Joe Kernan welcomes the end of the luck of the Ulster draw

Counties finding themselves in province’s preliminary round will be exempt for following two years

All-Ireland winning manager Joe Kernan has welcomed the Ulster Council's decision to mitigate the impact of the province's preliminary round by partially rotating the teams involved. Traditionally, having to play the extra round has been seen as a disadvantage and the new rules mean that from 2020 counties in that position will be exempted from the preliminary draw in order to spread the burden.

Kernan’s Armagh were drawn in the preliminary round twice in his first four years in charge and whereas he believes that much depended on circumstances, he equally says that it was generally seen as a disadvantage.

“A lot depended on how you finished the national league and what injuries you were carrying into the championship. It also meant that you had to start early, which if you won and played well, gave you great early momentum. But Ulster is very competitive and sometimes you could find that playing an extra match could prove a hindrance later on in the year.

“When you have the extra match or maybe a draw thrown in, and you don’t win it out you could look back at everything and wonder did we peak too soon? I know that if teams lose they look for reasons why but most teams who were drawn in the preliminary round would have preferred if they hadn’t been.”


Uneven distribution

The initiative to change the open draw in the province was first floated by Ulster provincial secretary Brian McEvoy in his annual report last year when he pointed out that the province was the only one that didn’t have a seeded or conditioned draw of some sort.

He also referred to the statistics showing the disadvantage of being in the preliminary round and the uneven distribution of the counties involved over the years.

Only four Ulster titles have been won by counties coming from the earliest round – Cavan, 1945, Armagh 2005, Donegal 2011 and ’12 – and of those only Donegal six years ago have gone on to lift the All-Ireland.

Kernan was in charge in 2005 when the county beat Tyrone in the Ulster final replay before losing to them by just a point in the All-Ireland semi-final. He accepts that the preliminary round can give a team an early lift.

“Nothing beats playing matches and if they’re competitive and you keep winning it’s great but it’s also about timing and getting it right. The problem for us is that we had to play in it twice in three years.”

Huge upset

Two years previously he saw the other side of the coin when as All-Ireland champions for the first time, Armagh were beaten in a huge upset by Monaghan before reaching the All-Ireland final through the qualifiers.

“In 2003, we were minus four All Stars and Monaghan were well up for it. We probably were suffering from a bit of a hangover after the All-Ireland the previous year so I wouldn’t blame that just on the preliminary round.

“When you’re missing a few men and get a hard match that’s the danger. Two or three weeks and we would have had the players back. We were just unlucky but we picked ourselves up and reached the final that year.

“Ourselves and Fermanagh seemed to be drawn it a lot and if this new system spreads it out a bit, that’s good.”

Fermanagh have the most put-upon team with seven appearances in the preliminary round in the past 20 years, including the two most recent seasons. Derry have been the most fortunate with just two.

Those in between were: six, Cavan, five, Donegal and Down, four, Monaghan, Tyrone and Armagh, three, Antrim.

Seán Moran

Seán Moran

Seán Moran is GAA Correspondent of The Irish Times