The Championship

Strongest counties would benefit most from proposed Championship changes

Tipperary may find it harder than ever to reach the All-Ireland semi-final stage if the proposed Championship changes are enacted 

BE CAREFUL what you wish for - or vote for.

The rest of this year may provide a glimpse of the future for most Ulster counties: no inter-county football for around five months. For only the third time in the modern football era - the 16th season of the Qualifiers - Ulster does not have a team involved in the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship semi-finals.

Many may think that’s a good thing, freeing up time and space in the calendar for the club scene. Yet, that might not seem so welcome if most counties have no inter-county football action year after year after year from mid-July onwards.

That’s the likely consequence of the most radical aspect of the GAA’s recent ‘Proposal on the format of the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship’. My colleague Cahair O’Kane spelled out on Tuesday what further damage he fears will be done to clubs by this proposal.

However, many counties could also suffer if the plan to introduce ‘Champions League-style’ group stages instead of All-Ireland quarter-finals gets the go-ahead. Most people could already name the bulk of the teams who will make up those two four-team groups: Dublin, Kerry, Mayo, Donegal, Tyrone, Cork and two others.

Despite how the GAA hierarchy are spinning it, Tipperary’s run to this year’s All-Ireland semi-final is the exception, not the rule. Guaranteeing extra games for the top teams will merely ensure the strong will get stronger, the rich richer and make it ever more difficult for the ‘weaker counties’ to reach those All-Ireland group stages. That has already been evident over the past decade and-a-half.

For all the talk that Ulster is the most competitive football province, recent times have been dominated by just four counties and very recent times by only three. Donegal have been in nine Ulster finals, Tyrone in seven and Monaghan and Armagh in five each. Otherwise, only Down have been in more than one provincial decider from 2001 onwards. Antrim, Cavan, Derry and Fermanagh have all had only one appearance each, with the Breffni Blues’ last such outing coming way back 15-years-ago.

Of course, the Qualifiers provide an alternative route to the All-Ireland quarter-finals, but that’s not followed as frequently as we might think. Forty-two of the 128 All-Ireland Football quarter-finalists so far have come from Ulster, or just under a third. That’s better than might be expected on a pro rata basis (nine counties out of 32 should have led to 36 All-Ireland quarter-final appearances by the law of averages), but it’s still not brilliant.

On average, that means two or three Ulster teams in the All-Ireland quarter-finals each season. In practice, it has meant two - the number of Ulster participants in the last-eight in 11 of the past 16 seasons. On four occasions, the northern province has provided half of the All-Ireland quarter-finalists although, interestingly, only one of those ‘dominant’ years led to Sam Maguire going north to Ulster, in 2003. Twice - in 2007 and 2004 - there have been three Ulster teams in the quarter-finals.

Antrim have never made the last-eight - although they were unfortunate to come up against Kerry in the Qualifiers just six days after their 2009 Ulster final appearance. Cavan have done so just once, three years ago, and they were fortunate their round four Qualifier opponents were London.

Down have reached the All-Ireland quarter-final stages just twice 

Down have been in just two All-Ireland quarter-finals and only once without having been in the Ulster final earlier in that campaign, on their remarkable run to the All-Ireland decider in 2010. Derry and Fermanagh have each made it to the All-Ireland quarter-finals three times (and onto the semi-finals twice and once respectively), on all occasions through the Qualifiers.

The Erne men got to the last-eight as recently as last year, but their previous appearance was 11 years earlier. The Oak Leafers are now looking into a decade-long gap since their last involvement in the All-Ireland quarter-finals.

Armagh were once regulars in the All-Ireland last-eight - with five consecutive appearances from 2002 to '06 inclusive - but their involvement at that stage two years ago was the first time since 2008. The Orchard men’s progress was mostly based on their period of domestic dominance - they only reached the quarter-finals through the Qualifiers twice, in 2003 and '14.

Monaghan have never got to the All-Ireland quarter-finals without having been in that year’s Ulster final, they went on from that stage to the last-eight in 2007 and in each of the three seasons before this one. Those recent achievements have been impressive, but they will be hard to sustain for such a small county.

So basically, most Ulster counties shouldn’t be thinking ‘Well, we’ve got a good chance of reaching those All-Ireland group stages’. The hard reality is that, unless you’re Donegal or Tyrone, you don’t. The Red Hands have reached 12 All-Ireland quarter-finals, half of those through the Qualifiers, including bouncing back from their solitary Ulster final replay defeat against Armagh in 2005.

Donegal have been in the last-eight 10 times, including the last six seasons in-a-row. Like Armagh in the previous decade though, their All-Ireland progress was largely based on their domestic dominance, only coming through the Qualifiers without an Ulster final appearance twice, in 2003 and '09. That’s 22 of the 42 Ulster appearances in All-Ireland quarter-finals between those two counties.

Perhaps this proposal would give more meaning to the provincial championships. Counties would see the great benefits, financial and otherwise, of reaching their provincial decider, as it would greatly enhance their chances of reaching the All-Ireland group stages. Yet, how many counties don’t already try their hardest to reach their provincial final?

The difference in the proposed future would be that big guns wouldn’t take their sights off the provincial scene, with half-an-eye looking ahead to the All-Ireland quarter-finals, as some may have done in recent times.

Instead, they would be fully focused on reaching their provincial final, making it harder than ever for other counties to break through. Indeed, the lure of group stage games and income may make certain counties in Ulster and Connacht push for some form of seeding, so that the luck of the draw doesn’t damage their chances of reaching their provincial final.

Rather than perhaps giving more games to the lesser lights, this proposal would probably only ensure even more matches - and more money - for the already more successful counties.

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The Championship