'Gang of four' look set to pull away from peloton
Published 06/08/2014 | 02:30
For the first time last month the same counties that claimed provincial success at senior level doubled up as minor champions.
Should Donegal and Dublin frank the form and favouritism in the remaining All-Ireland quarter-finals this weekend then there will be identical minor/senior All-Ireland semi-finals in the following weeks – Kerry v Mayo and Donegal v Dublin.
In the era of qualifiers at senior level and the capacity for a team to lose twice at minor level and still stay alive in that competition, it would be a remarkable achievement.
But it is also an indication as to how success is breeding success. Not only are the respective minor teams mirroring their senior teams in terms of success, but they are mirroring the way they are playing too.
It is quite a statistic that only two of the last 16 provincial titles have rested outside the 'group of four' that now look like they have a stranglehold on Gaelic football.
Monaghan's Ulster success in 2013 (when they beat Donegal) and Cork's 2012 victory are the exceptions, with both Mayo and Dublin completing a four-in-a-row since 2011.
The strength of the provincial champions in the last four years contrasts with the situation in 2010, when not one of the eight provincial finalists reached an All-Ireland semi-final as Cork, Dublin, Kildare and Down weaved their way through three rounds of qualifiers each before winning their All-Ireland quarter-finals.
The death knell for the provincial championships was sounded loudly at the time – only two years earlier Cork were the only provincial champions to reach an All-Ireland semi-final – with then Kerry manager Jack O'Connor and Tyrone's Mickey Harte leading the call for change.
"It's an unfair system and the proof of the pudding is there for all to see because the eight provincial finalists are now all gone out of the championship and the teams who have the match practice and the momentum through the back door are through to the semi-finals," said Harte at the time.
But such a scenario was transient and the primacy of the provincial championship has been restored.
Since 2010 Monaghan are the only provincial champions who have not reached the penultimate stages. Should Dublin and Donegal oblige on Saturday evening, the same pairings that featured in 2011 will be confirmed and, for Dublin, that will be a fifth consecutive semi-final, one short of the six-in-a-row the team of the 1970s enjoyed.
Nothing stays in place forever and, in time, the strength of the existing 'group of four' will weaken. But, backed up by resourceful and talented minor teams, they have engineered a nice little break to distance themselves from the peloton.