John McEntee: Provincial progress counts for little in the Qualifiers

Carlow players celebrate their Leinster SFC quarter-final win over Kildare, but in all likelihood the Lilywhites will remain in the Championship longer than the Barrowsiders Picture by Sportsfile

THERE'S something about the Qualifiers system that doesn’t sit well with me.

I should preface this column by saying I’m a traditionalist who loves a good old winner-takes-all approach.

It seems that the team beaten in their first match, at the preliminary or quarter-final stage, is favoured to progress over the teams who won their first provincial match but bow out at the semi-final or final stage.

To illustrate my point I will look at the 2018 schedule using counties from different provinces, starting off with Ulster and Armagh. On May 19 Armagh succumbed to the ravages of Fermanagh to be booted out of the Ulster Championship.

What followed was a three-week break to iron out their tactical woes, overcome their knocks and injuries before playing Westmeath, a team rudderless and bereft of quality, who have only gotten worse since their nine-point drubbing by Armagh on the February 4.

Armagh now face Sligo on June 23 in what is sure to be another one-sided affair – I say with bated breath.

Compare that to Down, who reached an Ulster final last year to be beaten the next day out by Monaghan and who are beaten semi-finalists this year, only to face a resurgent Cavan team in the Qualifiers.

In all likelihood, Armagh will remain longer in this competition than their dear neighbours two years in-a-row. I’m not complaining, but it does seem unfair.

Kildare provide a similar example. Their meek exit to Carlow on May 27 has been erased by a comprehensive victory over Derry at the weekend. As Tiger Woods once said, winning takes care of everything.

In three weeks they travel to Glennon Brothers Pearse Park, Longford to play a team totally demoralised by a 19-point drubbing in the Leinster semi-final.

On the same day, Carlow’s run will likely come to an end as they face a formidable Tyrone team licking their wounds and riding their luck.

Fairytales are supposed to have a happy ending – but not in the GAA.

Some will say the system favours the best teams as it gives them a second chance, almost as a means of redemption. What is in it for Carlow? A couple of wins and a couple of beatings?

They will be applauded for their efforts and they might even be held as an example of what is possible if so-called weaker counties put their mind to a task. Heck, even their management team might be invited to speak at dinners but the players will get quickly forgotten and they can plan their summers in the States. Worst of all, they will be patronised by RTE for the next three months. It hardly seems fair.

Mayo exited the Connacht Championship three years in-a-row at the hands of Galway. Yet in each year Galway faded away as the summer came to a close while Mayo roared into another All-Ireland final.

If a team beats another time after time they can rightly claim to be a better side, yet they are unable to progress to the later stages of the Championship. Surely this is because the system favours the teams who exit early.

Admittedly, Mayo stuttered and stumbled their way through the 2017 Qualifiers but it can also be said that their first quality opposition was at the All-Ireland semi-final stage. Kerry were the first Division One team they faced last year.

It is apparent that teams who exit early are less likely to face the top opposition, unless your luck really runs out.

The Championship structure frees up several weeks for them to sort their issues out and to build momentum. I know there are those in favour of an open Championship format which removes the provincial competitions. In the absence of widespread consensus on this topic, I feel it is high time Croke Park explored ways of rewarding teams who reach provincial finals.

Some suggestions would be for each round to have a fully open draw and to give the beaten provincial semi-finalist and finalist home advantage rather than advantage being afforded to lower division sides.

Secondly, rather than the gap between each round reducing from three weeks to one week for some counties, the spacing should be set at two weeks between each round to enable the newly defeated team more time to prepare.

The Qualifiers provide teams with two additional matches before reaching the ‘Super 8’ series. Some would argue the extra games are better preparation, while others would suggest they can contribute to player fatigue and an increase in injuries. I’m with the first camp on this one.

What is very clear is that the likelihood of a team coming from nowhere to win an All-Ireland is virtually nil. The traditional powerhouses of Kerry and Dublin have won 64 titles between them. Expect this number to rise.

As for Carlow, Tipperary, Roscommon and Monaghan – their success will be measured by the distance travelled rather than titles gained.

The big team who entered the Qualifiers early on will return to have the last laugh, like the dog returning to bite you on the behind.

It hardly seems fair.

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe from just £1 for the first month to get full access