In 2001, the GAA made the historic decision to introduce the “qualifiers” (or “the back door”, if you prefer). It didn’t take long for the cynics amongst us to bemoan it as a competition solely designed to ensure the biggest counties, with the biggest followings, would reach the latter stages of the championship, play in more games and boost the coffers of those crafty buggers in Croke Park. And who could argue with that?
But there was a romantic side to the tale. Because, not only would the All Ireland SFC Qualifiers (to give it it’s correct label) give those smaller counties “another game”, but it brought with it a series of “novel pairings”, “huge scalps” and “Discover Ireland tours” the likes of which Gaelic football fans rarely had the pleasure of experiencing.
Unfortunately, the weekend just past didn’t contain much in the way of romance. Barring Waterford’s shock upset of Wexford (it should be noted that the two sides will meet in Division Four of next year’s NFL), results went among expected lines as traditionally stronger counties like Mayo, Tyrone, Armagh and Kildare all dragged themselves back into contention for a spot in the Super 8s.
The big story was that all the games were extremely open, with a huge scoring output. Tempering any excitement about football’s new-found, enjoyable, attacking play however, was the fact that across eight qualifier games this weekend, the average margin of victory was a massive 9 points. This will likely lead to further cries about the smaller counties being left behind and the imminent introduction of a two-tiered system. But in reality, all we witnessed was that the better teams are still better, and it is generally much easier for them beyond the shackles of provincial rivalry, in the much more open qualifier format.
With three provincial semi-finals also taking place on Sunday, there were eleven games in total down for decision this weekend, so let’s get to it…
Ulster SFC semi-final:
Donegal 2-22 Down 1-12
If you thought Donegal looked like a well-oiled machine against Derry a fortnight ago, they managed to take it up a level to destroy Down at Clones. Watching the deferred game coverage on BBC last night I was gobsmacked that it was the Mournemen who had a numerical advantage following the sending off of Neil McGee after 13 minutes. Donegal still managed to have men free nearly every attack as they scythed Down open time after time. A late Down goal merely reduced the deficit to 13 points as Donegal assumed red-hot favouritism for their final meeting with Fermanagh. We’ll see how Rory Gallagher’s system gets on in that one. I don’t hold much hope for him, or his team. The impressive thing about Donegal is that they seem to have transitioned into a deadly attacking unit almost seamlessly. Declan Bonner appears to be a cool, unassuming character and you can see that assuredness in his players as they quietly go about their business. A Super 8s spot looks nailed on, and the format might suit them. As for Down, it’s difficult to see them recovering from here.
Leinster SFC semi-final:
Carlow 0-8 Laois 0-12
No surprise that this was the lowest scoring game of the weekend, given Carlow’s tactical outlook on the game of Gaelic football. Laois were the bookies favourites going into it, and they held serve with the minimum of fuss. Carlow’s approach is such that Laois were never going to pull away, but they always kept Turlough O’Brien’s side at arm’s length, having held a valuable three-point lead at half-time. It meant a three-point burst from Carlow going into the final quarter still saw Laois maintain the lead – if only by a point – but they had enough attacking talent on show to keep the scoreboard ticking over. They’ll not necessarily fancy themselves against Dublin, but starting the year in Division Four, this has been an excellent season so far for John Sugrue’s squad. A Super 8s spot is within reach. Carlow have been a huge story in the 2018 footballing summer, but the legacy of their championship season will depend on how they pick themselves up after this loss.
Leinster SFC semi-final:
Dublin 2-25 Longford 0-12
Business. As. Usual. Sure, it was a day out in the sun for Longford, who have made decent progress in the last couple of years, building a squad of players that are hugely competitive in the middle tier of intercounty teams. But this was always going to be a step too far. True to their form for the past several seasons, Dublin used a Leinster SFC fixture as a mere training exercise. The scary thing is that a more compact season suits them down to the ground, and it allows them to go full pelt in June. It’s not much fun for the likes of Longford though. I feel Denis Connerton’s side could have another scalp in them yet, but a Super 8s berth looks beyond them. The main talking point from this semi-final was James McGivney’s dismissal for a late challenge that forced Stephen Cluxton out of the game. In slow motion the foul looked reasonably harmless, but when a player goes in at that speed, very late on a defenceless opponent, a red card is always a valid possibility. Also of note was Paul Mannion’s goal; about as clean a strike as you’re likely to see.
