Martin Breheny: 'Mayo, Tyrone and Monaghan are used to qualifier route but that makes it no easier'
It's not where Mayo, Tyrone and Monaghan expected to be for mid-summer's day, but the harsh reality of life in Connacht and Ulster has left three of the top seven pre-championship All-Ireland favourites on a dangerous qualifier route jammed with deadly ambush parties.
Monaghan have already survived one attack, forcing their way past Fermanagh, but now face an even more fearsome onslaught on Saturday when Kieran McGeeney lines up Armagh forces, still smarting from the defeat by Cavan.
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Mayo head for their first championship game in Newry against a Down team who are capable of reaching much higher than their Division 3 status suggests, while Tyrone travel south to take on Longford, a county with a good record against higher-ranked opponents over the years.
Mayo, Tyrone and Monaghan are used to negotiating a successful path through the qualifiers, but that guarantees nothing now. Psychologically, all three must be brittle after losing provincial games they were confident they would win.
Mayo's setback in the Connacht semi-final was probably the most damaging of all, and while Roscommon's impressive victory over Galway last Sunday suggested that everyone misread the western scene, it would also have left James Horan and his squad deeply frustrated.
They had more than enough chances to beat Roscommon and, on the basis of Galway's meltdown last Sunday, would probably now be booked in for the start of the 'Super 8s' if they had come through the semi-final test.
Instead, they need to win three games on successive weekends to get there. They managed it in 2016 and 2017, but ran aground against Kildare in Round 3 last year.
Mayo have a 68 per cent success rate in the qualifiers over the past 18 years, which is a good strike-rate.
It's 15 per cent better than Down's return, but that will count for little in the partisan Newry atmosphere on Saturday. Down were deeply frustrated after losing in extra-time to Armagh in the Ulster quarter-final, having had Caolan Mooney sent off on a straight red card just before half-time.
That they still managed to take the game to extra-time, where they lost by a point, underlined their mental strength, and they have since been boosted by a win over Tipperary.
Horan experienced no qualifier action during his first stint with Mayo, who won all four Connacht titles in 2011-14, before completing the five-in-a-row under Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly in 2015.
Since then, Mayo have had nine qualifier ties, winning eight, so the players have vast experience of the busy schedule.
The big question centres on the extent to which the defeat by Roscommon has hit their confidence. They were targeting a Connacht title as a big priority in the opening season of the second Horan era, only to fall at the first big fence.
They will need to put that bad memory well behind them if they are to take their All-Ireland case into the third round.
Malachy O'Rourke acknowledged that "there is always a hangover from losing a provincial match" after Monaghan beat Fermanagh in their Round 1 qualifier.
Victory came as a huge relief to a team that had seen their season disintegrate since the first round of the league, where they beat Dublin. They lost five of their remaining six games in Division 1, where they avoided the drop by a point.
Cavan extended their disappointing run, leaving them vulnerable against Fermanagh. They won by four points, but O'Rourke admitted afterwards that it wasn't overly impressive.
"We're still not playing at the level we want to be," he said.
They need to get there if they are to beat Armagh, who have a 66 per cent success rate in the qualifiers, 11 per cent ahead of Monaghan.
Mickey Harte has presided over an excellent qualifier record, with Tyrone returning 28 wins, one draw and four defeats from 33 games. That's an 86 per cent strike rate, which explains why he was so upbeat after the Ulster semi-final defeat by Donegal.
"Historically, we have made a decent hand of availing of the opportunity (in the qualifiers). It's all to do with the luck of the draw," he said.
He takes his squad to Longford for a clash with the home side, who beat Carlow in the first round.
Longford have a 50 per cent qualifier success record, which is good for a county whose natural habitat has been mostly in Division 3. They have beaten Mayo, Monaghan (twice), Down (twice) and Derry (three times) in the qualifiers, so clearly it's also a county that brings a very positive mindset through the back door.