In defence of the Qualifiers

Eugene McGee, one of the chief architects behind the qualifier series, says he doesn’t think the current system will survive the next ten years, writes Conor Neville.

Eugene McGee, one of the chief architects behind the qualifier series, says he doesn’t think the current system will survive the next ten years, writes Conor Neville.

McGee pointed to the anomalies within the current system, highlighting in particular the five-week gap between Longford’s championship opener on 20 May and Mayo’s championship opener on 24 June. His objection to the current system is that of a radical; he wants the provincial system overhauled and possibly ripped up altogether. However, some traditionalists hanker after a return to the traditional knock-out where do-or-die provincial matches retain their original ardour.

There has been much grumbling about the qualifiers in that supposedly its chief impact has been enable the stronger sides such as Kerry and Cork to survive early defeats, re-group and invariably emerge in an even more formidable guise at the quarter-final stage. The talk at the outset of the new format was of giving the weaker counties (or ‘so-called weaker counties’ as GAA people, with both admirable sensitivity and masterful use of euphemism, often call them) more opportunities for games in the summer, at least holding their interest until late June/early July, and allowing them to improve year-on-year through playing more matches. The complaint, however, is the new structure has in fact proved far more beneficial to the stronger outfits.

Whereas once bigger sides were vulnerable to an early sucker-punch, leaving their season in tatters, now such provincial knock-backs are merely inconveniences. Indeed, the restorative capacities of a confidence boosting back-door trek for teams such as Kerry, Cork, Tyrone and even Galway way back in 2001, have often led to All-Ireland success later in the year. In 2001, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010, what didn’t kill these teams made them stonger. Kerry ‘s record of having played in August every year since the qualifier system began is often cited.

However, as we search for the perfect system, one designed to help along the weaker counties, we must remember as a starting point that stronger counties tend to beat weaker counties, not because of the system, but because they are stronger counties. Short of skewering the system ridiculously, or introducing a blatantly biased, almost handicapped system (with head-starts or extra men perhaps), this will prove to be the case. It is hard to construct a system preventing Kerry reaching at least an All-Ireland semi-final regularly and it shouldn’t be the object of our endeavors.

The qualifiers have been good for Longford. Between 2002 and 2011, Longford won the grand sum of one match in the Leinster championship (against Westmeath in 2007), yet in the period, football in the county progressed, and was seen to have progressed, because of some good victories in qualifiers over those years. Longford posted similar statistics in the 1990s (three Leinster championship victories, in 1990, 98, 99) yet that decade is remebered, if at all, as a miserable time for the county side. Most importantly, the extra matches in the championship season have been good for the development of football in the county long term and created a greater buzz around the team in the last decade. Longford are no longer turfed out the championship in late May, as happened annually between 1991 and 1997, before the rest the country is even aware the season has started.

The qualifiers have patently helped the weaker counties, and have been responsible for unexpected raids on the latter stages of the championship by unheralded counties, notably Westmeath in 2001 and 2006, Sligo in 2002, Fermanagh in 2004, Wexford in 2008.

As for more radical alterations to the present format, abolishing the provincial championships would possibly be more demoralising to weaker counties, for whom they represent the only half-realistic chance of silverware. By contrast, since the qualifiers began, the stronger counties have grown more and more phlegmatic about provincial success. Kerry or Cork, for instance, would probably be willing to forgo the annual euphoria that greets each of their Munster Final victories. The provincial element then could be retained, but the borders must be tinkered with. Having one province with eleven counties and one with five is entirely unfair. Each province, or division, should have eight teams. The GAA appear extremely reluctant to go for this.

The GAA is always aware of the intrinsic importance of tribalism to its games far more than is the case in a more commercial, professionalised, globalised sport like soccer. It is a conservative impulse that perhaps even betrays a lack of confidence in the games themselves but it is understandable nonetheless. They appear to think without the tribal energy of the provincial championship, the game would wither particularly in weaker counties for whom All-Ireland success is a virtual impossibility.

If they did switch to the four provinces of eight structure, the appeal would remain much as it ever was, or at least much as it has been since 2001. The Galway hurlers won Leinster this year and their team and supporters didn’t appear to be underwhelmed or apathetic about the achievement. Indeed, the act of winning someone else’s provincial title seemed to have a style and chutzpah to it which deepened the satisfaction.

Any alterations to the current system will be in the radical direction. It will certainly not result in the provinces recovering their former glory. Rather any changes will instead further diminish them. As for the dominance of Kerry and other stronger counties (or ‘so-called stronger counties’, why not?) it will take more than lads dreaming up alternative championship formulas to change this.