Circuitous qualifiers route can steel teams, believes Lyons

Your team has just been beaten in the provincial championship and you’re heading out the back-door and into the jungle of the All-Ireland qualifiers.

As the manager how do you handle this and get your team back on track?

May 19, 2002. It’s the Munster quarter-final and on their first day out Clare lost to Tipperary by two points, 1-18 to 2-13. Just under four months later they were in the All-Ireland final having lost to Kilkenny by seven points but you had a hell of a run.

Manager of that Clare team was the cerebral Cyril Lyons.

“A lot depends on how you ended up there,” he said.

“If you had lost in your own province when you were fancied to win then you can be a bit vulnerable going into the next round. But if you had played well as the underdog against a team expected to beat you well and lost by only a few points, then you have more bounce in your step.”

Tomorrow in Thurles, Galway are very definitely in the former position. Cork lost a man and kept it close for a long time so they’re in between. Clare and Kilkenny both bounced back so they have the pep in the step. Who’s in the best position though?

“You must factor in something else – experience. Kilkenny have buckets of that, more so than any of the others this weekend.

“You also have to look at the journey they’ve been on. No other team has had to navigate their way through the kind of challenges Kilkenny have met.

“That came down to the difficulty of their draw, which brings in another factor – who are you drawn against? What is the actual draw? You can be very lucky, or you can be hammered, as Kilkenny have been this year.”

In 2002, Davy Fitzgerald, the Lohan brothers, Seánie McMahon, Colin Lynch, Jamesie O’Connor and Niall Gilligan were all still on board and Clare blew Dublin away in their first game, beat Wexford, Galway, Munster champions Waterford in the semi-final, before facing Kilkenny in the final. It was an easy start as Dublin weren’t the force they are now but a tough journey thereafter. Nowadays back-door winners are becoming commonplace, Offaly, Cork, Kilkenny and Tipperary have all come back from defeat to win the championship. Back then, had Clare won you can be assured no-one would have devalued the medal.

“I’d say that generally the players are just delighted to get a second chance, particularly teams with ambition that aspire to go on. I think they really appreciate the qualifiers.

“The initial disappointment of losing a championship game quickly wears off. They’re delighted to be still in with a chance of winning the All-Ireland.”

Used properly, reckons Cyril, the qualifiers can even be of benefit to a team building up a head of steam. There’s no better proof of that than Dublin this year. I know it wasn’t the qualifiers but in their first game, the drawn match against Wexford, they looked like a team that was going to exit the championship early. They improved in the replay, improved twice against Kilkenny and again for the Leinster final against Galway.

“Week after week it was constant growth. Individual players grew, team play grew, guys found their best position and now they’re in an All-Ireland semi-final.

“They’ve taken a longer road than most teams even in the qualifiers but it hasn’t done them any harm. Providing you can avoid injury, playing week-in, week-out can suit a particular team at a particular time.”

2002 is a regret for Cyril today, that All-Ireland final loss; that though wasn’t the one that got away.

“I particularly regret that we didn’t get a chance in 2001. We were beaten by Tipperary by a point in Páirc Uí Chaoimh [0-15 to 0-14] but it was such a close call.

“We felt if we had got over that we were really ready for bigger things. The qualifiers were only opened up the following year, group stages. They’ve done away with that now and I think that was the right thing to do. A second chance should be enough, you shouldn’t need a third and a fourth, I think that devalues the championship.”

Final point made by Cyril on the aim of the back-door.

“What often happens is that a good team can get caught once, but they won’t be caught again. Look at the teams who get to the All-Ireland semi-finals in hurling and football for the last ten years, they’ve been the strongest teams and isn’t that the idea? Don’t you want the best teams to get through to the final?”

As for his fancy for this year’s final: “If Clare don’t get there I’d love to see a Limerick/Dublin All-Ireland final, see a new winner, see the joy, the enthusiasm, the celebration it brings to a county, the lift it would give to hurling.”


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