Kevin McStay: Qualifiers may be imperfect, but light years ahead of the alternative
We discovered an old truth with the qualifiers – the best teams still get to the last eight
Conor McCarthy of Monaghan celebrates scoring a goal against Fermanagh in Clones on Sunday. The team’s reward is a date with Armagh. Photograph:Tommy Dickson/Inpho
On Monday morning, I sat down with a mug of tea and a pen and paper at the ready to listen to the qualifier draw on the radio: old habits. It brought back memories of the past few years when, as a manager, your mind would be racing. Those few seconds when the counties are revolving around this drum in a radio studio in Dublin leave you feeling entirely helpless. You are in the lap of the gods. Like all the other teams, you are crossing your fingers for a “good draw”.
This is the 19th year of the qualifiers, and they remain a very strange animal. Everyone thinks about them differently. The players and management can have directly opposing views. The supporters can be lukewarm about this long carnival through the backwaters of the championship which might, all going well, lead to Croke Park.
And many a county treasurer has undoubtedly lost a good night’s sleep over the qualifying system too. Hotels. Analysis. More training. It is an expensive progress.
In the early years it was virtually a stigma to find oneself in the qualifiers. It felt like charity, and, funnily, the lower- and middle-ranked teams were particularly hostile towards the idea of playing them.
The old knockout system was so deeply ingrained in the collective psyche that this second-chance idea felt like a cod. But it is worth remembering what the qualifiers replaced.
When I was a player it was everything on the day. Two summers stand out for me because they were mercilessly brief: 1986 and 1990. Mayo had been All-Ireland U-21 champions in 1983 and we went to an All-Ireland senior semi-final replay against Dublin in 1985. All of the indications were that 1986 was to be “the year”.
And Roscommon came in to MacHale Park early that summer and beat us. I still remember that evening: it was a very stark feeling of emptiness.
There was literally nothing to look forward to as a Gaelic footballer until October. It absolutely walloped the progress of that team. Some guys go to America. Some guys go on the beer. The club championship starts, and you don’t really have the heart for it. The notion of “team” utterly disintegrates. One day you are the coming team. Forty-eight hours later it feels like you don’t even have a team.
Things change fast
The same thing happened in 1990. This time we were trying to improve on an All-Ireland senior final appearance. And Galway did us in the first round. The following week, I played against Castlebar in the championship, got my leg broken and never played for Mayo again. Things change fast.
People are nostalgic for the gripping all-on-the-day thrill of the old knockout. And it had that, for sure. But it was a cruel system and such a waste really. You put six months into preparing for one game, and then after the first round half the counties in Ireland are out. It was a cull: a savage conclusion to the championship. All the confidence that might flow from a run just evaporates.
Throughout the 1990s I watched the same thing happen from the perspective of pundit, and shared in the gradual dawning that this severe system was not sustainable.
It is forgotten that the qualifiers were a compromise to the proposal of the committee chaired by the late Eugene McGee. They had gone for a very ambitious restructuring. But the politicking kicked in, and the idea never made it to congress. They were told to go back and think again and returned with the qualifiers. They were a big, big thing and there was a lot of fear about their consequences.
What did they set out to achieve? Well, they wanted to give every team a second chance. That was laudable. And it worked.
We discovered the old truth: the best teams still get to the last eight
One of the anomalies was that there was never a second chance for the provincial winner – or even any particular advantage to winning those titles. I suppose their consolation was that they exited with a tangible feeling of achievement – and a title.
I am sure there must have been improved finances for the GAA as well because there were more games.
The complaint has often been made that the qualifiers failed in their primary goal to improve the lot of the so-called weaker counties. And this is true, although I think that was an ambition that was attached to the qualifiers by media pundits rather than explicitly stated in its manifesto.
So we are in its 19th version now. The fear that it would destroy the integrity of the championship was untrue. It was new and novel and made things exciting. But we discovered the old truth: the best teams still get to the last eight. You can travel any road. There were a few romantic stand-outs – Fermanagh, Wexford and Tipperary all had huge moments and enjoyable days because they made the most of the qualifiers. But these were unforgettable because they were so rare: those teams defied the odds and the system.
