It’s worthwhile, I think, to spend a bit more time on where we find ourselves in the qualifiers. This year isn’t the first time we’ve been tipped into this particular bear pit at the first round stage but it is, as was noted in the Indo today, the first time that we’ve found ourselves in this predicament in a year where we have to make it through four qualifier rounds just to reach the All-Ireland series. Back in 2007, which was the only other year in which we landed on our arse into the first round of the qualifiers, the Division 4 first round losers were shunted directly off to sample the joys of the Tommy Murphy Cup, which meant that one of the qualifier rounds was dispensed with that year and the year after. With the Division 4 sides let back in last year, the qualifiers reverted back to a four-round format, one that had been in place from 2001 to 2006.
That Indo article also points out that those counties who were drawn away in the first round of the qualifiers last year will automatically get a home tie dish ear. London over in Ruislip, anyone? It also states that, aside from ourselves, at least two other All-Ireland quarter-finalists from last year – Kildare and Donegal – will also be in the hat for this year’s first round qualifier draw. (By the way, that draw takes place this coming Sunday as part of the sports news on RTÉ’s Six O’Clock News programme).
I guess a quick revision of how we’ve fared in the qualifiers down the years wouldn’t go amiss either at this point. In 2001, we became the first high profile casualty of the new dispensation when, as NFL champions, we entered the qualifiers in round 4 – having lost in the Connacht final to Roscommon – and were beaten by Westmeath. The following year, we enjoyed our first and so far only successful run through the backdoor, albeit a run greatly helped by a series of soft draws. We entered the qualifiers in round 2, having lost our Connacht semi-final to Galway, and we then recorded wins over Roscommon, Limerick and Tipperary (that year’s losing Munster finalists) to reach the All-Ireland quarter-final, where we were beaten soundly enough by Cork. In 2003, we joined the fun in round 4 when, following our Connacht final defeat to Galway, we went on to lose to Fermanagh. 2005 saw us back in round 4, after another Connacht final loss to Galway, but this time we managed to labour to a win over Cavan to reach the All-Ireland quarter-final, where we lost to Kerry. In 2007, our Connacht preliminary round loss to Galway sent us into round 1 of the qualifiers, where we beat Cavan (the only county we’ve met more than once in the backdoor) but then lost in round 2 to Derry. In 2008, we were back on familiar territory with a Connacht final loss to Galway followed by a round 4 qualifier defeat, this time to Tyrone in Croke Park.
Overall, then, we’ve played nine matches to date in the qualifiers, winning five and losing the other four. With four qualifier rounds to be negotiated if we are to make it through to this year’s All-Ireland series, we have a chance to improve that win/loss ratio quite significantly over the coming weeks but time will tell if we’re up to the job of doing so.