Reality of knockout championship laid bare with provincial draws
‘You cannot lie to players. It can be a massive downer but it can also be a challenge’
Dublin’s Stephen Cluxton lifts the the Delaney Cup after Dublin won the Leinster Championship once again last year. Photo: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
The idea that the GAA’s championship draws were like some tasty roast joint that could be sliced up and served in six different sittings proved optimistic earlier this week.
The cast of contenders remains small and in the absence of All-Ireland qualifiers the prospect of a parallel life outside of the provinces no longer exists. This added frisson and opportunity last year with novel provincial champions in Munster and Ulster, but the cold reality of the championship clicked back into the viewfinder in the past few days.
Tipperary, whose first senior football title in 85 years came as an outstanding achievement, get ready now to take on Kerry, who are favoured to get past Clare and reach the Munster semi-final. It will be Clare’s seventh championship meeting with Kerry in the past eight years and to date they have nothing to show for it.
John Evans has managed counties in three provinces - Wicklow, Roscommon and Tipperary - and knows the impact of an unfavourable draw.
“I remember with Tipperary we got Kerry three years in a row. They were on a downer for about a week but then they picked up momentum in the league and we’re going to put it up to Kerry. Then by the time you were within six weeks of the championship you were ready for road.
“You deserved to give them a shot. You deserved to be able to say ‘these guys might have an off-day’.
“For Wicklow, we had a first round against Offaly but then it was Dublin. You had to change it around a bit. You couldn’t motivate a team to go beating Dublin from where Wicklow were.
“So we reversed and accepted that Dublin were Dublin but we would go out and give a good performance and that they did. They got the best score against Dublin in Leinster that year.”
Leinster champions for 15 of the past 16 years, Dublin epitomise the unfriendly draw. Denis Connerton managed Longford in a bruising semi-final defeat after good results early in the province and decent showings in the qualifiers.
“No matter what draw you get and negotiate in Leinster you’re going to have to play Dublin. They’ve no equals so once you’re playing them, prepare for the qualifiers and there’s no qualifiers this year.
“Leinster is the really lopsided one. Dublin are a fantastic team that don’t seem to malfunction at all. They’re like a machine coming at you and there’s not much point in saying that I want to keep A, B, C quiet because you’ll be down at the 15th letter of the alphabet.”
For Evans the lack of All-Ireland qualifiers leaves less successful counties on a hiding to nothing.
“In the Aintree Grand National the whole idea is to get around and maybe win it but you have to get around first. If you fall at the first fence, then it’s a terrible season for you - left watching everybody. You then have to ask is it worth it putting in a big effort for two or three months to come up short on day one.”
No real choice
Connerton thinks that this season, like last year, just needs to be got through and there wasn’t any real option but to retain the sudden-death format.
“We’re still in the middle of the pandemic so there’s no real choice. The knockout is as good as we can expect.
“I think the provincial titles are finished. They mean more in some provinces than others. Tipperary winning last year was lovely but will they be capable of repeating that this year?”
There was a sense last year, borne out by results that top teams were more vulnerable with no qualifiers to fall back on, which left Kerry and Donegal as the two most notable fallers.
“Another aspect is that because the season is shorter guys will not be at their best until later in the championship,” according to Evans. “Because there’s only four games in the league there is a belief that top teams can be got at in the early rounds of the championship - that they have a better chance than if they had got them with a longer league and a fuller season. Better teams would be better prepared.”
Ultimately, though, there are limits to what can be achieved.
“You cannot lie to players. You cannot fool them. It can be a massive downer but it can also be a challenge but only if it’s within your scope.”