When the qualifying system settled in the talk used to be of making it to the August bank holiday weekend. That became the official date when the process of eliminating the majority of teams ended and the ambition of winning the All-Ireland truly began. What the qualifiers did was give the strong teams the reassurance that they had two paths through to this date.
Galway benefitted dramatically in the very first year, bouncing from a shocking first-round defeat against Roscommon in Tuam to win the 2001 final in high style. Tyrone would follow their lead. And Tyrone, in particular, became a proven qualifier team. They know how to handle the complications of coping with the qualifiers.
With Roscommon I experienced the qualifiers from every perspective. I remember against Clare in 2016 we were outplayed and beaten. We had experienced a horrible loss against Galway in the Connacht championship. We had six days to turn it around. And we couldn’t. It is not a physical thing. What teams go through is akin to a hangover. That’s what the mind and body feel like.
The only way to get over it is the lottery of a good draw: a home fixture against a weak team that has suffered a bad defeat and a few red cards. Clare did not constitute that: they were a well organised and ambitious team under Colm Collins. We trained the Wednesday evening only. It is the sense that you have given completely of yourself to try to win your province. That had not happened. And you feel hollow. And now you are immediately asked to go and beat a team you hadn’t given a second thought to.
Positive and sharp
As a player you go through the motions of this. In contrast, we lost to Galway in a very competitive Connacht final in 2018. And we had a full two weeks to prepare for Armagh. That was an entirely different proposition. The mindset was positive and sharp. We felt we had the tools and time to plan to beat them and get to this new thing, the Super Eights. That’s what happened.
In the middle year, 2017, we went in as Connacht champions. We were feeling great and watching the qualifiers and enjoying training. And then came this karmic sense that fate would pair us with our neighbours Mayo in the All-Ireland quarter-final. And lo and behold, Mayo it was: another example of how a strong county can use the qualifiers to get to where they need to be.
Teams like Mayo absorb the disappointment of a provincial loss easier. They hear the criticism and regroup and vow to shove it to the world. They have bigger panels and they are clad with a belief that they belong in the last eight. That can make a world of difference.
There is nothing easy if the draw isn’t kind on you. It becomes a kind of guerilla war
When the Super Eights came in to replace the August bank holiday quarter-finals it offered a further carrot to big counties who found themselves in the qualifiers. Just get there and then you have three games to iron out your problems.
Yet for an emerging team – like Roscommon last year – the Super Eights can be harsh. Roscommon made it after that qualifier win over Armagh. But what happens then is a team gets three beatings from the bigger counties instead of one. It was a chastening experience. It reaffirms the view that despite everything the system is still tilted in favour of the stronger counties.
But for all of that, there is a certain risk in falling into the world of the qualifiers too. It can punish the strong teams occasionally. Look at Monaghan’s situation this summer. On Sunday they came through a gruelling game against Fermanagh. And their reward is a date with Armagh.
There is nothing easy if the draw isn’t kind on you. It becomes a kind of guerilla war.
We kind of expect teams like Monaghan and Tyrone and Mayo to somehow force their way through while adapting and dealing with various internal issues. They have this aura and weight of reputation.
So the draw was announced on Monday morning, and there was only one big humdinger match up: Monaghan versus Armagh.
What it means is that the most of the big teams should probably survive. Because of that the qualifying pool is slowly beginning to simmer into a very dramatic conclusion. It could mean a final pot of eight featuring Division One calibre teams like Tyrone, Cork, Meath, Cavan, Donegal, Armagh, Galway, Roscommon, Monaghan. Every game could be a cracker and whichever four teams get through to the Super Eights will have a lot of football played.
The qualifiers are probably coming to the end of their time, but they have given us a few great stories and have a few more left. It may be an imperfect system but it was and remains light years ahead of the alternative.