Sunday 11 December 2016

Qualifiers remain on offer well past their sell-by date

'Back door' results since 2001 show many counties have yielded few dividends from second chance

Published 16/06/2016 | 02:30

Leitrim’s Daniel Beck celebrates their qualifier victory over Wicklow in 2012, the county’s one and only win through the back door Picture: Sportsfile
Leitrim’s Daniel Beck celebrates their qualifier victory over Wicklow in 2012, the county’s one and only win through the back door Picture: Sportsfile

With the back door ready to slam shut on the All-Ireland SFC ambitions of eight counties over the next nine days, the weaknesses of the second-chance system are laid bare by damning figures.

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Nine of the 16 counties in Rounds 1A and 1B of the qualifiers have each won fewer than nine qualifier games in the 15 seasons that the format has been in place.

That equates to a 23 per cent success rate but when results are further distilled, the futility of the qualifier route for many counties becomes even more apparent.

London, Leitrim and Waterford have won just once each from a total of 42 games, equating to a seven per cent success rate.

Clare (4), Carlow (4) and Antrim (5) have between them won 13 of 53 games (25 per cent); Offaly, Wicklow and Wexford have won 22 of 67 games (33 per cent)

It leaves the bottom nine counties with a 23 per cent success rate. In many cases, their wins came against teams at the same level and were followed by quick exits in Round 2.

Leitrim didn't record their first - and only - qualifier win until 2012, when they beat Wicklow. Waterford's sole victory was against London in 2011, a year when London earlier enjoyed their single success when beating Fermanagh in the first round.

Backfired

If Leitrim were hoping that having finally won a qualifier game, they would press on in subsequent seasons, it backfired badly.

They lost to Armagh by 27 points in 2013, to Down by 21 points in 2014 and to Louth by eight points last season.

Carlow and Clare have each won four qualifier games, with Antrim on five, Wicklow and Offaly on seven each.

Three of Wicklow's seven wins came in 2009 when they progressed to Round 4. Otherwise, they won only four times in the other 14 seasons.

The low qualifier success rate among so-called weaker counties is disappointing as there were hopes initially that the new system would provide the impetus to raise standards.

That was based on the assumption that playing opposition from different provinces in the championship would give players a new perspective, leading to an invigoration that might have a lasting impact.

Páraic Duffy, who headed the committee that proposed the introduction of the qualifiers in 2001, warned against exaggerated expectations, pointing out that the only guarantee lay in the provision of a minimum of two championship games for all counties.

Events have proven him to be correct and there's a now a clear sense that the qualifiers in their current format are in need of review.

Aogán ó Fearghail admitted that when he took over as GAA president 16 months ago and later launched a process to gauge the mood for change.

No fewer than 18 proposals - including one from the GPA - for championship reform were submitted by counties and other interested parties, with three going on the Congress agenda.

They included one from Central Council for a 'B' championship, involving Division 4 counties.

It met with a hostile reaction, with players from those counties declaring their intention to boycott the competition. Unsurprisingly, the motion was withdrawn on the eve of the Congress debate.

Roscommon's call for a 'B' championship, involving 16 counties, made no impression but Carlow's more-measured proposal, based on a tiered seeding system run in conjunction with the provincial championships, attracted 40 per cent support.

Given that the proposal hadn't received much airing nationally, it was a very solid vote, certainly high enough to suggest that the plan had considerable merit.

"The Carlow motion got strong support - you can't ignore that. We'll reflect on it and see where we go. It's certainly not the end of the discussion. We might go about it in an different way," said Páraic Duffy.

Last year's qualifiers were especially disappointing, producing an extensive list of one-sided games.

The average winning margin was 9.5 points in Round 1, 8 points in Round 2; 9.5 points in Round 3 and 8.5 points in Round 4.

Only six of the 24 games were won by margins of 1-3 points.

This year's results will be closely monitored to ascertain if last season was a one-off or part of a wider trend.

If it's the latter, calls for another review will increase, coming against a background where the provincial championships have, with the notable exception of Tipperary's win over Cork, been very predictable.

At the top end of the qualifier scale, Kerry, Cork and Dublin have played by far the fewest games, arising from their successes at provincial level.

Kerry have won all 11 of their qualifiers, with Dublin losing only one of 10 (v Armagh in 2003).

Of counties with high exposure to the qualifiers, Tyrone have done best, losing only four of 29 games. Plus, of course, they won both the 2005 and 2008 All-Ireland titles via the qualifiers.

Cork (2010) were the last county to win the All-Ireland via the qualifiers, having been beaten by Kerry in the Munster semi-final replay.

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