Derry bid to defy history as calls grow for change to unfair qualifier schedule
LAST Sunday morning, Derry footballers were giddy with excitement as they hoped to end a 13-year wait for the Ulster championship while still having two lives left in the All-Ireland race.
By 5.30pm this Saturday, their season may be over, having lost to Donegal in the Ulster final and to Kildare in the All-Ireland qualifiers.
It could be termed the six-day turnaround from hell, one which 11 teams have endured since the introduction of the qualifiers 10 years ago.
Only one county -- Dublin in 2001 -- have won a fourth-round qualifier game six days after losing a provincial final, underlying just how difficult it is to recharge the batteries so soon after a big disappointment.
Forcing counties to play on the weekend after losing a provincial final became such a controversial issue over the last two years that Monaghan, who themselves were victims last year, brought a motion to Congress last April, proposing a minimum 13-day gap.
It won on a 60-40 vote but was rejected because it didn't receive the two-thirds majority required to change a rule.
It leaves Derry facing a massive task in Croke Park on Saturday, a fate which would also have befallen Roscommon except for the Wicklow-Armagh second-round qualifier draw. That forced the Armagh-Tyrone Round 3 game back to this weekend, giving Roscommon a 13-day gap before they face the winners.
It's a lucky break, one which eluded Derry who are trying to re-energise themselves after last Sunday's defeat to be ready for a Kildare team that have two morale-boosting qualifier wins behind them over the last two Saturdays.
Sligo and Antrim were, over the last two years, among the counties who experienced the difficulty of facing into Round 4 qualifiers on the weekend after losing a provincial final and insist that it's extremely difficult.
Sligo manager Kevin Walsh said that it can be especially hard for a team that had genuinely expected to win a provincial final to refocus so quickly. Sligo were favourites against Roscommon in last year's Connacht final and, having lost by a point, were easy pickings for Down in the qualifiers, losing by 19 points.
"We needed a bit of time to get ourselves sorted out after losing so narrowly to Roscommon," Walsh said.
"We did all we could but six days wasn't enough. You think you're okay and that you've picked things up but when you come up against a team who have a few wins behind them, it can unravel quite easily."
Antrim captain Kevin O'Boyle experienced the quick turnaround after losing the 2009 Ulster final to Tyrone, facing up to Kerry the following Sunday. Antrim played quite well but lost by five points.
"You nearly always have a few injury niggles after a provincial final and they feel that bit worse when you've lost. It's hard to get ready for another big game in six days or even a week, especially against a team that's on a roll," said O'Boyle.
Both Walsh and O'Boyle believe that in the interests of fairness, the scheduling should be changed.
"Why is it that the beaten Connacht and Ulster finalists are out again in six days every year?" asked Walsh. "Roscommon got lucky this year because of the delay in the earlier rounds, but otherwise they would be out again on Saturday. How come Leinster and Munster finalists get a break every year?"
O'Boyle pointed to Cork, who will have had a three-week break between losing the Munster final and playing Down in the qualifiers. "It gives Cork a chance to work on things in training while also being able to study the opposition in detail. There's a big difference between that and having to play again in six days, which Derry have to do," he said.
Ulster Council president Aogan Farrell said that the scheduling which left beaten Ulster and Connacht finalists facing the quick turnaround for the third successive year would have to be examined.
"If it's necessary to play Round 4 so soon after provincial finals -- and in fairness there are severe fixture pressures everywhere -- it's only fair to look at rotation among the provinces so that all four of them take their turn with the quick turnaround," he said.
However, he defended Ulster's practice of playing their championships on successive weekends rather than doubling up with a few games and playing the final earlier.
"We can't start any earlier and, anyway, the counties want to play the Ulster championship on a match-by-match basis over successive weekends," he said.
The six-day turnaround for beaten provincial finalists applied between 2001 and '04, after which counties were guaranteed a minimum 13-day gap. However, the GAA reverted to the six-day system in '09 after complaints from counties that club programmes were being badly disrupted by the championship format.
Galway, Sligo (Connacht), Antrim, Monaghan and Derry (Ulster) have been the unlucky victims since then, while Roscommon were saved by the Wicklow-Armagh draw. Roscommon's tie with Armagh or Derry had to go back by a week, raising the question of why Derry couldn't be similarly facilitated.
Walsh said: "It's not impossible to win in six days but the results over the years speak for themselves."
O'Boyle believes that the poor returns by those forced into the six-day turnaround is now proving to be something of a psychological block.
"The more teams see how hard it is to get ready, the harder it becomes. You'd have to think there's a better way of running the championship than forcing a team who lost a provincial final back into action six days later," he said.
Tom Carr's Dublin (2001) are the only county to have won a fourth-round qualifier tie on the weekend after losing a provincial final since the back door was opened 10 years ago. Eleven others tried and failed, mostly on a six-day turnaround:
Dublin (beat Sligo 3-17 to 0-12)
Cork (lost to Galway 1-14 to 1-10)
Tipperary (lost to Mayo 0-21 to 1-14)
Down (lost to Donegal 3-15 to 2-10)
Limerick (lost to Armagh 4-10 to 0-11)
Kildare (lost to Roscommon 1-18 to 0-19, after extra-time)
Limerick (lost to Derry 0-10 to 0-7)
Laois (lost to Tyrone 3-15 to 2-4)
Galway (lost to Donegal 0-14 to 0-13)
Antrim (lost to Kerry 2-12 to 1-10)
Sligo (lost to Down 3-20 to 0-10)
Monaghan (lost to Kildare 1-15 to 1-11)