Cup, Leinster the O’Byrne Cup and Munster the McGrath Cup where opportunities were afforded to players to reach match fitness before the more serious schedules of league and championship kicked off.

However, in the coming months, due to the ravages of Covid 19, I’m told, the GAA has in their wisdom decided to dispense with these competitions. Instead teams can now arrange their own challenge games from the beginning of February before the league commences later that month.

Division Two football

So it’s on the weekend of February 27/28 that the National League begins.

Mayo, for the first time in recent memory, won’t be competing in the top flight. Instead, as one of the eight teams in Division Two, we will have to compete in a competition where every division is split on a North and South geographical basis.

The aim here is to restrict the necessity of overnight travel so consequently Mayo will play their three regular season games against Meath, Westmeath and Down.

It is my understanding then that the top two teams in each divisional group will play a league semi-final followed by the final in the division to decide the league champions.

The extra dividend for these two is that they are promoted to Division One. Likewise relegation is the outcome for the teams that lose the bottom two playoff in their respective split division.

Championship 2021 will in some respects follow the lines of what we had in 2020 but with some alterations.

Due to the uncertainty surrounding Covid, New York will not participate in the upcoming Connaught championship, which incidentally starts in early April, but otherwise the competition will follow the provincial model nationwide. However, in contrast to last year there will be a ‘back door’ opportunity for every team that gets beaten along the way.

A new development next year to the championship is the introduction of the Tailteann Cup. Division Three and Division Four teams who are beaten in their provincial championships prior to the provincial final qualify for this competition.

A little complication is that neither Tipperary nor Cavan, both Division Three teams, can compete in the competition as they won their respective provincial finals this year!

New York may yet compete in this competition but if they do they will have to play all their games in Ireland.

One thing I fail to understand is to why the final is due to take place as a curtain raiser to the All-Ireland semi-finals on June 26 or 27.

I would have thought that a shared billing with the All-Ireland senior football final in July or on the same weekend of the final would have bestowed a greater relevance to the competition.

Anyhow, we will learn more about this next week when, hopefully, we will have a clearer picture of what’s to follow.

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