O'Neill hints at qualifier change
'There has to be some sort of rethink', admits GAA president as Leitrim official suggests county should drop back to junior status
GAA president Liam O'Neill has raised the prospect of overhauling the current football qualifier system in the wake of a suggestion from a Leitrim official that the county should regrade to junior status.
As the GAA prepares to welcome its biggest crowd of the summer to Croke Park for Sunday's Leinster football final – with over 55,000 expected – while 'a sold-out' sign is in prospect for the Ulster football decider between Donegal and Monaghan in Clones, O'Neill has acknowledged that the plight of the weakest counties is getting worse.
Leitrim secretary Diarmuid Sweeney's alarming call for his county to consider a step back after heavy successive defeats to Armagh and Down in qualifiers has raised questions about the current system, O'Neill admitted at yesterday's launch of the All-Ireland series of the hurling championships at St Joseph's Doora-Barefield club in Clare.
Despite the failure of the Football Review Committee's proposals for four provincial championships of eight teams, O'Neill is keen for further debate to address the issue of some football teams being cut so far adrift.
"The qualifiers are being questioned because realistically, no matter what system you have, there's a group of eight or 10 who are going to come through anyway.
"People are taking the view that the longer you're in the qualifiers, the more costly it is to keep going, if you haven't a reasonable chance of getting to the quarter-finals.
"While we probably won't go back to a 'B' championship, I think there has to be some rethink on what we're doing with counties like Leitrim for whom the qualifiers have never made much sense. They've never had any great success (in the qualifiers) and I think the county secretary has expressed that recently.
"So, when you hear someone from a county like that expressing reservations about it, you have to at least give an ear to him and see what proposals he has.
"I've said I want a debate on it. I want people to discuss it at least. If you keep on doing the same thing, over and over again, you're going to get the same results.
"But if we want things to change, then we have to change something in the mix. The debate is probably best carried on among those counties who've had least success in the qualifiers and for whom it has sometimes been a costly experience just prolonging the inevitable and keeping them from their basic mission of playing club games."
The Tommy Murphy Cup, designed to reroute some of the weaker teams into a separate competition away from mainstream qualifiers, was wound down because some of the counties wanted to remain part of the bigger picture.
"I think it was expressed at Central Council level by the Waterford delegate Paddy Joe Ryan, who said openly that they might only beat Kerry once every 50 years, but they'd like a shot at them. And that victory, once every 50 years, is justification for being in that championship," said O'Neill.