Levelling of playing field can't hide system's inequity
NEVER before have none of the four provincial champions played in the All-Ireland football semi-finals; never before have the provincial winners and runners-up failed to provide a semi-finalist; and never before have so many counties looked at the four survivors and thought: "Hey, we're as good as them."
In the case of most counties, Cork are probably exempt from that assessment, having been a consistent presence in the top three for several seasons. However, Kerry are an exception. For, after winning six and drawing one of seven games against Cork at Croke Park since 2002, they would have loved another chance this year.
As for Dublin, Down and Kildare, there are several counties who would fancy their chances against them.
It's impossible to adjudicate on whether that makes it a better or worse championship than other years but it's certainly different. It's also refreshing, involving as it does, four counties whose span without an All-Ireland win ranges from 82 years (Kildare) down to 15 years (Dublin).
Add Cork (1990) and Down (1994) into the equation and the wait across the semi-finalists averages 33 years, which makes a big change from more recent times when Kerry and Tyrone shared every title since 2003.
Apart from the novelty value, there's also the encouragement that so many other counties will take from this year's results.
After all, if Dublin could resurrect a season where they conceded five goals in a Leinster game for the first time in 81 years, Kildare could come good after giving away more than in any other provincial tie in their history (in normal time) and Down could embark on their best qualifier run after scoring just two points in the last 50 minutes against Tyrone, there's hope for many others.
There are there plenty of hindsight experts who are now brazenly rewriting their earlier assessments. Some claim they 'had a feeling' that Dublin would revive themselves after the demolition by Meath.
Really? They were all silent at the time.
Others 'saw hope' for Kildare in their 1-16 return against Louth. It seems that conceding 1-22 was part of some cunning plan to make a break for the first qualifiers entry point.
As for Down, apparently they have 'pedigree' and were destined to make a significant surge in the 50th anniversary year of their first All-Ireland win.
For reasons unexplained, 'pedigree' hasn't helped them win an Ulster title for 16 years or take them to the All-Ireland quarter-finals in the 2001-2009 seasons.
Cork's arrival in the last four is no surprise but, after their experiences in the provincial championships, the presence of Down, Kildare and Dublin is.
It also suggests that there's a levelling out of standards and that many teams are capable of beating each other without any guarantee whatsoever that a return game would produce the same result.
Luck also plays a big role. Croke Park is Dublin's permanent HQ for Leinster games these days, yet they still stayed at home for the qualifiers. Even then, they had a relatively gentle introduction against Tipperary.
Down drew Longford (at home), Offaly and Sligo, a victim of the six-day turnaround for provincial runners-up. Full credit to Down for stepping it up against Kerry, but they were fortunate in the earlier draws.
Cork drew Cavan at home in their opening qualifier, scarcely a sign from the gods that they had deserted them.
Kildare had the trickiest route, especially given the emotion of their opening game with Antrim, which was played a few hours after the burial of Dermot Earley Snr.
Good luck to all four semi-finalists. Some have ridden their luck but all have built up a powerful momentum, which many others believe that, with a break here and there, could have been their lot.
What doesn't change is the inequity of the system. I received many comments on the format in recent weeks, some of which insisted that it's fair that beaten provincial finalists don't get a second chance.
The claim is that there are two ways of qualifying for the All-Ireland quarter-finals, via the provinces and the qualifiers and that once the last eight has been decided, everybody is equal.
Not so. Winning the All-Ireland title is the ultimate aim of all counties who go to the starting gate in May. One system allows a team to remount after a fall; the other doesn't.
Now in my book, that's inequality and no fancy sidesteps can disguise that.
Walsh makes smartest move by staying put
KEVIN Walsh's decision to remain with Sligo rather than respond to the clamour to return to his native Galway suggests that he has taken the smartness he displayed as a player into his management career.
Staying with Sligo isn't a judgment on their merits by comparison with Galway, but Walsh (right) obviously didn't think that abandoning the project and returning home to become the third Galway manager in two years was the right thing to do.
It's an understandable choice, given the circumstances of Joe Kernan's departure from Galway.
After all, if a modern-day manager, least of all one with an All-Ireland Championship-winning pedigree, wasn't allowed to put his own back-room team together in Galway, it's hardly surprising that one of the county's most famous sons would opt to stay clear, for the present at least.