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Pressure mounts to widen the back door

PRESSURE is mounting to change the All-Ireland football championship format so that provincial champions get a second chance if they lose at the quarter-final stage.

Ulster Council secretary Danny Murphy wants provincial champions treated the same as teams who lose earlier on by granting them a reprieve if they lose a quarter-final. He is supported by Armagh manager Joe Kernan, who claimed the current system is loaded against provincial winners.

Murphy has proposed a new format whereby the four provincial winners play off against each other with the two winners advancing directly to the All-Ireland semi-finals, while the losers get a second chance against two survivors from the qualifiers.

Under the current system, provincial winners face four qualifiers in the All-Ireland quarter-finals. It means that where provincial winners lose quarter-finals they are eliminated from the All-Ireland race, without getting a second chance.

Writing in his annual report, which will go before the Ulster Convention on Saturday week, Murphy said that they had engaged in preliminary discussions on a new proposal that may go before Congress in April. That involves giving beaten provincial winners a second chance.

"Provincial champions should have the opportunity of a clear route to the All-Ireland semi-finals and this can be best achieved by having the provincial champions play each other, with the winners advancing to the semi-finals.

The defeated provincial champions would get a second chance against two teams emerging from the qualifier series. I believe that this will ensure a more appropriate and consistently competitive championship," writes Murphy.

Qualify

His remarks come at a time when it's being mooted that hurling plans to return to a system whereby the Leinster and Munster champions qualify for the All-Ireland semi-finals.

However, there will be opposition at official level to any proposal to change the football system if it involves extra fixtures.

Paraic Duffy, the new Players' Welfare Officer, who previously chaired committees that proposed the introduction of the 'back door' in 2001 and its slightly amended version which comes into effect this year, said that any change involving more fixtures would be detrimental to clubs.

"If you create a mechanism to allow provincial winners who lose their next game back into the All-Ireland race, it will take at least one extra weekend.

"That would have a negative impact on the club scene which is already an area of serious concern. My own personal view is that we should be very reluctant to add an extra round," he said.

Duffy concedes that it's frustrating for provincial winners who lose All-Ireland quarter-finals to find themselves totally eliminated whereas their conquerors, who lost a game earlier on, head into the semi-finals.

"When we designed the 'back door' system back in 2001, it was on the basis that there were two ways of qualifying for the All-Ireland quarter-finals. Provincial winners qualified automatically and were joined by the four remaining qualifiers.

"In effect, we treated the provincial and All-Ireland championships as two separate competitions. We also proposed that the provincial winners would have home advantage in the quarter-finals but that never happened. Central Council didn't think it was practical in terms of ground capacity and it also emerged that counties wanted quarter-finals in Croke Park if possible," he said.

Joe Kernan, whose Armagh side lost All-Ireland quarter-finals in 2004 and 2006 after winning the Ulster title, said that it wasn't fair that some teams got second chances whereas others didn't.

The records show that of the 24 provincial champions crowned since 2001, ten have been beaten in the All-Ireland quarter-finals.

"A team that does everything right and wins the provincial title have the safety net pulled from under them, whereas a team that loses in the provinces are welcomed back in through the qualifiers. We benefited from that in Armagh in 2003 and went on to beat Leinster champions Laois in the quarter-finals, so we have experience of both sides.

Sharper

"Look at what happened us last year. We won the Ulster title on July 9 but didn't play Kerry in the All-Ireland quarter-final until August 5. Kerry had two games in that period which left them that bit sharper than us," he said.

Had Danny Murphy's proposed system been in operation last year, Armagh, Mayo, Dublin and Cork would have played off with the two winners entering the semi-finals and the two losers heading for quarter-finals.

Up to now, four qualifiers reach the quarter-finals but under the new system it would be reduced to two. In 2006 that would have meant a further qualifying round involving Westmeath, Kerry, Laois and Donegal.

They would have played off down to two for the right to beat the losers from the provincial champions play-offs.

"A change in the system might mean one extra weekend but surely it should be possible to find it," added Kernan. "In the interests of fairness, it should be tried because there's a blatant anomaly in the current system."