Martin Breheny: 'Tier 2 plan won't work if All-Ireland door is shut'
Proposal to exclude Division 3 and 4 teams from qualifiers would defeat overall purpose
Eighteen years ago next weekend, the All-Ireland qualifiers made a welcome landing on the football landscape, ending the unforgiving days when one defeat ended a championship season.
Prior to that, exits could come very early, not just for lower-ranked counties either. Mayo, beaten All-Ireland finalists in 1997, were gone from the 1998 championship by May 24; Kildare, losing finalists in 1998 were out of contention by June 13 in 1999. Meath, All-Ireland winners in 1999, exited the 2000 race on June 4.
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The apparent nonsense of preparing squads at high expense for one guaranteed game prompted the introduction of the qualifiers, where the 28 counties who lost at various stages in the provincials, re-entered the All-Ireland series.
And so it has remained to the present day, with the exception of 2007 and 2008, when Division 4 teams were excluded from the qualifiers. They were instead directed towards the Tommy Murphy Cup, which ran from 2004 to 2008.
Actually, 'limped' is a more accurate description of its progress. Staged in summer, with the final in Croke Park, the concept looked good in theory. That's where the attraction ended as apathy among players and public led to its abandonment and a return to the qualifiers for all teams.
Now, a Tier 2 championship is back on the agenda, with Central Council to decide later this month whether to send a formal proposal forward to a Special Congress in the autumn.
It means that a new championship format could be in place next year, where all counties in Divisions 3 and 4 who don't progress to their provincial finals are excluded from the qualifiers and, instead, play in a secondary competition.
If it were in operation last year, the following 15 teams would have competed: Down, Louth, Longford, Westmeath, Sligo, Offaly, Derry, Wexford, Carlow, Antrim, London, Leitrim, Limerick, Waterford and Wicklow.
Why not 16? That's because Laois, who were in Division 4, reached the Leinster final, entitling them to stay in the All-Ireland race via the qualifiers.
Weren't Down and Louth in Division 2 last year? Yes, but they were relegated so they, rather than promoted Armagh and Fermanagh, would be dispatched to Tier 2. That's a questionable call, as two teams operating at a higher level in spring would be replaced by two from a lower division.
Cork and Tipperary were relegated from Division 2 this year but since Cork have qualified for the Munster final, they would stay in Sam Maguire Cup contention.
Tipp would drop to Tier 2, whereas Laois and Westmeath, promoted from Division 3, would be in Tier 1.
That's another reason why I don't favour a 16-strong Tier 2. Counties at the top end of Division 3 are generally good enough to take their chance in the All-Ireland qualifiers.
I would favour restricting Tier 2 to the bottom 12 (four Division 3 and eight Division 4).
Another area where I disagree with the draft proposal centres on eligibility to compete in the qualifiers.
The GAA's power-brokers want Tier 2 to be the only outlet for Division 3 and 4 teams beaten in the provinces (except for those who reach the final), but that's not always equitable.
Why give stronger teams a second shot at the All-Ireland, simply because they are in one of the top two divisions?
Carlow are an example of how unfair that would be. Promoted from Division 4 last year, they would have been ineligible for the qualifiers after losing to Laois in the Leinster semi-final. However, Kildare, who lost to Carlow by seven points in the quarter-final, would have gone through to the qualifiers because of their higher National League standing.
A Tier 2 competition is worth a shot, but only if Division 3 and 4 teams continue to have the same All-Ireland rights as their Division 1 and 2 counterparts.
Basically, that means access to the qualifiers for everybody, with Tier 2 confined to Division 3 and 4 teams who don't get past the second round.
Mixed views remain about Tier 2, based mainly - and understandably - on the underwhelming experiences in the Tommy Murphy Cup and All-Ireland 'B' championship, which ran from 1990 to 2000.
As for where players stand, the signals are confusing. A GPA survey last November found 60pc of footballers in favour of Tier 2.
That's after declaring in 2016 that they would boycott a proposed 'B' championship for Division 4 teams.
Also, was it 60pc of players likely to be impacted or did it include everybody? Players from the strong counties, who will never have to look towards Tier 2, are unlikely to have considered it in any detail.
That makes their opinion utterly worthless, yet presumably it carried the same weight in the survey as Division 3 and 4 teams.
This season may bring an end to the fully-inclusive qualifiers, which is certainly favoured by the top brass if a Tier 2 competition is brought in.
Why not have both, thus ensuring equality of opportunity for all, before adding a bonus for lower-ranked counties?
Offaly gone to the dogs
Offaly hurling people would never have countenanced a situation where games involving Laois and Westmeath would be so important to the future well-being of the game in the county.
But that’s exactly the situation which arises next Saturday when all Offaly can do is wait for events to unfold at the Kerry v Laois and Antrim v Westmeath Joe McDonagh Cup games.
Wins or draws for Kerry and Westmeath would leave Offaly with no escape from relegation, even if they beat Kerry in their final game.
It would see Offaly drop to the third championship tier, for counties ranked 16-20, three months after they were relegated to 2A (counties ranked 13-18) in the Allianz League.
“There’s no team in the final yet, there’s no team relegated, so it’s all to play for. It’s going to be a dogfight for everyone,” said caretaker manager Joachim Kelly after the defeat by Antrim last Saturday.
The trouble for Offaly is their dog may have had its last real fight of the year.
'Master' gesture for Mayo doctor
It’s nice to see Dr Mick Loftus being recognised by having the cup for the All-Ireland Football Masters’ Championship named after him.
One of the main drivers behind the launch of the initiative many years ago, he believed that it could fill an important sporting and social role for over-40s.
It had its difficulties at various times, including an over-zealous approach by some players who appeared to think they were considerably younger. An insurance issue also arose. All has been sorted out and interest in the competition is increasing.
Naming the cup after Dr Mick, a sub on the last Mayo team to win the senior All-Ireland in 1951, ensures that he will always be synonymous with an excellent concept. It’s the least he deserves after a lifetime of service to the GAA, which took him all the way to the presidency in 1985-88.
A man of great principle, he always had the courage to publicly back his convictions, even any that ran against the general trend.