Christy O’Connor: How comfortable is a seat at the knockout roulette table?

The knockout format may be unforgiving, but it can also be liberating, a reality Mickey Graham’s Cavan discovered when they came back from the dead to win the Ulster Championship, writes Christy O’Connor
Christy O’Connor: How comfortable is a seat at the knockout roulette table?

START OF A FAIRYTALE: Cavan manager Mickey Graham addresses his panel after their Ulster Championship win over Monaghan, a victory that sparked an extraordinary journey. Picture: Inpho/Morgan Treacy

The final outcome of Division 2 last year was always bound to resemble a game of snakes-and-ladders; Cavan were eyeing promotion but ended up relegated. Cavan went down on a head-to-head with a Clare team, which, with 10 minutes remaining on the same afternoon against Armagh, were on the brink of Division 1 football.

Elation and devastation were suspended in the circumstances. As Roscommon’s Enda Smith lifted the Division 2 trophy and made a speech to an empty Breffni Park stadium, Cavan hadn’t even time to notice, or feel disappointed; they were facing Monaghan seven days later.

Relegation was compounded by the sense that Cavan were hitting a slump at just the wrong time, having lost to Kildare the previous week. On the other hand, there was devil in the detail; Cavan’s conversion rate against Roscommon was just 41%, but they created 32 scoring chances, and had nine different scorers from play. Cavan scored 0-20 against Kildare.

Cavan needed to refine, polish, and tweak some aspects of their play but, crucially, they were in a much better psychological place than everyone else thought they were for the Monaghan match. “This is the game we targeted from the word go,” manager Mickey Graham said afterwards. “I’m not going to lie, it’s been in the back of our minds all along. And because of that, we probably sacrificed the league and got relegated.”

The absence of a qualifier safety net also sharpened Cavan’s focus. The knockout format is unforgiving, but it can also be liberating. When Cavan were seemingly on the way out of the championship against Monaghan and Down, they threw off the shackles and just went for it.

“When you’re in the heat of battle and it’s not going according to plan, you can say: ‘Sure look, we have another crack at this the next day’,” said Graham. “It’s a different mentality. In a knockout situation, there’s no second chance.

If you’re in that position where you can see your season coming to an end, you’re saying: ‘Let’s give it one hell of a shot.’

A knockout football championship was bound to ramp up the pressure, but it also reignited that old do-or-die element of death or glory.

With no second chance, many teams just went bald-headed for glory. In last year’s provincial championships, 16 games were decided by four points or less. Three matches were the last kick in the second period of extra-time away from going to penalties.

A winter championship made it feel like more of a level playing field, especially when county teams didn’t have the same amount of collective training, coaching time or tactical planning they normally would have leading into the championship. That context also left more room for emotion to help compensate for any perceived deficit in class, skill and experience.

“Knockout puts a wee bit more pressure on the bigger counties because they’re under pressure to perform,” said Graham. “It probably brings the so-called weaker counties a wee bit closer too because, when the pressure comes on, the bigger teams are thinking: ‘You know what, we could be gone here’. It leaves no room for error.”

So much emotional energy and pressure stems from the crowd, but empty grounds also reduced the strain some players may have felt if they were playing in front of a packed stadium. The crowd does greatly add to the electricity of the occasion, but the crowd can equally be emotionally responsive to the oscillating drama unfolding on the field. That can often work against a team, as much as it can for them, especially when a slump on the pitch can make the crowd — especially the underdogs — feel uneasy.

In turn, that crippling sense of anxiety can often transmit to the players.

There was also the potential for the dynamic to radically change as confidence and momentum grew amongst teams emerging from the pack.

“Knockout does heighten the pressure of the games to an extent,” says Clare’s Gary Brennan. “But the teams which were successful last year saw the opportunity rather than the threat.”

