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Martin Breheny: Where have all the big shocks gone in football?


Limerick v Cork, 2003 Munster Quarter-final, Páirc uí Chaoimh

Limerick v Cork, 2003 Munster Quarter-final, Páirc uí Chaoimh

Limerick v Cork, 2003 Munster Quarter-final, Páirc uí Chaoimh

If Dublin, Kerry and Mayo are to retain the Leinster, Munster and Connacht football titles respectively, they need to win seven games between them.

Their rivals include counties that have won five All-Ireland and 26 provincial titles between them over the last 20 years, yet a treble on Dublin (1/8), Kerry (1/2) and Mayo (10/11) would pay marginally over 3/1.

Indeed, if it weren't for the venue (Pearse Stadium) of the Galway-Mayo Connacht semi-final, the defending champions would be priced even shorter to complete a five-timer.

Therein rests a new difficulty for three of the four provincial championships. They lack competitiveness in recent times and, if anything, are becoming more of a monopoly than ever.

Dublin are pursuing their second provincial five-in-a-row in 11 seasons. Mayo are two wins away from taking Connacht for a fifth successive year, something they last achieved in 1906-10, while Kerry have won four of the last five Munster titles.

Ulster is different as it retains the sharp competitive edge that has always made it the most unpredictable of the provinces.

That's very much the case again this year, with five of the remaining seven contenders priced between 13/8 (Monaghan) and 11/1 (Down).

Monaghan's elevation to favouritism is down to them being on the perceived easier half of the draw (they play Antrim or Fermanagh in the semi-final), whereas Donegal, Armagh, Derry and Down are on the other side.

Ulster is fine, certainly in terms of competitiveness. The last seven titles have been shared between Armagh, Tyrone, Donegal and Monaghan while Antrim, Fermanagh, Down and Derry reached finals.

That leaves Cavan as the only county not to experience Ulster final day in that relatively short period. Indeed, they have not been in the final since 2001.

The big issue in the other provinces is the sheer predictability of them all.

Real shocks are now extremely rare, days when so-called superpowers are beaten against the odds.

Pre-2001 that meant the end of the championship line and that awful empty feeling as the summer campaign came to a shuddering halt, sometimes quite early.

It was raw and brutal and, in terms of providing value for money for counties who had spent heavily on preparing teams, was ridiculously wasteful.

It also greatly restricted the GAA's exposure throughout the summer, something that didn't make sense then and certainly would not make sense now at a time when global sports are on TV every day of the year.

Still, there was something beautifully exciting about having a big shot silenced, with no provision for a re-load.

The introduction of the All-Ireland qualifiers in 2001 changed that, allowing provincial casualties a second chance. Naturally, the stronger counties fared better as it gave them another opportunity if things went wrong the first day.

And, in the case of Kerry and Cork, it regularly presents one of them with an All-Ireland quarter-final place and the other with a Round 4 qualifier game. It's all so cosy for Munster's 'Big Two'.

Contrast that with Tyrone, who will enter the qualifiers in Round 1 this year. Donegal have already beaten Tyrone, yet they, too, will be in Round 1 if they lose to Armagh in the quarter-final.

The issue of whether the All-Ireland qualifiers in their current format are still fit for purpose is becoming increasingly relevant, but even more important is the lop-sidedness of the provincial championships, apart from Ulster.

It's only 12 and 11 years respectively since Laois and Westmeath beat Dublin in the Leinster championship. Seven years ago, Westmeath ran Dublin to two points in the semi-final in front of a crowd of 67,075 for a stand-alone fixture in Croke Park.

Five years ago, Meath beat Dublin by nine points in the Leinster semi-final; four years ago Kildare ran them to a point and three years ago, Laois came within three points of them in the All-Ireland quarter-final. Wexford too, did quite well against Dublin on a few occasions too.

Now, there's a feeling that anything less than a seven-point defeat by Dublin is a reasonably good performance by their Leinster rivals.

Munster too has returned to the Kerry-Cork duopoly after being broken by Clare in 1992 and 1997 and seriously challenged by Limerick and Tipperary in the early years of the new Millennium.


Tipperary came within seconds of beating Cork in the 2002 Munster final and, a year later, Limerick beat the Rebels in the championship for the first time for the first time since 1965. And in Páirc Uí Chaoimh too.

