Thursday 18 December 2014

The Monday Debate: Are the football qualifiers still fit for purpose?

Have your say in the poll below

Published 01/07/2013 | 05:00

Sean Cavanagh of Tyrone holds off the attentions of Offaly’s David Hanlon during Saturday’s one-sided All-Ireland SFC qualifier in O’Connor Park, Tullamore
Sean Cavanagh of Tyrone holds off the attentions of Offaly’s David Hanlon during Saturday’s one-sided All-Ireland SFC qualifier in O’Connor Park, Tullamore

Martin Breheny argues yes, Cliona Foley says no

Yes says Martin Breheny

You can't fault a heating system if it operates at full efficiency, yet the house remains cold. Clearly, the blame rests elsewhere, probably in draughty windows or doors and badly insulated walls. It's the same with the football qualifiers. Their basic design is sound but they are attached to an uneven provincial system, which results in several counties entering the qualifiers at Round 1 virtually every year whereas others join in Round 2.

Counties that don't reach provincial semi-finals head for Round 1, while beaten semi-finalists go directly to Round 2. Obviously, that means that the more successful counties in Munster and Connacht, the two smaller provinces, have a better chance of avoiding Round 1.

Kerry have never been in the first round, Cork were there once, while Galway had their first taste last Saturday evening. That's iniquitous but is caused by the lop-sided provincial set-up, rather than the qualifiers.

If provincial boundaries were re-drawn so that all four had eight counties, the qualifiers would be more balanced and much fairer.

There has been criticism of the qualifiers this year on the basis that the first-round draw didn't produce many exciting pairings. Again, that's no fault of the qualifier system, since it can only deal with the material presented.

DYNAMISM

Scrapping the provincial championships is regularly mentioned as a way to provide the All-Ireland race with new dynamism, but even if that were tried, the qualifiers would still have a role. Those who propose a Champions League format (eight groups of four playing off in a round-robin to produce All-Ireland quarter-finals) miss an important point.

In soccer, the Champions League is made up of the top teams in each league, with numbers varying according to the size of the country. A similar system in Gaelic football would be much different, featuring high- and low-ranked teams in the same group. Clearly, that would inevitably lead to several mismatches.

And since it would be played on a round-robin basis, there could also be some irrelevant games, possibly even as early as the third round. That would do a huge disservice to the championship. The idea that eight groups of four, where every team plays the other, would result in the final round deciding the winners is utterly fanciful.

Quite simply, round robin equates to too many meaningless games and would destroy the first half of the championship.

If the provincials were scrapped and the All-Ireland championship switched to an open-draw basis, the qualifiers could still be used to give first-round losers a second chance, as happens now, albeit in a fairer way.

The qualifiers were introduced in 2001 in order to guarantee every county a second chance in the championship and to increase the number of games. They continue to achieve that objective but it appears that they are now being held responsible for not leading to an evening up of standards around the country.

We're back to blaming a perfectly good heating system for a cold house.

No says Cliona Foley

When the back door first swung open in 2001, there was a stampede to get through it. The primary aim was to give a minimum of two games to every county; it was long overdue.

There was also a feeling that giving them more games could help weaker counties become more battle-hardened and create the possibility of kicking dents in the old order. But the concept of the qualifiers is now looking as quaint and out-dated as real live bank tellers.

What happened? In 2001, Galway, the 1998 champions, won the first back-door All-Ireland, and a year later Kerry reached the All-Ireland final through it.

In 2003, defending All-Ireland champions Armagh were beaten by Monaghan in Ulster's preliminary round, yet still came back to contest the first ever all-Ulster All-Ireland final.

In 2008, Tyrone lost an Ulster quarter-final but still won the All-Ireland, and a year later, having lost to Cork in a Munster semi-final replay, Kerry came back to beat the Rebels in the All-Ireland. Are you seeing the pattern there?

The great democracy that the qualifiers had promised still looked to have potential in 2010 when none of the provincial finalists progressed to the All-Ireland semi-finals.

That was also the year of the last great shock – Longford beating Mayo in Pearse Park. The six-day turnaround was a big factor but Longford still lost to Down next day out and two of the game's historic power-brokers (Cork and Down) contested the All-Ireland.

NOVELTY

At the start there was a great novelty effect to some pairings and some giant-killing ensued.

Westmeath got a qualifier run to the All-Ireland quarter-finals in 2001 which saw them take Mayo's scalp.

Other famous victories include Sligo knocking out Tyrone in 2002, Louth taking Tyrone to a replay in 2006 and Laois then ousting the Red Hand on their run to a quarter-final.

But, ultimately, the rich got richer and the poor, well they got a few extra matches alright but the status quo remains and nothing's really changed for the bottom-feeders.

The danger of taking the scenic route seems only to have made the strong teams work harder and the resultant mismatches – as exemplified by Tyrone's stroll over Offaly in Tullamore on Saturday – appear to have contributed to the public's waning appetite.

A first-round qualifier between Offaly and Clare in 2010 attracted just 670 people. Less than 3,800 went to Kildare v Derry that summer and less than 12,000 attended the Laois v Kildare derby in 2011.

Minus the Fermanagh v Cavan game (5,340) from last summer's first round, the seven games had a combined attendance of 13,463, including just 2,020 for Westmeath v Louth and 2,469 for Laois v Carlow, which explains the recent Friday night experiment.

The final death-knell was sounded recently when a significant number of players went abroad before this weekend's first round, no longer interested in 'sticking around for the qualifiers'. Like attendances, that can partially be attributed to these harsh economic times.

But dwindling audiences and uninterested players? That is surely proof that the qualifiers are no longer doing what they set out to do.

Irish Independent

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