GAA Football

Ulster SFC still thriving - but will failing other provinces kill it off?

Five Ulster teams are forced into round one of the qualifiers - on merit it should probably only be three.
Picture by Philip Walsh.

NEVER mind the cry of the curlew or puddle splashes not resonating quite so deeply, the real sound of the Irish summer is the hopeful shout that ‘The provincial football championships aren’t dead!’

Except they are.

Well, all except Ulster.

The northern tournament has already produced three competitive clashes in as many matches, including a thriller between Down and Armagh that needed extra time to separate those old rivals.

Sure, there’ve been three or four close games elsewhere, but Connacht champions Galway are already back in the western final, probably to meet Mayo.

Dublin will not only reach the Leinster decider but win it. Again. For the ninth year in a row.

Munster will, in all probability, come down to Cork and Kerry. And the Kingdom will triumph. For the seventh consecutive season.

Ulster, though?

Tyrone will reach the semi-finals, but I wouldn’t put much money on Donegal definitely getting past Fermanagh to meet the Red Hands. Nor would I bet a lot on the outcome of Cavan and Armagh in the last four pairing that is already known.

Ulster is unpredictable, no matter how great a team can look for a season or two.

Remember when we thought Tyrone were going to dominate for years after turning into a scoring machine? That was just two summers ago – and the Red Hands lost their first game last year, at home to boot.

Donegal took up that mantle, cruising to last year’s Anglo-Celt Cup in even more high-scoring, record-breaking fashion, but the bookies reckon the Red Hands are more likely to regain the trophy than Tir Chonaill are to retain it.

Remember when Armagh seemed to be in the Ulster Final every year? Well, they haven’t been in one since 2008, although they’re only one more win away from that stage now.

Is that enough to ensure the continuation of the provincial format?

So far this summer there’s been a much stronger case made for the introduction of tiered championships, despite some close-fought games.

All due respect to Antrim, but the likelihood is that they’ll become the seventh team from Division Four going into round one of the football qualifiers.

They’ll probably be joined there by six sides from Division Three, assuming that Dublin will defeat Louth, Meath will see off Carlow, and Kildare beat Longford (although those last two outcomes are not anywhere near as guaranteed as victory for the All-Ireland champs).

There are two reasons that there will be at least two Division Three teams NOT in the first stage of the qualifiers: Sligo had a free pass into the Connacht semi-finals, while Westmeath and Laois meet again in the Leinster quarters, having already contested the Division Three final.

So, putting it bluntly, the only county from the two lowest divisions that has actually achieved anything in avoiding round one of the qualifiers is Limerick, who won away to Tipperary. That was a laudable result for the Treatymen, but Tipperary football is not what it was, as evidenced by their relegation from Division Two.

Fermanagh might dethrone Ulster champions Donegal this Sunday, but that would hardly constitute a shock for several reasons: a) the Ernemen are at home; b) both teams were in Division Two this year; c) Fermanagh beat Donegal in Letterkenny earlier this season; and d) Fermanagh boss Rory Gallagher knows plenty about Donegal football.

As it stands, it looks like only one county which played Division One football earlier this year will miss out on a provincial semi-final place, namely Monaghan – and they only lost to another side that competed in the top flight, Cavan. To make matters tougher for Malachy O’Rourke’s men, they were hit by injuries, playing away from home, and suffered a terrible penalty award against them mere minutes into the match.

Besides, Cavan and Fermanagh would both be ‘Tier One’ teams in any current split anyway.

It’s beyond dispute that Ulster football has the greatest strength in depth.

There would be a twisted irony if the wonderful Ulster SFC was brought down by the weakness of other provinces.

The current format ensures that more than half of the teams from Ulster – five – MUST go into the first round of qualifiers, even though League performances suggest that should be limited to three or four at most.

At the other end of that scale, only two teams each from Connacht and Munster are bumped into round one of the All-Ireland series, when there should be three from the former and, for most years, at least three from the latter, if not four, judging by their League results.

Seven teams from Leinster in the opening stage of the qualifiers is generally about right.

Clearly, Ulster still suffers the most from the current, geography-based format.

The qualifiers have allowed northern teams to prove their quality in the long run, but they’re still at a disadvantage in the early part of the Championship summer – and that’s without getting into their tougher, tighter schedule.

In another irony, most, if not all, Ulster counties wouldn’t have it any other way, certainly not if it meant doing away with the Ulster SFC.

The voting mathematics at any Special Congress to consider change to the football championship format could be very interesting indeed.

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