This year’s revamped All-Ireland SFC qualifiers always promised to be different, and now we know for sure. Mayo versus Monaghan, Armagh versus Tyrone – four teams who, despite their provincial mishaps, would still regard themselves as among the country’s top eight.
But yesterday’s open draw means two of this elite quartet will be gone from the race for Sam come the June bank holiday.
The qualifiers have returned for the first time since 2019, but in a streamlined format to accommodate the simultaneous birth of the Tailteann Cup. The good news for reigning All-Ireland champions Tyrone and beaten 2021 finalists Mayo, who both fell at the provincial quarter-final fence, is that this means two fewer ‘back door’ hurdles to negotiate.
However, the potential for a handy opener to ease your way in has been greatly diminished, the danger amplified by the fickleness of a draw that has pitted all four Division 1 teams in direct combat.
In the Castlebar clash of Mayo and Monaghan, James Horan will be marginally more relieved than Séamus McEnaney if only because of home advantage.
On the flip side, Monaghan coach Donie Buckley will have the inside track on his former charges while Mayo have frequently been anything but hearty in MacHale – most recently against Galway.
Moreover, for their previous ‘back door’ runs to an All-Ireland final, Mayo were blessed to start with home ties against lower-tier rivals because they actually trailed Fermanagh by six points at half-time (2016) and were forced to extra-time by Derry (‘17). No such comfort this time; but whoever wins will take huge momentum into the next round against a beaten provincial finalist.
The same applies to the winner of Armagh/Tyrone at the Athletic Grounds – but, for the loser, a long winter of soul-searching awaits. Fresh questions about Armagh’s rate of progress after eight years under Kieran McGeeney were raised by their inept display in Donegal, but Tyrone unravelled to an even greater extent against Derry and will be desperate to avoid the tag of worst defending champs of recent times.
Yesterday’s jackpot winners were the three counties who laboured in Division 2 and another (in Louth) newly promoted from Division 3. Whoever emerges from Clare/Meath and Cork/Louth will spy a gateway to the last-eight, especially were they to be drawn against Limerick who will start as 20/1 Munster final underdogs against Kerry this Saturday.
SFC QUALIFIERS RD 1
Sat, June 4: Cork v Louth, Páirc Uí Chaoimh, 2.0 (GAAGO); Mayo v Monaghan, Castlebar, 4.0 (Sky); Clare v Meath, Ennis, 5.0 (GAAGO). Sun, June 5: Armagh v Tyrone, Athletic Grounds, 1.30 (RTÉ).