WHEN Galway and Mayo met in the 2019 qualifiers in Limerick, the match was billed beforehand as one of those seismic heavyweight contests between two punch-drunk fighters desperate to stay alive.
Everything was on the line. The vanquished were at risk of literally being knocked out, the victors miraculously revived for further contests, which is how it all panned out. Defeat for Galway signalled the end of the Kevin Walsh era; the win propelled Mayo through the Super 8s and back to an All-Ireland semi-final.
The mood surrounding the game was carnivalesque. The match was moved outside the province to cater for the anticipated huge crowd. With both sets of supporters heading from the same direction, the M18 motorway was clogged up as far back as Bunratty in south Clare – 11km from the Gaelic Grounds – three hours before the game.
Throughout the last decade, the qualifiers threw up a host of big matches but, in hindsight, the number of marquee qualifiers was minuscule. There were shocks. Big scalps were taken, which heightened the profile of those contests afterwards.
The qualifiers always mean something different to different teams. Yet one of the reasons the qualifiers lost their sheen and became so devoid of heavyweight clashes, was because – with the exception of Mayo and Tyrone – the big teams didn’t need them anymore.
Dublin have completely changed the narrative, but their most serious All-Ireland challengers were also less reliant on a rehabilitative process to regroup or recharge like Kerry in 2009, or Cork in 2010. Just as importantly, the waters along the qualifier route were no longer as shark-infested.
Mayo diced with death on a handful of occasions en route to All-Ireland finals through the back-door. But outside of Ulster, the chances of big guns falling in the provinces early and running into each other in June or early July became more remote with each passing season.
The Malachy O’Rourke era with Monaghan ended in a local derby qualifier defeat to Armagh in 2019 but the game was only a mere footnote. When the counties met at the same stage ten years earlier in 2009, Clones was rocking and packed to the rafters.
Armagh had been Ulster champions in 2008 and were still considered a real heavyweight, but Monaghan knocked them out of the championship after extra-time. A week later, Monaghan were floored by Derry, who were subsequently beaten by Donegal after extra-time. Donegal then beat Galway by one point to advance to the All-Ireland quarter-final.
That’s how the qualifiers used to roll, when big guns regularly faced off, when mystical performances were often plucked from nowhere, when down-and-outs were suddenly resurrected after a glorious display of defiance. Some of those counties may not have been dining at the top table at the time but they often re-joined the aristocracy at the banquet after rediscovering their mojo and purpose along the qualifier route.
It’s a totally different path now though. The modern culture of sports science and defensive systems which made teams harder to beat hasn’t tightened standards and closed the gap. The stronger counties just made the most of those means as well to make themselves better.
That gap has been really evident during the qualifiers, as much in the parings as in the margin of defeats. In the five seasons of qualifiers between 2015-’19, there were only four qualifier meetings between two Division 1 teams, with that Galway-Mayo game in 2019 the standout clash by a distance. In the same five-year timespan, there were only 19 qualifier clashes between Division 1 and 2 teams.
It wasn’t always about pairings either because the qualifiers still always had the potential to throw up something unusual. The 2016 season was a classic example; as well as there being only one qualifier pairing between a Division 1 and 2 side that summer, there were just two meetings between two Division 2 sides throughout those qualifiers.
And yet, despite so many low-profile games, that qualifier summer was unique for the modern era; Tipperary reached an All-Ireland semi-final; Clare reached an All-Ireland quarter-final; Longford (then Division 3) defeated Monaghan in Clones; Longford also beat Down (a Division 1 side that season) in Newry; Mayo were lucky to survive against Fermanagh; Westmeath (who were relegated to Division 3 earlier that year) rattled Mayo in a Round 4 qualifier.
However, in the three seasons of qualifiers since – between 2017-’19 – there were 25 occasions when the margin of victory exceeded 10 points. With the majority of teams caught in a provincial championship headlock, hope was fading and the gap between the top and bottom teams was being reflected more widely during the qualifiers.
Despite all the opposition to the impending Tailteann Cup, the dilution of the qualifiers, especially in terms of drama and excitement, underlined that something had to change. There are also other proposals on the table for more radical change to the football championship; a league-based All-Ireland series, with the provincial championships retained as separate entities; rebalancing the existing provincial structure to form four regional groups of eight.
Twenty years on from when the qualifiers were first introduced in 2001, radically altering the complexion of the championship, the time has certainly come for change again.