The winding qualifier route produces few survivors

Sixteen counties have tumbled into the lottery drum that it is the first round of All-Ireland qualifiers and the records show that very few manage to find their feet in any meaningful way again.

It’s 10 years since the National Leagues adopted the linear format of divisions one through to four and only nine sides have managed to navigate their way through the entire length of the back-door route as far as an All-Ireland quarter-final in that time.

Less than one per year, in other words.

Not exactly encouraging odds for those seeking to resurrect their fortunes this weekend although some should harbour far more confidence than others: among them the representatives of Mayo, Tyrone and maybe even Kildare.

As would be expected, Division 1 sides have proven far more resilient after early provincial exits. Six of the nine to make an All-Ireland semi-final, or beyond, from the qualifiers’ starting grid since 2008 have come from top-tier backgrounds.

Another two were Division 2 entities.

Only Armagh, who spent the spring of 2017 scrambling and ultimately failing to escape from Division 3, have managed to fashion an August Bank Holiday berth out of a league placing below football’s equator and a one-and-out provincial campaign.

And even then the result was grim.

Tyrone ultimately wiped the floor with Kieran McGeeney’s side last summer, advancing to the semis with an empty 18-point win after a non-entity of a contest at Croke Park which was summed up clinically in the aftermath by Mickey Harte.

“They played their football in Division 3 and we played our football in Division 1,” said the Tyrone manager who was actually disgruntled by his side’s display that day. “We would expect to be ahead of them.”

The question then is: what are those minnows involved in the qualifiers this weekend actually aiming for? 

What is success for the Wicklows and the Waterfords? And how is this preferable to a ‘B’ championship that might bring with it the glint of some silverware?

Each county must find its own answer to that.

For most, a win of any description would at least act as a salve on the wounds of a bruising campaign. Waterford, for example, are chasing a first championship win since 2011, Derry an antidote to their relegation to Division 4.

The value of a rare qualifier win, regardless of attendances or opposition, was never more obvious than on July 4, 2012 when John Evans gave voice to his emotions after Tipperary ended a six-year wait for a championship win with a result against Louth.

“Independence Day and freedom for Tipperary,” roared the Kerryman.

Attitude goes a long way. Liam Bradley touched on that back in 2012 after his Antrim side had overcome Galway at Casement Park in what, given the Connacht side’s appalling record in the qualifiers, amounted to a surprise rather than shock result.

“While people in other counties who were beat in the first round were jumping on planes and going to Boston, we had 35 fellas training the following Tuesday after we lost to Monaghan,” he explained. 

“We always had the belief we could go far in the qualifiers.”

As it was, Antrim lost to Tipperary by two points the very next day but these one-off wins aren’t to be sniffed at — as anyone who took in Longford’s defeat of Mayo at Pearse Park eight years ago would understand.

Even defeats have their bright spots when viewed in the right light.

Carlow had already signed for a rare championship victory, against Wicklow, by the time they retired from Breffni Park two years ago on the back of a seven-point loss that would serve as a platform of sorts for the rising seen since.

“It was kinda one of those days when you’re walking off, saying, ‘Jeez, we really should have won that game’. They probably underestimated us,” said captain John Murphy. 

“To lose the second-round qualifier was disappointing but we felt we were onto something.”

What value such short bursts of light hold in future is another thing, The fear for the have-nots is that the Super 8s will only extend the gap between the hoi polloi and the aristos. 

Kieran McGeeney voiced just that concern after his Armagh side were exposed so remorselessly by Tyrone last year.

A run through to an All-Ireland quarter-final is probably the last thing on the minds of at least half of those 16 counties rebooting their engines this week but Wicklow showed nine years ago that even the most average of Division 4 sides can dream big.

Defeats of Fermanagh, Cavan and Down engineered huge momentum for Mick O’Dwyer’s men in 2009 but they fell just short of a last-eight berth thanks to an injury-time goal from Kildare’s Alan Smith in Portlaoise.

“We pushed them to the very end,” the Kerryman reflected at the time.

As good a starting point as any for all those involved again this year.



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