If this weekend has taught us anything, it’s that the Qualifiers aren’t working, that in football they are a failing enterprise. A weekend filled with brutal hammerings for Longford and Louth, as well as a large defeat for Wexford shows that more than ever, the rich are becoming richer and the poorest are getting treated worse than ever.
When we look back in the mists of time to 2001, the first year of the qualifiers, we were told again and again that the Qualifiers were for the weaker counties. These counties were going to be guaranteed two games every summer. This would encourage their footballers to work harder and to achieve more than they ever did before. In the first year, this seemed to be true.
Westmeath followed a first round defeat to Meath by embarking on an epic qualifier run, only to run into Meath again in the quarter finals. Roscommon won their first Connacht title since 1991. Tyrone won their first championship in Ulster since 1995. Sligo won their first game in Croke Park since 1922. The Qualifiers gave us the exhilarating Dublin-Kerry quarter-final series. All seemed well.
The years that followed saw epic runs from counties such as Fermanagh and Wexford to All-Ireland semi-finals, and the system did seem to be producing more chances for the weaker counties. One thing was starting to nag, however.
More and more, the qualifiers were providing routes for the strongest counties to get their mojo back and return to the hunt for silverware. Galway in 2001, Kerry 2002, Armagh 2003, Tyrone 2005, Cork in 2007, Tyrone in 2008, Kerry in 2009, and Cork and Down in 2010 all made All-Ireland finals having already lost once that year.
The weaker counties can only really generate a run if they run into each other. It’s like rams in a field. They can butt heads and see who’s the strongest and pretend that they’re the toughest animal in the field, but as soon as a big dog with sharp teeth and an empty belly arrives, they go from toughest animal alive to mutton chops at speed.
The Qualifiers are failing in their intended purpose. The weak aren’t getting stronger; the more powerful are widening the gap. The Qualifiers haven’t changed the fundamental truth of the history of the GAA that at any one time, there are only ever three or four teams with a realistic chance of winning an All-Ireland in any given year, and often those same teams dominate for a period of time. No fantastic run made by a weaker county has proven to be sustainable over multiple years. They’ve all been random comets streaking across a sky dominated by a few giants.
Much criticism has been made of the proposed Champions League style models for a revamped Championship. While they might not be perfect, they might bring in the greater equity that the Qualifiers were meant to.