Tuesday 24 April 2018

Dick Clerkin: There's nothing pretty about the qualifiers - all that matters is winning

Aidan O’Shea in the tunnel at MacHale Park after Mayo’s victory against Derry on Saturday. Photo: Sportsfile
Aidan O’Shea in the tunnel at MacHale Park after Mayo’s victory against Derry on Saturday. Photo: Sportsfile

Dick Clerkin

Fool me once, shame on you, feel me twice shame on me'. George W Bush might have famously mixed it up when mangling the proverb in front of a microphone but it can sum up the feelings for GAA teams entering the qualifiers.

Under normal circumstances, the qualifiers play second fiddle to the provincial showdown but with Kerry sweeping to victory over Cork in such an easy manner, the real competitive action took place on Saturday.

For teams who negotiate the qualifiers well, it sets the mood in the county for the rest of the year where a feel-good factor can be sustained if a team's performance, even in defeat, is something to make their supporters proud.

The flip-side, however, is also true where the post-script of what once promised to be a reasonable season can end with a damning tone.

Whatever about the manner of the opening-round exit, a repeat the next day out in the qualifiers will see any excuse fall on deaf ears.

Deflating

Mayo being beaten in a hard-fought Connacht Championship battle against Galway would have been one thing, but losing to Derry in front of their home crowd to end the championship in the first week of July would have been something else entirely. The fans, as they have done over the years, would have stuck by them and come back next year but it sets a deflating tone for the rest of the year.

Like Mayo, Meath and Donegal headed into their qualifier matches licking their wounds after suffering fairly humbling defeats in the provincial championships.

Anxious not to make 'fools' of themselves, each county knew full well that their early-season promise and talk of progress and ambition would be quickly dismissed should they fall at the first hurdle in the qualifiers. But, after doing what had to be done and no more, they can all now look ahead with a greater degree of confidence,

The manner in which you enter the qualifiers can have a big impact on how long you will survive the knockout rounds. A poor league return coupled with a comprehensive provincial defeat generally signals an early exit.

With little form or reason for optimism, players resign themselves to the fact the year is run, and already have one eye on their club season. Such symptoms were plainly evident in Laois, Wicklow and Fermanagh this year. These are teams that in other years have shown plenty of appetite for the qualifier battle but, this season, defeat felt almost inevitable.

Derry almost proved the exception having been relegated from Division 2 and then thumped by Tyrone but one victory, in their case against Waterford, in the qualifiers, seemed to restore some belief and it will be a source of immense frustration that they let a golden chance at one of the great qualifier upsets slip through their fingers in MacHale Park.

I have mixed memories from the qualifiers but, in many ways, it summed up how the season can pan out where a team many didn't fancy bowed out with their heads held high while, five years later, a team who had high hopes suffered a crushing loss.

In 2005, Seamus McEnaney's first year, we had a novel if unglamorous run to a last-12 meeting with Tyrone. We bowed out at the first hurdle in Ulster to Derry, but Banty's unrelenting passion and optimism ensured we weren't going to give up on the summer after one defeat.

Still only finding our feet amongst the big boys, we played on the undercard against London to an Armagh v Donegal Ulster semi-final to kick things off.

Subsequent wins over Wexford and Louth got us a ticket to headquarters and a date with a star-studded Tyrone outfit which was a hill too steep to climb for a team only beginning its development but which gave us great appetite for more. Banty was always conscious of the purpose they could serve to a team, should the provincials deal a bad opening hand.

Fast forward to 2010 and possibly the worst six days of my career marked a qualifier low point. Heading in to the Ulster final, Monaghan and myself were in flying form and this was going to be the year we finally got over the line in Ulster.

The shock and hangover from the subsequent 10-point hammering against Tyrone lingered into the dreaded six-day turnaround which meant we had to pull ourselves off the floor to face Kildare.

There can't have been many better examples of why momentum is so important for teams trying to get through the back door because Kildare arrived in headquarters full of confidence after three wins on the trot and dumped us out. We gave it our best, but, looking back, the heart had been ripped out of the team six days earlier and we simply couldn't recover.

Next weekend, Banty will be the man in the opposite dugout but, for Monaghan, all that will matter is getting out of Wexford Park with a victory.

Donegal, Mayo and Meath aren't likely to have been happy with their performances but better to be looking forward with things to improve on than looking back with regret.

I wouldn't be one bit surprised to see none of the beaten provisional losers make the quarter-finals. The teams that come through the next few qualifier rounds will have a golden opportunity to make the last eight, as they will have both momentum and confidence when facing a team deflated following a provincial defeat.

None of the remaining qualifier teams can rightly state a claim for major honours but they will be eager to atone for their provincial sins over the coming weeks.

Once that is achieved with a few confidence-building wins, everything opens up again and all bets are off.

Irish Independent

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