Why Gaelic's BIG THREE dwarf the rest
As Tyrone and Armagh prepare for tomorrow's second All-Ireland semi-final, Colm Keys reveals how the two Ulster teams and Kerry are so far ahead of their rivals
The structures of Gaelic football inter-county competitions have undergone great change in the new millennium with the advent of a qualifier system that has allowed beaten teams in the provincial championships back into the mainstream championship for the All-Ireland title.
When it finally dawned on the game's decision-makers back in 2000 how unfair it was on an inter-county player - who could train for up to eight months of the year, sometimes in the worst of weather - to revolve his whole life around playing for his county team and then perhaps play just one game, a new system was devised and football hasn't looked back.
Consequently, we've seen the arrival of what are best described as 'new world' Gaelic football teams.
Westmeath availed of the 'back door' route in 2001, the first year of the new system, reached an All-Ireland quarter-final and three years later were crowned Leinster champions for the first time.
Last year Fermanagh, one of three remaining counties that have never won a provincial title, scaled the dizzy heights of an All-Ireland semi-final having made it to the All-Ireland quarter-final a year earlier. Again they threaded a path through the maze of qualifiers after losing an Ulster championship game taking advantage of the system at their disposal.
Other counties with little or no ambition in football in the past have woken up to the prospect of the second chance and seized it for a bit of adventure. Roscommon surfed the waves of the qualifiers in 2003 to reach an All-Ireland quarter-final while Wexford and Monaghan have, over the last two years, also raised their profile through successful 're-entry' into the championship.
It leaves the impression that more teams now have a greater chance of landing the biggest prize in the game and in theory that's how it looks. The reality is altogether different.
Before a ball was kicked in championship 2005 only three teams were touted as potential All-Ireland champions by any pundit or realistic Gaelic football supporter. Any other opinion was founded on fantasy or obscure loyalty.
Now in the first week of September with the football championship down to two matches those opinions have been well-founded. The same three teams touted at the beginning are left standing at the end.
A veritable power struggle has developed between Kerry, Tyrone and Armagh - the last three All-Ireland champions - that mirrors the great inevitability of the Chelsea/Manchester United/Arsenal Premiership axis of dominance across the water.
Tyrone and Armagh meet in the second All-Ireland semi-final tomorrow, the winners advance to an All-Ireland final three weeks later against Kerry, the great aristocrats of the game.
It's a mouth-watering prospect, north versus south, a perceived clash of style and a test to decide which county really holds the balance of power over the last four years.
Armagh/Tyrone rivalry spans the decades but it's only in the last three years that a new front between this northern duopoly and the very southwest of Ireland has been opened.
In the struggle for power and the desire to better each other at every opportunity Gaelic football's unholy trinity have put even greater distance between themselves and the rest.
Consider these statistics. Tyrone, Kerry and Armagh all share equally the last six mainstream national titles (league and championship) on offer. Tyrone added the 2003 league title to their All-Ireland title that year, Kerry did the double last year (2004) while Armagh claimed a first league title to place beside their championship triumph in 2002. For good measure Tyrone were league champions in 2002. So none of the last seven major national titles at senior level have gone to a county outside this trio.
The gap that has opened has never been more forcefully illustrated than in the last few weeks when all three advanced to their semi-finals, and in Kerry's case the final, with consummate ease.
True, Tyrone needed a replay to see off Dublin. But coming off the back of a congested run through Ulster, that was little surprise. When they got a second chance they took it emphatically and with Armagh's destruction of Laois and Kerry's dismantling of Cork in the semi-finals, the 'big three' have got to where they are most impressively.
It can been argued that there hasn't been such quantifiable dominance of Gaelic football since Kerry and Dublin had it sewn up between them for the latter half of the 1970s. More counties such as Westmeath, Limerick, Sligo, Laois, Wexford and Fermanagh may be playing to a higher football than ever before. But the leading bunch has reacted and applied the pressure at the head of the 'peleton'.
So why have the rest been struggling in their wake? There are many strong similarities between the three, including style - something that aficionados of Kerry football may dispute.
First there's the issue of management. Is it a coincidence that when all three won their All-Ireland titles over the last three years they were guided by managers in their first year? Joe Kernan, Mickey Harte and Jack O'Connor were all tasting success having only been installed into their positions 10 months earlier. They each display ruthless characteristics in their own inimitable ways.
There are strong thirtysomething characters in each squad too, all playing football since the early 1990s who still have the drive to chase the major honours. Where Armagh have Kieran McGeeney and Paul McGrane, Kerry have Darragh O Se and Seamus Moynihan and Tyrone have Peter Canavan and Brian Dooher.
They also have undoubtedly the three 'stand-out' forwards in the game at present, players eminently capable of finishing any tussle on their own terms. Kerry's Colm Cooper, Tyrone's Stephen O'Neill and Armagh's Steven McDonnell stand apart from the rest as the game's best marksmen.
Each county has a strong support network. Tyrone's County Board is considered one of the moststreamlined and efficient in the country. In Club Tyrone there are a network of businesses and sponsors only too willing to offer the financial support required to run a county team.
Armagh are even superior fundraisers. Their sponsor, Hugh Morgan of Morgan Fuels, is so closely tied to the team that sometimes he carries bags of balls from the dressing-room after games. There are other major benefactors to Armagh football who don't see putting up cash as a problem, allowing the players every facility and, in some cases, covering lost revenue for time devoted to football.
Kerry, too, has an efficient county board and in their chairman Sean Walsh they have an officer devoted to what's best for the team. There are no agendas to what Walsh does. He wants what he feels and hears is best for a Kerry football team.
But the strongest reason for the gulf that has developed in recent years is a question of style and attitude. Armagh developed the template, Tyrone advanced it and now Kerry are taking elements of it to blend into their game. The contrast in styles is seen in black and white by many as a north versus south issue.
But having lost to Armagh in 2002 and Tyrone a year later, it's quite evident that Kerry have changed their style to equip themselves for what it takes to meet these northern teams on their terms.
Significantly, Kerry's work rate has increased, their tackling is harder and some elements of the 'beautiful game' they are traditionally renowned for have disappeared.
In three weeks we'll know who has learned most from the last three years and who has evolved best from the power struggle. In time the rest will catch up. But for now, as Gaelic football's poor become richer, so too do the rich themselves.