All-Ireland Qualifiers Round 1
Derry 2-14 Kildare 2-22
It’s been a tough year for both sides, so this was a chance for each to finally get something going in 2018. In the end it was Kildare who eased to an eight point victory, despite spells of improved play from the home side. The Lilywhites were impressive in terms of their physicality. It’s probably not a stretch to say they are in the top five in the country in that regard. At times, they totally dominated Derry, with their ability to win primary possession and break tackles.
A huge issue for Derry against Donegal was their ability to concede scores directly (sometimes within seconds) of having scored themselves, and the trend continued at Owenbeg on Saturday. Damian McErlain’s side found themselves in that horrible halfway house when defending Kildare’s kickouts, where they were happy enough to concede possession, but didn’t back it up with enough resistance on their own ’45. Kildare moved the ball at pace, and with ease. The Oak Leafers couldn’t even get close enough to make an effective foul. Kildare scored only 1-10 against a dogged, highly-structured Carlow outfit in Leinster, but they had much more joy up north.
At the other end, Derry showed glimpses of attacking potential. Padraig Cassidy and Sean Leo McGoldrick constantly made penetrating runs to open up the Kildare defence for scoring opportunities. Emmett Bradley was a powerhouse, while championship debutant Jack Doherty had a very mature performance. However, the home side missed the presence of Mark Lynch up front, as he was deployed in a deep, sweeping role. Ultimately, Derry weren’t able to keep the scoreboard ticking as easy as their opponents.
It was obvious that the Ulster team were left frustrated by Kildare’s systematic fouling. On numerous occasions in the second half, Kildare fouled cynically to prevent Derry (goal)scoring opportunities. Their game management was spot on, and one can’t complain when you see how successful it was. However, this approach has an extremely short shelf-life, and if Kildare are to progress towards Super 8s territory they can’t rely on getting away with it. This is a first win in 2018 for Cian O’Neill’s side, and it’ll be interesting to see how far they go from here. My guess is that Monaghan is beyond their threshold.
For Derry, a season that began with ambiguous expectations could barely have turned out more disappointing. McErlain will take his tenure into a second term, where promotion from Division Four will be a mandatory requirement and success in the championship will rely on getting the best available players together in the squad, as early in the year as possible. That’s the challenge. The only way is up.
Meath 0-19 Tyrone 2-14 (aet)
The perceived tie of the round, showcasing a rivalry that may hold more historical significance than current relevance, lived up to its billing in providing us with the closest game of the round. The game was a compelling to watch, with a nice edge and cracking atmosphere in the Navan sun. Tyrone looked as though they would rue umpteen missed chances before Cathal McShane’s seriously cool injury time point set them up for an extra time victory that was as hard-earned as it was relieving. Meath looked to have it in the bag in normal time but they weren’t able to close shop when it mattered most. A frustrating end to a poor year for them.
Tyrone will be delighted to be in the pot for this morning’s Round 2 draw, but it is strange to see them play with a team that looks a long way short of challenging for an All-Ireland. They have key men to come back in, and they will strengthen. Saturday was about the result only.
Wexford 1-18 Waterford 3-14
This fixture was never in danger of being picked-up by Sky Sports, but nonetheless it produced the biggest (only) shock of Round 1 with Waterford securing a rare (their second ever) qualifier victory in a shootout at Wexford Park. The Wexford wheels seemed to come off the wagon at some stage during their defeat to Laois in Leinster and they haven’t recovered. Huge moment for Waterford though and they are now in bonus territory.
