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Pressing the reset button – The qualifiers with a chance to rewrite their summer

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The Monaghan squad join the team photograph ahead of the Ulster semi-final against Derry. Monaghan will be a handful in the Qualifiers. Photo by Daire Brennan/Sportsfile

The Monaghan squad join the team photograph ahead of the Ulster semi-final against Derry. Monaghan will be a handful in the Qualifiers. Photo by Daire Brennan/Sportsfile

The Monaghan squad join the team photograph ahead of the Ulster semi-final against Derry. Monaghan will be a handful in the Qualifiers. Photo by Daire Brennan/Sportsfile

It’s a qualifier draw with a difference and easily the most competitive first round in the 22 years since the back door was first opened to provincial losers.

The trimming of Tailteann Cup teams has, at least in theory, made the pathways more difficult but a shorter run to quarter-finals will be less taxing on those with ambition to go further.

The draw for the first round takes place on Monday morning next and in the mix will be last year’s All-Ireland finalists, champions Tyrone and Mayo, in addition to two other Division 1 teams, Armagh and Monaghan.

For some like Mayo, Tyrone and Armagh, out of provincial championship for five to six weeks, the opportunity to reset will be welcomed. Others like Monaghan, Meath and even Clare suffered tough provincial defeats in different ways.

Here’s a glance at how the eight are shaping up and what they can look forward to most ahead of the first round in just over two weeks’ time.

MAYO
Gap since last game – 6 weeks

Injuries were a factor when they played Kerry in the league final and Galway in the first round in Connacht and they would appear to be still an issue now. Paddy Durcan should be back but Oisín Mullin has a bit to go, as has Jordan Flynn and Robbie Hennelly. It’s all been a little too attritional for them.

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Still, six weeks on, Cillian O’Connor should have made progress while time will also have allowed them to focus on making themselves harder to break down defensively. Treading the qualifier path successfully is something the county, if not all the players, are accustomed to and maybe a visit to one of the three Ulster venues is what they need to jolt their season properly into life.

ARMAGH
Gap since last game – 6 weeks

Maybe no team is looking forward to potential redress in qualifiers more than Armagh. After a productive start to the league that tapered off, they lacked conviction against Donegal when it mattered most which will hurt them, particularly the perception that they are “big men when it doesn’t count” as espoused by Dick Clerkin in his Irish Independent column. The former Monaghan player isn’t alone in that view. Armagh have the framework of a team that can progress to quarter-finals, provided aggression is channelled in the right way. Tiernan Kelly will be a loss but Ciarán Mackin, who missed the Donegal defeat, could be back.

TYRONE
Gap since last game – 5 weeks

An infusion of youth is expected in Tyrone with the graduation of a trio of All-Ireland U-20 winners, including Ruairí Canavan, to the senior squad. Buoyed by that All-Ireland success, there’s the potential to look more positively towards qualifiers where historically Tyrone have enjoyed much success, winning All-Ireland finals in 2005 and 2008 and reaching the 2018 All-Ireland final through the back door. No county has a better record. Some of their best performers in 2021 will have had a bit of time and respite to rediscover some form in the five weeks. Conor McKenna and Cathal McShane are the two they need the biggest advance from.

CLARE
Gap since last game – 5 weeks

Stung by the only championship loss on penalties since the rule was introduced, Clare can look at it, in the cold light of day, and realise that the (slightly) easier route to another All-Ireland quarter-final is to play a first round qualifier rather than a second round after a potential defeat to Kerry. For the Limerick game they were missing Cathal O’Connor, Keelan Sexton and goalkeeper Stephen Ryan. O’Connor and Sexton will be back, two big additions, while they haven’t lost anyone. Getting on the road for qualifiers hasn’t been an issue in the past.

LOUTH
Gap since last game – 5 weeks

Another county who, after a hectic few weeks that incorporated a league title, the opportunity to reset will be appreciated. They’ll have been a little scarred by the scale of their defeat to Kildare, a reminder that as far as they have travelled there is quite a distance to go yet. Meath would be their perfect draw, Tyrone would be quite something given the presence of Mickey Harte on their sideline.

CORK
Gap since last game – 4 weeks

For Cork, read Mayo for injuries. Seán Meehan had already suffered a season-ending hamstring injury when Kevin Flahive tore a cruciate ligament against Kerry in the Munster semi-final. Their common denominator was security duties around David Clifford this year and last, restricting him to one point from play between them.

Flahive had Seán Powter as sweeper in front of him and it’s a system that they will look to refine and develop. There’s also a huge doubt around goalkeeper Micheál Aodh Martin who limped out the last day. The Kerry game got away from them but for three-quarters they were mightily competitive, enough to have a bounce in their step now.

MEATH
Gap since last game – 3 weeks

Probably the team with the most vulnerable state of mind after their latest mauling to Dublin that will have extinguished hope that they can mix it with the best. From where they were three years ago they have regressed and league stagnancy and last weekend’s outcome will have left them fragile. Most of the other seven will be sizing them up as the most appealing draw.

MONAGHAN
Gap since last game – 3 weeks

When they pick through the pieces of their defeat to Derry last Sunday, they’ll identify the third quarter as a time when they could have put much more pressure on than they did, closing the gap to three points at one stage. That they scored 17 times against a team that had restricted the All-Ireland champions to 10 scores two weeks earlier will encourage them, but the concession of three goals speaks to the need to consider an out-and-out sweeper to protect a defence that has become too easily exposed to runners. Very dangerous opponents, especially in Clones.


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