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Big guns must blast backdoor open

By Declan Bogue

Published 15/06/2016

Knockout blow: Armagh lost to Galway in the qualifiers last year and now the Orchard men and Derry’s Damian Bartonface a nervous weekend
Knockout blow: Armagh lost to Galway in the qualifiers last year and now the Orchard men and Derry’s Damian Bartonface a nervous weekend

It wasn't supposed to be like this. Two All-Ireland winning heroes, now in charge of their beloved counties, praying that everything runs in their favour for a qualifiers win this weekend, salvaging something from distinctly underwhelming seasons.

Once upon a time, Ross Carr said of taking over Down, along with his old comrade DJ Kane, "You would do everything right and pick all the right players and you'd be up to your knees in All-Irelands. But of course it doesn't happen like that."

Carr himself finished up in county management with defeat in a qualifier, all the way down in Aughrim, Wicklow.

The qualifiers can be humbling like that, something Kieran McGeeney and Damian Barton will fear as they prepare Armagh and Derry to face Laois and Louth this weekend.

Fifteen years into the qualifiers, and we are still unsure about them. The only thing we can agree on, is that it is better than what was before. The Championship season now has a comma, where there used to be a full stop.

Take Mickey Harte, a man who has used the backdoor to win two All-Irelands. He said only last week: "This whole talk of Champions League stuff and all that, I think it's a load of nonsense. How many dead rubbers are going to be in that?

"…At the minute this is as good as we have and it is a lot better than what we used to have."

For the top teams, it represents a chance to get back in the hunt for an All-Ireland title. Among ambitious counties with inferiority complexes, it becomes a means to establish an identity.

A team like Sligo for example. Forced to change their jerseys to become all-blacks when taking on Kildare in 2001, it was their first appearance in Croke Park since the 1975 All-Ireland semi-final loss to Kerry.

After beating the Lilywhites, they decided black was the new white after all and retained the kit.

Mark Brehony's career began when there were no qualifiers. In 2002 they beat Tyrone in a Croke Park Championship game and during interviews after, he marvelled that the Sligo replica kit was now a fashion item.

When it comes to the likes of Armagh and Derry - high profile counties that have taken a bit of ego-bashing - it fills them with panic.

In the early stages of the qualifiers, Derry embraced it. They recovered from a mauling in Ulster to Tyrone to make it to a 2004 All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Kerry.

But still, they will recall horrific recent defeats to Kildare and Longford with a grimace. The fact they are facing Louth in the altogether more Derry-feeling confines of Owenbeg a week after their loss to Meath gives them hope that they can salvage something from the season.

Armagh used the backdoor to get to the 2003 All-Ireland final after being shocked by Monaghan.

In recent times, they had a fabulous run in 2014, but have failed to build upon it.

The system may not be perfect, but the GAA gods always help those who help themselves. Time for the Ulster sides to stop feeling sorry for themselves.

Belfast Telegraph

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