THE GAA football qualifiers have not weakened the integrity or lessened the importance of the provincial championships, according to Seán McCague, who presided over the introduction of the back door system in 2001. This year will mark the tenth summer of qualifier matches, designed to give losers a second chance.
McCague was GAA president when delegates voted in favour of ending the old knockout system. "Initially people were very interested and favourable, but in more recent times I can see, from time to time, people thinking they are worn out or not as useful," he admits. "And I suppose the fact that a number of counties have won the All-Ireland coming through what they term the back door means that it probably favours the strong teams. If they slip up once, they are unlikely to slip up again, as evidenced by Kerry this year."
In the majority of cases since the qualifiers were introduced, including the first year, the All-Ireland champions did not win a provincial title. This has been more pronounced in recent years: of the last five All-Irelands won, only one winner -- Kerry in 2007 -- survived their own province unbeaten. This has reinforced the view that the qualifiers benefit the stronger counties.
"I doubt people want to go back to knockout," says McCague. "When people see competition abroad they see a cup and a league and the league has far more importance than the knockout. I don't think the mood in Ireland is that they want the league to be reclassified as more important than the championship. I'd be happy enough to see the issue examined but I don't have a formula; I'd be interested in seeing what people might put forward."
In 2008, Armagh forward Steven McDonnell accused the qualifier system of failing provincial winners. That summer Armagh won Ulster for the seventh time in ten years but Tyrone went on to win the All-Ireland. "I've never been a fan of the back door system, even when we reached the All-Ireland final through the qualifiers in 2003," McDonnell stated. "The system in place has definitely cost us a couple of All-Irelands. We've won seven Ulster titles and what was our reward?
"Where is the benefit for teams who win a provincial title? It's great to win your province, but if you go out the next day and get beaten, you can't learn from your mistakes unlike the teams that have entered the qualifiers."
But McCague doesn't believe that the Ulster championship has been devalued. "Ask Antrim, ask Fermanagh . . . I would think that Steven McDonnell's comments were probably the cause of frustration for him and others -- maybe they felt that the system rather than their team was wrong. You can understand why a person would regret only winning one (All-Ireland) when winning seven provincials.
"If you asked Donegal, Derry, Tyrone if winning the Ulster championship is a goal in itself I would be quite sure they'd say it is. It is a worthwhile competition in its own right. I don't think any team deliberately bypasses their province to get to an All-Ireland final. Many teams used it as a way of proving they were better after losing out in the province."
In 2007, John Maughan said he favoured a return to the old knockout format. Then managing Roscommon, he said: "The back door has ruined it -- the big guns will always get back in that way. I've heard hurling people talking about teams that might be suited to the back door and I don't like hearing that kind of stuff. I'm all for the winner takes all, the real excitement of a 70-minute game. It's affecting attendances and I think the thing has run its course."
Leinster Council secretary Michael Delaney, who was on the committee that came up with the qualifier system, is also in favour of a move back to knockout, although he admits he is in a minority.
"I feel they should be re-examined at this stage. People always throw up (examples of) Fermanagh and maybe Wicklow last year but really it's only the strong that will benefit."
A Dublin motion to this year's GAA Congress is seeking to allow provincial winners a second chance if they are defeated in the quarter-finals. Dublin footballers have suffered greatly in recent years, having won five Leinster titles in a row before tripping up in the All-Ireland phase.