By Aidan Elder | Chief sports writer
The GAA’s back-door route isn’t universally adored. Some don’t like it because it detracts from the purity of the All-Ireland.
Others don’t like because it sounds like innuendo for frolics of which God would not approve. For others, your attitude will change depending directly on how fate benefits/hinders your county in any particular season.
It’s a divisive issue and the quarter-finals of the All-Ireland Championship is usually when the narky debate peaks. “You might as well lose in your provincial championship and take the qualifiers option” is one theory often floated for the bigger counties.
Then again, winning your way straight through to the quarter-finals without the worry of being sucker-punched on a wet and windy night in Wicklow also sounds very appealing.
Potential for fatigue rarely mentioned
The benefit of playing a number of games in successive weeks thanks to the qualifiers is cited as a positive, albeit one that overlooks the value of putting a provincial winner’s medal on eBay. You can build up a head of steam, work on improving and get battle-hardened and have Pat Spillane completely write you off nice and early in the Championship. The potential for fatigue and an unfavourable draw are rarely mentioned in this argument.
On the other hand, there’s the provincial winners or – as many refer to them – the ‘sitting ducks’. They may have come out on top in their region, but they go into the last eight on the back of a few idle weeks – weeks that most pundits seem to think were spent eating cake and drinking pints. There may be some advantage to winning your provincial title, but beyond getting to use the county trophy cabinet for 12 months, a lot of pundits can’t seem to think of many.
There’s no doubt that since the arrival of the second chance, a team doesn’t need to be firing on all cylinders from May onwards. With the safety-net of the back-door, ‘Championship intensity’ isn’t a must until the qualifiers, and even then you might get away without it for a couple of rounds. The teams winning the provincial titles aren’t necessarily won by the best team in the area, they’re just the best in June and July. When August rolls around, the picture may have changed drastically.
The stats show that since the quarter-finals were first introduced in 2001, the provincial winners have prevailed (including replays were necessary) more often than their opponents from the sudden death route. Just about. As statisticians probably don’t say, it’s the provincial winners who edge it by a squeak. In the 44 quarter-finals we’ve had to date, the team winning their province have gone through to the semi-finals 23 times meaning the qualifiers prolonged their second chance on 21 occasions.
The provincial winner progresses about half the time. There are fluctuations from year to year, but overall, that’s pretty much the split. In 2010, being a provincial winner proved to be as useful as a holiday home in Damascus, with all four of the teams who battled through the qualifiers making the semi-finals. Twelve months later however, it was a dramatically different scenario, with the winners in each of the provinces reaching the final four.
Some guidance for shock potential
A better way of looking at it is examining how the favourites perform at this stage of the championship. There’s a lot to consider when looking at favouritism – the quality of opponents beaten, the effects of the draw, the willingness of a referee to overlook Joe Sheridan throwing the ball into the back of the net, but it does give some guidance as to the potential for a shock.
There are some important things to note. Firstly, being a provincial winner is far from a guarantee of being favourite in the quarter-final. Secondly, the term ‘favourite’ refer a wider variety of options than you see in Paul Galvin’s wardrobe. It can mean a team who are 20/21 narrowly favoured to progress or it can mean 1/100 shots who’ll only be knocked out if the coach driver gets lost around Drumcondra.
With those rather large caveats out of the way, the news is good for this weekend’s favourites. The favourite has been the team to march on to the semi-final 66 per cent of the time. It’s also far from hopeless for the underdogs however as they upset the odds a not inconsiderable 34 per cent of the time.
This weekend, the provincial winners are favourites in three of the four games. Donegal are the exception, but they’re far from being rated as hopeless outsiders to beat a typically enigmatic Kerry side. Dublin, Cork and Mayo are all fancied to progress, but that 52.3 per cent stat gives you the sense at least one of them will get tripped up.
Provincial winners v qualifiers in the last 5 years (winner in italics)
Kerry v Limerick
Dublin v Tyrone
Mayo v Cork
Donegal v Kildare
Roscommon v Cork
Meath v Kildare
Tyrone v Dublin
Kerry v Down
Dublin v Kerry
Mayo v Meath
Cork v Donegal
Tyrone v Kildare
Galway v Kerry
Cork v Kildare
Dublin v Tyrone
Armagh v Wexford
Sligo v Cork
Tyrone v Meath
Dublin v Derry
Kerry v Monaghan