Thursday 23 November 2017

Martin Breheny: Time for revamp after 15 seasons of qualifiers

Wicklow duo Tony Hannon, left, and Ciaran Hyland celebrate Wicklow’s win over Cavan during their remarkable qualifier run of 2009
Wicklow duo Tony Hannon, left, and Ciaran Hyland celebrate Wicklow’s win over Cavan during their remarkable qualifier run of 2009
Seanie Furlong celebrates with his team-mates after the victory against Down
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

They may not be the most troublesome teenagers in town, but the parents still have their concerns.

The All-Ireland football qualifiers, now in their 15th season, are attracting a growing sense that they need to be stress-tested for wear and tear.

There's no great clamour for their abolition, but questions continue to arise under the fit-for-purpose heading and whether tweaks - or indeed major readjustments - are required.

Even GAA president Aogán O Fearghaill has reservations. Within minutes of taking office in February, he said that many counties were uncomfortable with the qualifier format.

"It is an area where we will listen to people and look for good proposals to work on," he said.

That process is now under way as part of a broader review of championship structures, with the proposals that emerge to be discussed by Central Council in November.

It's close on 15 years since the proposal to change the century-old system where only provincial winners qualified for the All-Ireland series was voted in.

A committee, chaired by current GAA Director General, Paraic Duffy, devised the new format, following rejection of a complicated proposal by a Football Development Committee, which involved linking Connacht/Ulster and Leinster/Munster, with games played on a League basis.

The Duffy formula, involving a second chance for all teams beaten in the provincial championships, won support on the basis of its simplicity at a time when there was growing dissatisfaction with a system where 16 counties only got one game in summer.

However, the new plan wasn't without its critics. Indeed, it drew trenchant opposition from some quarters at a Special Congress, led by Kildare's Seamus Aldridge, then Leinster Council chairman.

He claimed that it would damage the provincial championships and compared the second chance concept as akin to asking children if they wanted one or two plates of jelly.

"They'll always opt for two," he said.


Meath's Mick O'Brien had an even more vivid comparison as he fought to retain the primacy of the provincial championships in the All-Ireland race.

"We're sending a man to his death while he is the peak of his health," he said.

Galway also opposed the plan, arguing the 'back door' would wreck the provincial championships. However, the majority of counties backed the idea.

And, in a delightful irony for Galway, they became the first All-Ireland winners, via the 'back door' in 2001, beating Meath in the final. Under the old system, Meath would have played either Tyrone or Roscommon and, quite probably, won the title.

Since then, five other All-Ireland titles have been won through the qualifiers. Indeed, there was widespread concern in 2010 that the provincial championships were losing their impact as all four champions (Kerry, Meath, Tyrone, Roscommon) were beaten in the quarter-finals.

There has been a dramatic change since then, with 15 of the 16 provincial champions winning their quarter-finals. Monaghan (2013) were the exception, losing to Tyrone.

The return of the provincials as the main providers of All-Ireland semi-finalists, has taken some of the heat off the qualifiers, but there are other issues, which provide critics with legitimate grounds for complaint.

In his presentation to the Special Congress in 2000, Duffy outlined the main attractions of the proposed new system as offering every county a second chance in the All-Ireland championship, while retaining the integrity of the provincial competitions.

However, there was an expectation in many quarters that it would prove hugely beneficial to weaker counties, although how anyone believed that giving them a second chance would cure all their ills remains a mystery.

Certainly, there have been instances of inspiring qualifier runs by counties who haven't won provincial titles for a very long time or ever, in the case of Fermanagh and Wicklow.

Fermanagh reached the All-Ireland semi-final in 2004 while Wicklow enjoyed a remarkable run in 2009, beating Fermanagh, Cavan and Down on three successive never-to-be forgotten Saturday evenings in Aughrim.

Wexford, who last won the Leinster title in 1945, reached the 2008 All-Ireland semi-final while Limerick, whose only Munster title was won in 1896, got to experience an All-Ireland quarter-final in 2011.

There have been several unexpected one-off successes too, not least by Longford, who beat Derry three times since 2006 while also ousting Mayo in 2010.

However, for all the qualifier surprises, the overall picture is somewhat different.

Leitrim's win over Wicklow in 2012 remains their only qualifier success from 15 games. Waterford and London have also had only one win each; Carlow and Clare have each won four games while Antrim won five.

Even Offaly, a county that would have expected to exploit the second chance, have won only seven qualifiers.

At the top end of the market, Kerry have never lost a qualifier; Dublin have lost one; Cork have lost three. Tyrone, who have been very busy on the qualifier circuit, have lost only four of 28 games and are favourites to improve on that against Sligo next Saturday.

It was always certain that the stronger counties would benefit most from the qualifiers, but the danger now is that disillusion is setting in among their weaker counterparts as they realise that the second chance doesn't make any appreciable difference.

Indeed, a growing number of players are heading to the US between the defeats in the provincials and the start of the qualifiers, further reducing their counties' prospect of making any progress through the 'back door', while also highlighting their own lack of interest.

A series of one-sided games in Leinster, Connacht and Munster this year has led to calls for a second tier championship so as to offer lower tier counties an achievable target.

However, if that's to happen, it will probably mean the end of the 'back door' route for several counties, since the fixtures' grid could not accommodate provincial, qualifier and second-tier competitions.

That was tried with the Tommy Murphy Cup in 2004-2008, but did not catch on, before being dropped from the schedule.

Excluding Division 4 teams from the qualifiers applied for a few years too, before its apparent unfairness led to a rethink.

The big challenge now is to find a way of streamlining the system so that it offers every county the best possible chance of making the most of itself and its resources.

The provincial championship system will not be changed so whatever second chance system applies must be fitted around that starting point.

Perhaps a way forward would be for Division 3 and 4 teams that do not reach their provincial semi-finals, to enter a separate qualifier competition, with the winner qualifying for the All-Ireland quarter-finals.

It would guarantee one of the lower-ranked counties a big-time game in Croke Park in August, plus the chance to pull off a major shock. It's worth a try, even on an experimental basis.

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