Limerick were very unlucky to be held to a draw to Kerry in the 2004 Munster final and ran them close in other campaigns too around that time.

Sligo's win over Galway in the 2007 Connacht final was their first success over the Tribesmen since 1975.

Sligo have beaten Galway twice since then, but that's more a reflection of the latter's decline than any great surge by the Markievicz men.

After all, Galway lost to Antrim, Westmeath and Wexford and were run to a point by Tipperary and Waterford in the qualifiers over the last decade, results that wouldn't have been countenanced in maroon-and-white land in the glory days when they were winning All-Ireland titles under John O'Mahony. The reality is that lower standards in all but a minority of counties have greatly reduced the possibility of surprises, both in the provincial championships and the qualifiers.

Granted, Longford, who were relegated to Division 4 last year, later beat Derry, who were beaten Division 1 finalists, in the qualifiers, but their subsequent wipe-out by Tipperary suggested that the win in Celtic Park had a freakish dimension.

The shortage of upsets is a major negative for the Leinster, Connacht and Munster championships.

The extent of the imbalances is underpinned by Longford's 25/1 odds to beat Dublin (1/200) tomorrow.

Longford were promoted to Division 3 last month, yet the markets are quoting Dublin as tight as 4/6 to win by 16 or more points tomorrow.

Dublin should be warm favourites but has the gap between them and a county who ran them to two points in their last championship clash in 2006 widened so much? And if so, why?

The question of whether the provincial championship system is any longer appropriate remains a matter of hot debate but, to some degree, it's missing the point.

The provincial system is clearly unfair, but it's now being impacted on by another corrosive issue, the absence of unpredictability everywhere except Ulster.

Tomorrow's Dublin-Longford clash is most unlikely to help in that regard. Leinster is all the weaker for that.

Provincial tremors 1995-2015

The top 10 upsets in the provincial football championship over the last 20 years


Cork were defending Munster champions, but were blown away in what was Limerick first win over the Rebels since 1965. Muiris Gavin scored 0-9 for the Liam Kearns- managed Limerick squad. They later beat Clare before losing the final to Kerry by five points.


Managed by Páidí O Sé, Westmeath recorded their first championship win over Dublin since 1967. It launched a glory campaign which saw them beat Wexford and Laois, winning the Leinster title for the first time.

3 MONAGHAN 0-13 ARMAGH 0-9 2003 ULSTER 1ST ROUND, CLONES The injury-hit reigning All-Ireland champions didn’t get past the Ulster round, having been ambushed by a Monaghan team that had lost to Fermanagh by eight points and to Kerry by 17 points in the 2002 championship. Armagh recovered and reached the All-Ireland final.


Martin Daly’s stoppage-time goal clinched Clare’s first championship win over Cork for 65 years. Larry Tompkins, who was in his first season as Cork manager, led them to the League final lost to Kerry, only to be stunned by Clare some weeks later. Clare lost the Munster final to Kerry by five points.


Colm McFadden scored 1-7 as Donegal out-gunned the defending All-Ireland champions in every department. Donegal lost to Armagh in the final by 13 points. Tyrone lost the All-Ireland quarter-final to Mayo.


As in 2004, Tyrone found in 2006 that being reigning All-Ireland champions, counted for nothing in Ulster. The scored a meagre 0-5 at home against a Derry team that were well beaten by Donegal in the semi-final.


Laois had made excellent progress under Mick O’Dwyer but weren’t expected to dethrone the reigning Leinster champions. However, they rose splendidly to the occasion and went on to win the title for the first time in 57 years.


Meath beating Dublin is not or least that used to be the case unusual but this was different as they hit Pat Gilroy’s men for five goals before beating Louth controversially in the final.


Kieran’s McGeeney’s first championship game as Kildare manager ended in defeat against the Mick O’Dwyer-inspired Wicklow side. It was Wicklow’s first championship win in Croke Park and only their second in championship history against Kildare.

10 LONDON 2-11 LEITRIM 1-13 2013 CONNACHT SEMI-FINAL REPLAY, DR. HYDE PARK The third leg of a big treble for London who had beaten Sligo and drawn with Leitrim before clinching a place in the final. London lost heavily to Mayo but it was still a remarkable season for Paul Coggins’ men.

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