Qualifiers still have role in All-Ireland shake-up
No team unbeatable and chance exists for side with momentum, says ex-Dublin coach
Dublin’s Diarmuid Connolly is a current part of an intercounty set-up that has dominated in Leinster for the past decade. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
In the past four years the All-Ireland football championship has changed. Back in 2010, all four provincial champions were eliminated in the quarter-finals and the semi-finals were contested exclusively by counties who had emerged through the qualifier system.
There were predictable concerns that this development would have implications for the status of the provincial championships. In the years since however, the situation has reversed. During the first 10 years of the qualifiers more than half of the All-Ireland semi-finalists came through that system.
During the next four years, only one provincial winner – last year’s Ulster champions Monaghan – failed to progress to the last four and having provided 11 of the previous 20 All-Ireland finalists, the qualifiers system, introduced in 2001, hasn’t produced one in the past four years.
Mickey Whelan was Pat Gilroy’s coach when the county regained the All-Ireland title in 2011 after a gap of 16 years.
“It’s less competitive so it’s become easier for the top teams to win out in the provinces,” according to Whelan. “And I mean that in Ulster too.”
Statistics bear this out. Not alone have the provincial champions been clearly stronger in recent years but they have been largely the same ones. Dublin and Mayo have won all four in Leinster and Connacht since 2010 whereas Kerry and Donegal have three each in Munster and Ulster. Out of the 12 championships only two counties, Cork in 2012 and Monaghan last year have disrupted a clean sweep.
He doesn’t believe that the qualifiers have become redundant and attributes an important part of Dublin’s rise to the one season they did lose in the province, 2010.
“I don’t think any team is unbeatable and that gives a chance to others who have picked up momentum coming through and winning matches regularly. When Dublin were playing and winning Leinster before that they were able to go out very confident, knowing there was a back door for them.
“When they came out of Leinster there was no back door and they couldn’t hack it. They lost a big lead to Mayo and had a poor record in All-Ireland matches and suffered from the pressure of having no safety net there.
“Going through the back door was a very good experience for them and we worked on that. We knew that the idea of having no back door forced them to stand up and live this kind of pressure and we tried to recreate that pressure in training.”
Prof Niall Moyna was also a member of that backroom team. He says that being dominant in a province allows a team to take a long view in its preparations.
“Cork and Kerry have always had that advantage even though there have been dramatic improvements in Clare and Tipperary. They’re very different to other counties in that they can always guarantee they’ll be in an All-Ireland quarter-final or one game away every year.
“Dublin have been so far ahead of the other teams in Leinster for the best part of a decade that they can do the same and calibrate their year. What Kerry could do for years Dublin now have the luxury to do.
“Mayo are the same to a certain extent. I think they’ve learned the lessons of last year when they probably – I’m surmising – peaked too early for the Donegal match, which was an outstanding performance.”
John Maughan guided Mayo to All-Ireland finals in both pre-qualifier years and afterwards.
Speaking previously to this newspaper he summarised a similar dilemma for his county in the days before they became the dominant force in Connacht.
“Maybe because Mayo haven’t won an All-Ireland since 1951 we have great respect for the Connacht championship and provincial games do mean more to us than they do to Kerry and Tyrone. Mayo and Galway fight like tigers in the province.”
Looking back on 2004 when he led Mayo to the All-Ireland final against Kerry, eliminating the champions Tyrone along the way, Maughan remembered not being in optimum shape for the big day simply because he hadn’t felt in a position to time his team’s run.
“We played our best football in June and July. When it came to the later matches in hindsight we were on the slide. It’s hard to sustain the appetite and sharpness from one end of the season to the next but most counties can’t judge how far they’re going to go so you have to hit fitness at the end of May. You can’t afford to keep an eye on the All-Ireland when it’s four months away.”
Timing a run The difference now is that with an elite in command of each of the four provinces, they can pace themselves through the summer and hope to perpetuate their hold on the game.
This requires however parity between the provinces and that historically has been unusual. Ulster and Connacht have both gone long periods in the past without winning All-Irelands and in more recent times the Sam Maguire wasn’t seen in Leinster for 12 years up until 2011.
At the moment however the provinces – and planets – appear to be aligned.