SPEAKING to a player on a current provincial winning team this week, it was striking just how disenchanted he was by not having a blind idea who his team were going to be facing until tomorrow evening.
“Don’t we deserve that much for winning the bloody province?” he blasted. “Why can’t the whole thing be at least mapped out?”
His argument is a difficult one to counter. He, his teammates and his management are in limbo. As a means of keeping minds focused, the management gave the panel one of their toughest weeks on the training field over the last five days.
It might precipitate injuries but the risks are worth taking if it means players are reminded of what lies ahead of them even if nobody can see exactly who.
Yet it shouldn’t be that way. Kerry, Dublin, Mayo and Donegal are the four unbeaten teams in this year’s championship. They have earned the right to at least have some clue about their All-Ireland quarter-final opponents.
But the All-Ireland championship is weighed in favour of losing teams. Few people are saying the qualifiers should be scrapped but they provide teams with a predictable pattern of games.
For the good ones, the teams that have found themselves going through the backdoor, they provide momentum. Winning habits are as hard to break but a victorious routine in such a concentrated time-span as four wins in five weeks or three in as many weeks are virtually Teflon.
Put that up against a team left to twiddle their thumbs for four or five weeks and suddenly the odds on the unbeaten provincial winners widen.
And for what? Because they are the weaker side? Hardly. They are simply potential victims of their own success.
The counter-argument is surely if these provincial winners are good enough they can withstand anything that’s thrown at them. That’s flimsy analysis, though. Its the teams that have lost that merit uncertainty, not the ones with unbeaten records.
Let’s not forget either that Armagh and Wicklow’s replay has further damaged the fate of the provincial winners. As Eamonn Fitzmaurice pointed out in these pages this week, teams time their run to be in the best of order for Croke Park on the August Bank Holiday weekend.
But one of the four provincial kingpins is going to have to wait another six or seven days because of the aforementioned draw.
It could mean Kerry could face a lay-off of five weeks having already had to wait four weeks between their Munster semi-final and final.
It could mean Dublin have a break of four weeks, which has hampered them before.
In 2008, then manager Paul Caffrey had worked out if Dublin won all their matches from the Leinster quarter-final onwards they’d have three weeks between games.
However, after winning Leinster they discovered their quarter-final against Tyrone was put back a week purely on the basis it would draw a big crowd to Croke Park as a stand-alone fixture (and it did, 70,877).
The four weeks put Caffrey’s scheme out of kilter. Maybe he should have allowed for some flexibility but his team were winning games. That was the only plan.
The old saying is you can only beat what’s put in front of you. Likewise, you can only win what’s put in front of you.
The four provincial winners have won competitions that once would have had ensured they were 140 minutes away from an All-Ireland title.
Now they are coming in cold against teams that have all had opportunity to redeem themselves. Some will be into the quarter-finals as juggernauts (likely Kildare), others not so speeding (likely Cork) but all will get their defeats out of their systems. We are in the business end of the season. Teams don’t expect everything to be perfect but the best ones deserve respect.
Sadly, it’s in short supply.
IS there a charity out there for provincial champions? No? Well, there should be if all this wailing about their rights being violated is anything to go by. A sporting equivalent of Friends of the Earth maybe, or the World Wildlife Fund.
In fact, an organisation dedicated to the protection of a species would be appropriate because provincial champions are nothing if not a cosseted bunch, kept out of harm’s way while the majority of sides engage in the lethal combat of the qualifiers where the majority of the summer’s business is done.
So, why the poor mouth? If it’s not one thing it’s the other, whether that’s the claim they are left lying idle for too long between games or kept in the dark about who their opponents will be in the All-Ireland quarter-finals.
Give me a break. Here’s some advice, don’t moan about that ‘problem’ within earshot of John Brennan this week. The Derry manager has bigger issues, like lifting a team six days after losing — not winning — a provincial final.
It’s not like a provincial title is some sort of poisoned chalice. They get a nice, shiny cup, copious pats on the back and, if they are from a county like Donegal, Roscommon or Laois, a lifetime of open doors and free pints.
Oh, and let’s not forget the free pass through to the All-Ireland quarter-finals. A raw deal? Fine, go out and lose in the first round then.
Look, everyone knows the All-Ireland championships — in hurling and in football — are a dystopian mess but giving out about something like this midway through the season is like paying for a ticket into a maze and complaining when you can’t find the exit.
The qualifiers, as we have seen this year, can be a reservoir of exciting, last-gasp saloon football but they are no more than a band aid on a gaping wound that continues to infect what is still an imperfect championship.
Tommy Carr had a cut at losing provincial finalists in this newspaper yesterday, telling them to quit their whining about six-day turnarounds and just get on with it. That should apply here. It may well be broke lads, but ye can’t fix it so forget about it.
None of the other sides know who they will be playing in the quarter-finals either. Every remaining manager will be sitting down in front of their DVD players after tomorrow’s draw to analyse the opposition for the first time and with one eye on a ticking clock.
That’s as it should be. As we said earlier, the provincial champions have already been rewarded handsomely but their opponents have earned their reprieve the hard way through the back door and the quarter-finals should be a level playing field for all.
It wouldn’t be right for half of the sides to be afforded any advantage, no matter how big or small. Remember, all seven games in the All-Ireland series are played in Croke Park and not just because it is the country’s best stadium but because it is deemed to be a neutral venue.
If there is any sympathy to be handed out, then save it for Derry.
Or what about Armagh? If Paddy O’Rourke’s side comes through the trip to Omagh today and beat Roscommon next week, they will play five game in as many weekends so why should the sympathy be reserved for Kerry, Dublin, Mayo and Donegal? It isn’t all that long since the Waterford hurlers lost an All-Ireland semi-final to Limerick and blamed an exhausting run of three games in three weeks so the jury remains out as to whether it is better to go through the front door or the back.
The fact is that there are positives and negatives to both routes but forget about that. This whole debate is missing the bigger picture. You might as well argue about what colour to paint the walls as your roof caves in.