Monday 18 December 2017

The Great Debate: Should provincial winners who lose quarter-finals get a second chance?

Tyrone and Monaghan have both been beaten once in this year's Championship – the difference is that Tyrone still have a chance to lift Sam Maguire
Tyrone and Monaghan have both been beaten once in this year's Championship – the difference is that Tyrone still have a chance to lift Sam Maguire

Martin Breheny and Donnchadh Boyle

'Yes' says Martin Brehany: Here's the situation. Tyrone, who lost one game in this year's championship, are in the All-Ireland semi-final while Monaghan, who were also beaten once, are eliminated.

The difference? Tyrone's defeat came against Donegal in the first round of the Ulster Championship, which allowed them to re-mount for a second spin on the All-Ireland circuit.

Monaghan won the Ulster title, beating Donegal in the final, before losing to Tyrone in the All-Ireland quarter-final.

Ever since the 'back door' was opened in 2001, an anomaly has existed whereby provincial winners get no second chance if they lose quarter-finals.

Those defeats will always be at the hands of opposition, who have already lost a game.

Effectively, there's more joy in championship heaven for a team beaten in the provinces than for the winners, who lose an All-Ireland quarter-final.

Redesigning the All-Ireland format to ensure that the provincial champions have a safety net if they lose a quarter-final is not difficult.

Here's how it would work, based on this year's last eight. Instead of the four provincial winners playing four qualifier survivors in the quarter-finals, they would play against each other (Kerry v Monaghan; Dublin v Mayo).

Meanwhile, the four Round 4 qualifier winners (Tyrone, Fermanagh, Donegal, Kildare) would play off against each other, leaving two survivors.

They would then play the losers of Kerry v Monaghan and Dublin v Mayo.

Under that system, at least two of the four provincial winners are guaranteed to be in the All-Ireland semi-finals every year while the other two will have a second chance of making the last four.

Effectively, it means that the last six in the All-Ireland race are the four provincial winners, plus two qualifiers.

That asserts the primacy of the provincial championship as the basis for the All-Ireland championships, which was supposed to be the case when the qualifiers were introduced.

Originally, the provincial winners were supposed to have home advantage in the All-Ireland quarter-finals, but that never materialised. In 2001, the quarter-finals were played at neutral venues but, as their popularity became apparent, they were switched to Croke Park and remained there.

No doubt, the argument against reshaping the latter stages of the championship will point to the fact that in recent years, the provincial champions have won most of the quarter-finals. It wasn't always so (in 2010 all four were beaten) and may not be again.

'No' says Donnchadh Boyle

How many second chances can you give to teams and still call it a championship?

Admittedly, it seems like a nice idea in theory. Giving the provincial champions a get-out-of-jail-free card in the same way as everyone else seems fair and equitable but in reality it's just not how it works.

The provincial champions are just that - champions. Their reward for their run through their province is a trophy.

That trophy is one of just two pieces of championship silverware a team can win in a season. So clearly they have already gotten their reward. They don't need - or deserve - another one because they were beaten in a quarter-final.

Many will point to the experience of Monaghan and Donegal set against that of Tyrone. The Red Hand are still alive but the two sides who have dominated Ulster of late are both out of the running for Sam.

But Tyrone advanced on the basis of beating Monaghan in a game played at a neutral venue. If anything, Tyrone were at a disadvantage having played the previous weekend. And whatever points that can be made about that game and all that went on in it, Tyrone were clear and deserving winners.

In fact, a quick look at recent years shows that provincial champions have won 18 of the last 20 All-Ireland quarter-finals. Only Monaghan in 2013 and this year have failed to convert a domestic championship win into an All-Ireland semi-final appearance.

So if you were to allow provincial winners back into the race for Sam, there'd be more fixtures and repeat pairings and chaos.

As well as that it would devalue the provincial championships more than they already have been. It seems the provincial system is here to stay and as long as that is the case we should try and keep them as significant as possible.

The current system is far from perfect. The gap between league and championship is bizarrely long especially when you consider the rush to play matches in the early part of the year.

Teams can also stand idle for weeks on end in the middle of a campaign. That's what happens when you have five bodies (the four provincial councils and Croke Park) organising competitions that are separate in name but essentially interdependent.

Another back door would take away from the high-wire nature of football late in the summer. At least as things stand now, the stakes get higher as we head towards September They have to. Otherwise what are we playing for?

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