Some of the big shocks naturally came early, but those trends were also evident in the early months of the 2020-21 Premier League when the lower-ranked teams were just going for it. Some of the results were off the charts. After the first four weeks of the Premier League, the scoring rate was the highest in the English top-flight since 1930-31. The number of away wins had also sky-rocketed.

There were a number of different theories for such unpredictability; the lack of supporters made players more relaxed and carefree; the data suggested that pressing the ball was down and that there were more errors leading to goals; it was clearly more relaxed for referees too, which was obvious in the number of penalties awarded to away teams.

Some of the big guns were struggling. Man City’s tally of 12 points from their opening eight games was their worst start to a top-flight campaign since 2008-09. Yet City had the time to mentally and physically reset, and the opportunity to try and figure out where they were going wrong.

Unlike professional soccer teams, especially with fewer league games to prepare for a knockout championship, there will be much less time for inter-county sides to learn, adapt, and recalibrate on the hoof this summer.

“Before any previous championship, you’d have a full league campaign and then around six weeks of preparation,” says Brennan.

You don’t have that time now. So, you could come out of the league and not be able to reset. Your year could be over before you know it.

Better weather and games played on faster pitches will also provide a whole different dynamic from last year’s winter campaign. “In some cases,” says Brennan, “that might widen the gap.”

For most counties, the league is invariably the best of their season because it’s where their realistic ambitions and targets lie. A knockout championship also makes Leinster appear more redundant than ever, which poses a whole new psychological challenge again for every other county in the province.

Every team in Leinster has long accepted their place under Dublin’s iron rule but at least they had the qualifiers, maybe even a shot at the Super 8s, to build on. But now?

The vast majority of teams never have a hope of winning a provincial title anyway, let alone an All-Ireland, but most elite sport is built on inequality. Many of those players have different goals than winning an All-Ireland, some of which are achievable. Both players and supporters accept there are limits to how far performances can extend beyond a certain threshold. They want to measure themselves against the best. In that context, the result against the big teams isn’t always the target.

“I always felt we had success when our season wasn’t defined on one result,” says Brennan. “We were looking to build a run of games, to get as far as we could in the championship. Knockout does change that dynamic because there are no qualifiers.

Only one team can win the All-Ireland every year so if your only focus is on that, you’re in trouble. It’s about where you are, where you’re trying to go and what are the steps along the way.

These are unique times but there is also another side to this debate. One of the biggest games in last year’s championship was the Donegal-Tyrone Ulster quarter-final, which Donegal shaded. Yet everyone had long accepted the perils of playing at the roulette table.

“It was disappointing, but I wasn’t too annoyed at losing to Donegal,” says Tyrone goalkeeper Niall Morgan. “Because knockout is what championship should be all about.”

The Ulster Championship, though, is incomparable to any other province. Every team there targets a provincial title but for most counties in the other provinces the league has to be their main target because they have long accepted that their championship will only last so long.

In that regard, does a knockout championship just expedite what is inevitably going to happen anyway? With an impending club championship, are a significant number of players happy with a knockout championship now?

“I can’t speak for those players,” says Brennan. “But I’ve no doubt there would be players in that mindset.”

There are numerous strands to this debate, but the failings of a knockout championship are still everywhere. It is certainly no good to football’s middle class of teams just outside the top 10-12. With a truncated league this year, the only way those teams can really build towards something is to try and generate a championship run.

That same potential isn’t there now, but every county has had to adapt to the new normal. A knockout championship does create the arena for more drama and intrigue. And more pressure on the bigger teams could facilitate more crazy results.

“I think the championship will be unpredictable again,” says Brennan. “I just hope it won’t be very negative with teams setting up defensively by trying not to lose, and then looking to win the game late on. But in any competition where there is no second chance, there is always that opportunity for a few surprises.”

Once again, once the ball spins on the roulette wheel, the potential outcome could be a lot more perilous.

- You can read the Irish Examiner's 20-page special publication looking forward to the Allianz Football League and Championship with your Friday edition of the Irish Examiner in stores or from our epaper site.

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