Limerick 3-7 Mayo 5-19
All eyes were on how Mayo would perform following their early Connacht exit. Limerick was a very workable draw under the circumstances, and while Mayo cantered to victory, the performance isn’t really significant. They’ve been down this road before, they just need to keep winning, no matter how those wins come. This happened to be an extremely convincing one – un-Mayo-like in many ways – with Cillian O’Connor scoring a massive 3-9 against a Limerick side providing little or no resistance. Mayo are back on the road. One down, three to go.
Offaly 2-20 Antrim 1-15
The Faithful were favourites going into this one, but such is their qualifier record it would have been a brave soul to place too much stock in a successful outcome for them. They achieved it however, thanks to two second-half goals that consigns Antrim to another disappointing year. The most interesting aspect of the game was that we had one of those rare occasions where a team has a new manager mid-championship. For Paul Rouse and Offaly, this win represents a positive turnaround for a squad on the verge of meltdown not four weeks ago.
Wicklow 1-5 Cavan 2-16
Aughrim is one of those places that is labelled a “tricky place to go”, but not for Cavan on Saturday. The Breffnimen had the back broke on this victory by half-time, leading by an unassailable 13 points at the break. Mattie McGleenan’s side are capable of going on a run from here, but inconsistency remains their biggest failing.
Westmeath 1-11 Armagh 3-16
Two teams that were familiar with each other, but an Armagh performance totally unrecognisable from the abject showing at Brewster Park just three short weeks ago. Three goals did the trick for the Orchard men on the road to an eleven point victory and Kieran McGeeney’s side will feel rejuvenated now for Round 2. They are realistic contenders for a Super 8s berth. Westmeath meanwhile are left looking for a new manager following Colin Kelly’s resignation post-game.
London 1-19 Louth 2-26
On paper, this one looked like a massive opportunity for London to grab a rare championship victory, but Louth – who have been well off the pace all year – held their nerve to secure victory, and the relief that will come with it. If you had said beforehand that London would post a tally of 1-19 you would have feared for the Wee County, but continuing the high-socring trend of the weekend, Louth were able to easily surpass that total. They’ll be wanted opposition in Round 2.
Ulster Under-20 Football Championship Update
Friday night’s epic win for Armagh over Tyrone at the Athletic Grounds was overshadowed by a mass brawl that has been adjudicated on by many on social media. Suffice to say, this sort of incident is a blight on Gaelic football, but the most galling thing is that it escalated with such ease in an underage game. Our games have been cleaned up in recent years, but evidently the threat of violence still lurks close to the surface. Yesterday in Clones meanwhile, Derry produced a stirring second-half performance to claim a two-point victory having trailed by seven at the half, against Down.
Armagh 2-22 Tyrone 0-24 (aet)
Derry 2-17 Down 2-15
Last Seven Days
- A hugely compelling read from former Armagh player Aidan O’Rourke on how Monaghan managed to beat themselves last Sunday via Aidan O’Rourke in RTE.ie
- Dublin star, and the guy many would tout as the best natural footballer in Ireland, Diarmuid Connolly, is set to spend the summer in the USA via Irish Examiner
- Thought-provoking comment from Declan Bogue who believes GAA players must accept doping tests in and out of competition via Declan Bogue in Belfast Telegraph
- Following Tipperary’s phantom goal in the hurling, comes a brief history of score detection in the GAA via Seán Moran in The Irish TImes
- A very brief history of Derry football in the last 30 years seen through the insightful eyes of former manager Damian Cassidy via Cahair O’Kane in The Irish News
Storylines for the Week Ahead
- During last night’s Sunday Game, Ciaran Whelan claimed that Donegal’s performance over Down was “near perfection”. There will be a discussion on whether or not they are next in line to Dublin and Kerry.
- 2-20, 2-16, 2-22. Those are Donegal’s tallies in their three Ulster SFC games to-date. Is the Ulster Championship really the toughest of the lot?
- The scenes in Armagh during the Ulster Under-20 semi-final are unlikely to get swept under the carpet.
- Inconsistent refereeing. There were a number of controversial displays – and decisions – this weekend.
- Following a hectic few weeks in the football Championship, the Roscommon v Galway Connacht Final is next weekend’s only game. So it should receive a bit of air-time.
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