Provincial winners deserve safety net for integrity's sake
Q UALITY control experts might take a disinfectant to the suggestion that this is the most interesting All-Ireland football championship for many years -- but who cares?
They are entitled to question the actual standard and to claim that the apparent scrapping of demarcation lines between teams from the four NFL Divisions is due as much to the top layer dropping back as the rest trading up.
It probably is a mixture of both, but there's no doubt that several top counties, including Kerry, Tyrone, Galway, Mayo, Armagh, Meath and Laois are not as good as they were during their peak times in the last decade. As for Cork and Dublin, they are still in the All-Ireland race so the season could yet end up in triumph for one or other, but it still doesn't mean that they are substantially better than their predecessors. It could be that their timing is more fine-tuned.
Still, comparative standards are a debate for the closed season -- for now let's relish the freshness of a semi-final line-up that, for the first time since 1994, does not include Kerry, Tyrone, Galway, Meath, Mayo or Armagh.
Let's savour the first championship clash between Cork and Dublin for 15 years and -- more novel still -- a first championship meeting between Down and Kildare.
Cork were always expected to the reach the semi-finals, but nobody could have foreseen any of the other three making the last four after unimpressive provincial campaigns. Actually, Down were the only ones who could get away with the 'unimpressive' tag.
Dublin and Kildare fell several degrees below that and were left rummaging in a basement that neither had explored for a long time. Louth's subsequent break for provincial freedom portrayed Kildare less negatively, but, hands up now, how many people saw any hope of revival on the evening Louth put 1-22 past a shadow Lilywhite defence?
Very few, one suspects, because Kildare had lengthened to 80/1 for the All-Ireland before the start of the qualifiers. That 1-22 was Kildare's biggest championship giveaway other than against Meath in 1997 when they conceded 3-17. However, that was after extra-time so there's no comparison in real terms.
As for Dublin, who were flattened by Meath, it was the first time in 81 years they had leaked five goals in Leinster. Since then, they have conceded just one (v Tipperary) in four games.
Meanwhile, Kildare's concession rate has dropped from 1-22 v Louth to an average of 0-12 in their last six games. Down scored more against Kerry than against Offaly or Longford. It's all very confusing, but also hugely exciting, having lined up two fascinating semi-finals.
Unfortunately, it's happening against a background of growing unrest over the system. Now in their 10th season, there's no doubt that the qualifiers have been a success.
Yes, there are anomalies that arise from their mingling with the provincial system. However, there's enough evidence to suggest that the provincials should be retained. The 'Champions League'-style eight groups of four looks good in theory, but would result in too many meaningless games.
Besides, there's still something special about the provincial championships, especially the finals that continue to be big attractions.
The problem with the qualifiers is this that they control as many All-Ireland quarter-final slots as the provincial championships, which undermines the primacy of the latter.
The proposal to cut the qualifier entrants to the quarter-finals from four to two has a lot of merit. The four provincial winners should play off among each other with the two winners heading for the semi-finals and the losers meeting the two qualifier survivors.
It's a system Mickey Harte has supported for years, but Congress vetoed it last April. There seems to be a fear it would add another layer to an already crowded fixture list.
Indeed, a reader asserted that Harte and this column were off the mark on the issue.
"If both of you were to have your way then the championship would last probably until November, with the final being played over two or three legs to make sure that everyone loses at least one game and, just in case you lost one leg of the final, you'd have two more cracks at it," he wrote.
Not so. We're just asserting the rights of provincial winners that should outweigh those of teams who have lost in the provinces. Adding one more round, as outlined above, wouldn't completely achieve that, but it would at least redress some of the balance back in the direction of the provincial winners. It provides a fairer deal, while also enhancing the integrity of the championship.
Enough referees on books for all-ireland neutrality
JACK O'Connor made a valid point when he queried why an Ulster referee (Cavan's Joe McQuillan) was in charge of last Saturday's Down-Kerry quarter-final.
Afterwards, a Leinster referee (Meath's David Coldrick) officiated at the Dublin-Tyrone game.
Nobody is accusing officials of bias, but in terms of perception, it looks better when the referee is not from the same province as either of the competing teams. One suspects that referees would prefer it too, as it would leave one less stick with which to beat them.
There are 18 referees on the GAA's elite football panel, so it would be quite easy to maintain a provincial neutrality policy for championship appointments.