Sunday 17 December 2017

'Weaker' teams need Qualifier system more than ever

John Savage

THE All-Ireland Qualifiers have been shipping some heavy blows from the 'pundits' and 'experts' recently.

Stale, predictable, and elitist are just three of the more common (and ironically predictable!) accusations being levelled at the now 13-year-old backdoor system, but amidst all of the hype we have yet to hear even one compelling alternative.

The main bone of contention seems to be that the system suits 'stronger' counties better than 'weaker' ones, but regardless of what competition structure is in place the cream will always rise to the top, and unfortunately from Louth's point of view, the Qualifiers are no different.

The Reds haven't enjoyed much success through the backdoor in recent years, exiting at the first attempt for the past five seasons, four of which were first-round defeats to Tyrone (2008), Tipperary (2009), Meath (2011) and Westmeath (2012). The odd one out was the 2010 last-12 defeat to Dublin after reaching the Leinster final.

You actually have to go back to 2007 for the last decent run, when Eamonn McEneaney's side beat Limerick and Kildare before succumbing to eventual All-Ireland finalists Cork by just two points.

But 'vintage' years like that have been few and far between and the Reds have only managed to win back-to-back qualifier games three times in 12 years: 2001, 2005 and 2007.

It's a poor record for a county that should always be gearing itself for a summer beyond the crowded confines of the Leinster Championship, which, let's face it, hasn't been a very happy hunting ground over the last 50 odd years.

As one of the counties the system was originally designed to assist, Louth's Qualifier record would appear to back up the theory that the system needs an overhaul, and one idea that seems to be gathering momentum in the national media is a 'B' Championship. Either they have very short memories, or just didn't pay enough attention to the disdain with which the Tommy Murphy Cup was treated between 2004 and 2008. Given the level of interest shown in the competition it's most likely the latter!

Louth were actually worthy winners of the much-maligned competition in 2006 when a record number of teams (13) took part, while their opponents on Saturday, Antrim, are the 'holders' having won the last enactment in 2008.

But apart from impinging on club football and giving the finalists a day out in Croke Park, the Tommy Murphy Cup had very little going for it.

You would have to question the motives of those advocating a 'B' Championship. Brushing the 'weaker' counties to one side and letting the big boys get on with it would seem to be the not-so-hidden agenda.

The propsect of a county like Louth winning a Championship title seems to be the main selling point, but what use is that if the players and supporters would rather be back at home playing and watching club football instead of travelling the country for a competition that gets little or no media exposure in front of paltry attendances.

What those counties would actually gain from playing against lesser opposition is also extremely debatable, and Eamonn McEneaney, for one, would surely testify to how much more his players learned about themselves from their Qualifier run in 2007, than they gleaned from their Murphy Cup odyssey 12 months earlier.

Another alternative to the Qualifier system mooted in recent months is to revert back to a straight knockout on the provincial stage, and while that would have done Louth no harm in 2012, it would be a shame to see the progress made in 2013 come to such an abrupt end.

As it stands Aidan O'Rourke and his players will line out for their third Championship clash in five weeks on Saturday, with the very real prospect of a fourth or fifth outing before the summer is out. That can only be a good thing for players like Ciaran Byrne, John Bingham and many more who rarely play more than two or three inter-county Championship games a year.

Every chance the manager gets to work with his players at this level is a bonus, and if the environment happens to be a Championship game, then all the better.

If Antrim pull off a shock on Saturday, O'Rourke will probably be the first to hold his hands up and retreat to the drawing board, but a win and another Championship clash in 7 or 14 days would prolong what has been a decent first season for the Armagh man.

Somewhere along the line Louth will meet one of the big (or not so big) guns and, in all liklehood emerge second best, but would that be so much worse than packing up after the Wexford defeat and waiting for 2014?

It would certainly be more beneficial than figthing it out with other so-called weaker counties to win a competition no-one really cares about, while the marquee counties battle it out in the limelight for Sam Maguire.

Now that really would be stale, predictable and elitist!

The Argus

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