Tuesday 16 July 2019

Don't knock the back door -- it's the best system we have

The qualifiers free weaker counties from provincial shackles, says John O'Brien

It could be argued that the most electrifying moment of this year's All-Ireland football championship thus far came in Carrick-on-Shannon last Sunday when Mickey Quinn and Paddy McNaughton dipped their fingers into a linen sack and, one after the other, pulled out the names of Louth and Meath. A leaden summer dominated by the usual hysterical talk about declining skills and bad officiating had suddenly spat out a fixture worth getting worked up about.

It was a shot in the arm for the qualifier system, ten years old this summer, still unloved by many, only grudgingly accepted by the majority. Yet it threw up something the rigidly structured provincial championships could not: an unexpected gem that harked back to unfinished business from last year. A grudge match. It mightn't live up to the hype, of course, but the hype itself is something. God knows, the championship can do with every bit it can muster.

Not that it will salvage the qualifiers from the lowly position they occupy in people's affections. Any day now a giant is going to be toppled -- a Kerry or Cork or Tyrone -- and the inevitable cliché will ring out: "Sure the All-Ireland only begins in August anyway." The provincial championships, it is argued, have been irreparably devalued while the qualifiers are little more than a month-long accounting period from which the best teams will filter through for the real business of summer.

Such sentiments are fair enough, but a problem arises when the temptation becomes too strong to lump all the ills of the championship structure at the door of the qualifiers which weren't devised as a panacea in the first place. What they were was a heavily watered down version of the proposals put forward by the now defunct Football Development Committee in 1999. Instead of a wildly ambitious scheme to guarantee every county a minimum of 10 games came the tepid compromise of a second chance. A GAA solution to a GAA problem.

Whenever these debates surface, we might usefully wonder whether we are asking the right questions anyway. All the fanciful talk of intricate round-robin systems, Champions League variations or shifting provincial boundaries merely underscores the reality that the system is an ass to begin with. The thing is it has more than a century behind it and isn't for turning in any meaningful way. For better or worse we're largely stuck with it.

Those who decry the qualifier system do so largely on the grounds that is has diluted the do-or-die nature of provincial games and compromised the sanctity of the championship. Michael Delaney, chief executive of the Leinster Council, has long been an ardent critic of the qualifiers and the feeling persists that the hankering for the traditional knockout format is stronger than most of us would bargain for.

And that's the thing. Before you start talking about fancy new systems, you need to figure out how radical you're willing to be. What is the point, for instance, of talking about more elaborate structures without a mind for the demands it would place on amateur players? If amateurism is a sine qua non going forward, forget notions of extending the present format. And if we accept that clubs are the bedrock of the GAA, then it could be argued that the All-Ireland championship is already big enough for its boots.

As for the qualifiers themselves, criticism tends to centre around two issues in particular. The first is that they are weighted strongly in favour of the most successful counties, a familiar refrain when the GAA introduces any innovation. To which there is really only one appropriate response: well, lordy. A championship stretched out over five months that culminates, more often than not, with the two best teams in the country fighting for silverware in Croke Park. By definition should a championship be designed to do anything else?

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Those who have trouble with that might be better off coming up with fresh ideas. A handicap system as used in horse racing, perhaps. The best players carrying lead weights in their shorts or, if that is too uncomfortable, maybe the Gooch could play blindfolded or the Cork midfield forced to play with their bootlaces tied together. Leitrim could select their entire stock of able-bodied men under the age of 35, allowing them to field 20 players instead of 15.

Or maybe you could leave the qualifiers out of it and focus on the real problem. The GAA investing in weaker counties, particularly at schools and underage level, helping them to close the gap with the top teams.

The real value of Mick O'Dwyer's presence in Wicklow, for example, wasn't any quick-fix notion the great man brought, but the impetus he provided the county board to get busy on the ground where the real hard work needed to be done.

The impetus is the thing. It was a credit to Wicklow that they realised their thrilling run through the 2009 qualifiers wasn't an elixir in itself for years of neglect and poor results, but something to build on that would take time and a lot of energy. There isn't a system alive that can compensate for hard work and dedication. The qualifiers can provide an impetus that, for various reasons, hasn't always come from the provincial championships. It is up to the counties themselves how they use it.

The other major issue is the apparent iniquity of provincial winners being denied a second chance and the dismal record of provincial finalists in the final qualifying round. Is it harsh, as Mickey Harte has argued, that provincial winners exit the championship after their first defeat? Perhaps. Yet is there nothing to be said for the momentum and confidence a team accumulates during an unbeaten run through the province?

And more importantly, they will enjoy the privilege of an extended break while their opponents are often coming off the back of a hard game the previous week. That's a pretty sizeable advantage in our book.

The defeated provincial finalists have a stronger case. Yet the fault here lies with the needlessly elongated nature of the provincial championships. It has nothing to do with the qualifiers per se. The statistics show that of the 40 fourth-round qualifiers played to date, only 15 provincial finalists have advanced. That's a win rate of less than 40 per cent. On the surface that appears alarming but there is a reasonably satisfactory explanation.

Take, for example, the oft-cited three years when none of the beaten provincial finalists managed to win: 2003, 2004 and 2010. If you examine each contest individually none of them, with the exception of Fermanagh beating Mayo in 2004, could be legitimately regarded as shocks. The favourites held sway almost every time. Back to an earlier point: the strong teams getting stronger as the summer wears on. That's championship football for you. And maybe it suggests too that the best teams don't always contest provincial finals.

There's a bottom-line argument in all of this. You could tweak the system in as many ways as you like and the structural faults would just manifest themselves in other ways. And, as now, the system would still bear the brunt of the blame. The best course of action is simply to enjoy what is there and stop hankering for idealistic solutions that don't exist. The championship started with a whimper in Ballybofey last month. It comes alive in Breffni Park next Saturday.

Ah, July approaching. Mid-summer and not a single county out of the All-Ireland yet. The games coming thick and fast. The tantalising prospect of a minnow suddenly getting a hint of form and putting a few wins together back to back. New heroes, fresh narratives. Just think how great the qualifiers could be if we only learned how to love them.

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