Monday 16 October 2017

Back door needs re-painting

Growing air of negativity around football qualifier system is bad for the championship

Seanie Furlong celebrates Wicklow’s shock victory over Down at Aughrim in 2009 when the Garden County enjoyed one of the great qualifier runs, but the so-called weaker counties have struggled to make an impact since then and the system is in need of a revamp. Picture credit: Damien Eagers / Sportsfile
Seanie Furlong celebrates Wicklow’s shock victory over Down at Aughrim in 2009 when the Garden County enjoyed one of the great qualifier runs, but the so-called weaker counties have struggled to make an impact since then and the system is in need of a revamp. Picture credit: Damien Eagers / Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

The ejection seats have been fitted and are awaiting activation on Saturday, when four counties will be sent hurtling into football championship oblivion for 2017.

The losers of Wicklow v Laois, Sligo v Antrim, Louth v Longford and Waterford v Derry will have their season completed four days before mid-summer's day, with four others facing the cull a week later.

In a clear example of structural dysfunction at its most pronounced, Sligo will have played their third championship game 21 hours before Roscommon have their first outing against Leitrim in the Connacht semi-final on Sunday.

Still, it's better that the pre-qualifier days when some counties were gone from the championships by mid-May. It seems a long time ago now but, prior to 2001, there was no reprieve after a provincial defeat.

heavyweights Hurling had dispensed with the non-negotiable knockout system in 1997 when beaten Leinster and Munster finalists were added to the All-Ireland mix through the introduction of quarter-finals.

When the football qualifier system was proposed in the summer of 2000, opposition forces lined up against the plan to allow all counties beaten in the provincial championships back into the All-Ireland series.

Indeed, among the heavyweights who spoke against the idea at a Special Congress were Galway and Meath. The majority took a different view and voted in the biggest change the championship had ever experienced.

Ironically, 11 months later, Galway were All-Ireland winners, having negotiated their way through the 'back door' after losing to Roscommon in the Connacht semi-final. In a double-irony, they beat Meath, who had qualified via the direct route, in the final.

There was a real sense of novelty around the qualifiers in the early years as counties who had never previously met in the championship clashed in big summer action.

Playing most of the games on Saturdays was also new and appealing. And when a lower-ranked county pulled off an unexpected win or went on a run which took them to heights they had never previously experienced, the qualifiers were regarded as major success.

Fermanagh supporters will never forget 2004 when the Charlie Mulgrew-managed side made it all the way to the All-Ireland semi-finals, beating Meath, Cork, Donegal and Armagh on the way. The great adventure continued when Fermanagh drew with Mayo before ending with a two-point defeat in the replay.

It was the most exciting year in Fermanagh's history, made possible by the qualifiers and a self-belief that grew as they went.

The summer of 2006 is still fondly regarded in Longford who plotted a course to Round 4 of the qualifiers where they drew Kerry. It seemed like all of Longford travelled to Killarney on that late July Saturday and while the fairytale ended with a nine-point defeat, the memories remain.

In 2009, Wicklow enjoyed their best-ever championship, thanks to three memorable Saturday evenings in Aughrim where Mick O'Dwyer's magic dust inspired the team to beat Fermanagh, Cavan and Down.

The whole county buzzed with excitement and while Kildare ruined the party next time out, Wicklow had still done something special by their standards.

There have several one-off surprises in the qualifiers over the years too, the value of which should not be underestimated.

Despite all that, the attitude to the qualifiers has become increasingly negative in recent years. Even some senior GAA figures have questioned whether they are any longer fit for purpose.

If 'fit for purpose' means breaking the monopoly of the strong counties, they are not fulfilling their role, but how could they? It was always fanciful to expect a different championship format to impact significantly on standards.

The qualifiers' basic function is to ensure that every county gets a minimum of two championship games each year. Beyond that, it's up to squads to make things happen for themselves.

Blaming the qualifiers for problems they didn't create is the height of folly. Just because less successful counties haven't bridged the gap between themselves and the top on a continuous basis doesn't mean that the 'back door' hasn't worked. Granted, some counties at the lower end of the scale have made little progress in the qualifiers. Waterford and London have won just one qualifier each in 16 seasons; Leitrim have had two wins, Carlow and Antrim five each.

However, higher up the line, Longford, who beat Down and Monaghan last year, have won 16 of 32; Fermanagh 15 of 28, Laois 20 of 32, Derry 24 of 37, Kildare 24 of 35 and Westmeath 13 of 27.

The back-door system is far from perfect but since it's a follow-on to a lopsided provincial format limitations are inevitable. Nonetheless, it still has a valuable role but a lick of paint would help the cause in terms of marketing and promotion by counties themselves.

Indo Sport

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