Malachy Clerkin: In defence of the much-maligned All-Ireland football qualifiers

Enjoy the qualifiers for what they are instead of wishing they were something else

Roscommon fans in good voice during the All-Ireland qualifier victory over Armagh at O’Moore Park. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

So long, then, to the 2018 All-Ireland football qualifiers. If, as seems to be the idea, the Super-8s are going to work out as a place-holder until a more radical overhaul of the championship is settled upon then, like the manager of the calendar factory, the qualifiers’ days are numbered. Mark this corner down as one where they will be missed when they are gone.

Not for the first time, the thought occurred during Roscommon’s catherine wheel of a game against Armagh on Saturday that if the qualifiers were the only Gaelic football you could see on TV, the level of caterwauling about the game would be halved at a stroke.

Armagh’s display deserved better than the 2-22 to 1-19 scoreline at the end – Enda Smith’s goal in injury-time padded out Roscommon’s winning margin but there had been nothing between them all afternoon. The football was fast, the hits were plenty and by the end, just about everybody was flat out on their backs.

This year’s batch contained more or less the same proportion of hidings (games decided by eight points or more) as the provincial championships – 54 per compared to the provincials’ 55. They delivered a higher percentage of close games (decided by three or less) than the provincials – 29 per cent to 24.


Scorelines can only tell you so much, of course – the Rossies’ win on Saturday was neither a hiding nor a close game according to those parameters but ask anyone who was in Portlaoise what they saw and they’ll tell you it was a classic. Yet scorelines do at least provide some sort of guide to the level of competitiveness around the place.

As it happens, those numbers are actually a lot closer aligned this year than has become the norm. The general trend has been for considerably more hammerings the provincial championships than in the qualifiers – in 2017, 58 per cent of provincial games ended with one-sided scoreboards as opposed to 20 per cent in the qualifiers. And 41 per cent of the qualifiers that year ended with only a kick of a ball between the teams. In the provinces, that number was down around 27.

If you tuned out for the science bit – and who could blame you? – the thrust of it is that the qualifiers have a bad rep that isn’t close to being deserved. Forever maligned for not being the solution to problems they weren’t set up to fix. Consistently dismissed in preview, generally glossed over when it comes to reviewing a GAA weekend.

Every qualifier draw is met with a shrug these days, as if people were expecting Real Madrid to be pulled out against the New England Patriots. The routine is the same every time – the balls get pulled out on Morning Ireland, whoever they have on the phone hums and haws politely about there not being a whole lot to get too excited about and everyone gets on with their day.

Just once, wouldn't you love Darren Freehill to go into full Basil Fawlty mode? "This is the first round of the football qualifiers, Madam. It contains teams who were beaten in early May. May I ask what you were expecting? Sydney Opera House, perhaps? The Hanging Gardens of Babylon? Herds of wildebeest striding majestically…"

The qualifiers’ greatest sin is in not being any of the things they were never meant to be in the first place. They weren’t set up to help the weaker counties, certainly not any more than they were set up to help the stronger counties. Their main purpose was to provide more than one championship game to players who had been training for nine months.

Massive scalps

And anyway, they did help the weaker counties. Go back and look at who was in Division 2B when Congress voted the new system in. Laois, Monaghan, Tipperary, Wexford, Carlow, Cavan, Longford and Waterford. Every one of them have had their days and nights in the qualifiers. Tipperary and Wexford surfed them all the way to All-Ireland semi-finals, Monaghan, Laois and Cavan have all made it to the last eight.

Longford have taken massive scalps in qualifiers over the past decade, nailing Monaghan, Derry and Down when each of them was a Division One team.

Carlow’s rise began in the qualifiers and Waterford’s win over Wexford last month will sustain them through summers to come. Point is, no championship system is going to save a weaker county without it first saving itself.

The usual refrain when it comes to the qualifiers is that they’ve run their course but that doesn’t really stand up to much scrutiny either.

There’s still real novelty to them. In this year’s batch, six games out of the 24 pitted counties together who had never previously met in the history of the championship.

Monaghan supporters have enjoyed a couple of grand Saturdays taking in the heatwave in Dungarvan and Carrick-on-Shannon, places they never went for a summer game before.

It’s a fair bet that for some Clare people who went to watch their mini-epic against Armagh in the Athletic Grounds the weekend before last, it was their first time across the border. That still happens, 18 seasons in, and it’s undeniably cool.

So instead of being continually bagged for what they’re not – and can’t be – the qualifiers should probably just be enjoyed for what they are. They will go eventually and the next thing will be better until everyone suddenly decides it’s not and we need another new thing again. That’s how we roll.

But just in case anyone is of a mind to check back in years to come and wonder what the qualifiers were like – they were (and are) terrific fun. Not perfect, not amazing, not guaranteed entertainment every time you turned up. Just a serviceably enjoyable way to ferry teams through the summer.

What more do people want than that?