Since the All Ireland football qualifiers were introduced into the fixtures calendar in 2001 they have offered hope and encouragement to teams who might otherwise have taken an early leave of the Championship.
Yet while the ‘back door’ provides an alternative route to possible glory for teams which fail to negotiate a smooth path through the mainstream provincial competitions, it has certainly not helped to alter the complexion of the All-Ireland roll of honour.
Galway collected the crown in 2001 with Armagh lifting ‘Sam’ in 2002, Tyrone achieving their initial triumph the following year and then Kerry ensuring that what we have come to view as the normal order being restored in 2004.
It was Tyrone’s turn to reign supreme again in 2005 before Kerry knocked them off their perch in 2006 and remained on the throne in 2007 prior to the Red Hands ruining their carefully-scripted three-in-a-row bid in 2008.
Kerry regained their position of dominance in 2009 before Cork bridged a 20-year gap by claiming football’s biggest prize in 2010 and then Dublin emerged from a lengthy spell in the shadows to capture the ultimate accolade last year.
It is quite clear from this that Kerry and Tyrone have been the major forces in the All-Ireland series and even though some teams made considerable headway in the qualifiers, such as Kildare and Down, they have been unable as yet to go the full distance.
And this underlines the influence which provincial champions can exert when it comes to winning the All-Ireland title.
This year the winners from all four provinces form the semi-finals line-up which undoubtedly adds quality and intrigue to the closing stages of the race for ‘Sam’. No matter what team makes headway through the qualifiers, they are invariably going to have to face three major matches at the quarter-final, semi-final and final stages.
That is the real test for teams and is one of the reasons why only certain teams prevail when the heat comes on.
It had been thought that the provincial champions might falter this term because of the lengthy break, from when they won their titles, until the date of their quarter-finals.
But only Dublin and Donegal encountered any real difficulties with Mayo and Cork breezing through against Down and Kildare, respectively, to take their places in the penultimate stage of the competition.
It was thought that Kildare’s winning streak through the qualifiers would have weighed in their favour but they were blown away by Conor Counihan’s team while Mayo were far too physical and streetwise for Down who were the authors of their own misfortune.
However, Dublin were given quite a fright by Laois who were unfortunate to concede an own goal which proved a telling factor in their defeat while Donegal, despite having been six points up at one stage, almost faltered in the closing minutes when Kerry, despite being well below their best, still managed to plunder 1-2 and remain in the game up until the final whistle sounded.
The trend of these matches makes predicting the outcome of the semi-finals extremely dif
ficult especially when it is considered that Donegal will positively relish going head-to-head with Cork while Mayo will believe that their new-found physicality and boundless work-rate will stand them in good stead against the Dubs.
Since the start of the Championship, we have become conditioned to shock results with teams such as Longford, Sligo and Tipperary illuminating the summer with some unexpectedly impressive displays.
But now that we are down to the last four, there will no longer be any element of surprise. The four teams are all in Division One of the Allianz League and this being the case their paths will have crossed already this year.
Mayo, though, could be burdened by Croke Park baggage as they have never performed well there in meaningful matches while the Dubs in contrast are very much at home.
Mayo have folded at Headquarters far too often for comfort and James Horan’s side now face a major test of their psyche and courage — they beat the Dubs, the world could suddenly become their oyster.
Similarly, Donegal may be haunted to some extent by their failure in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin but I cannot see players like Michael Murphy, Colm McFadden, Karl Lacey, Ryan Bradley and Mark McHugh faltering on the day.
They form the spine of this side and I expect them to set the tone for what I think will be a titanic display against Cork.
In the eyes of most people, Cork are favourites to lift the title and that is understandable. They are physically imposing, possess the best midfield pairing in the country in Alan O’Connor and Aidan Walsh and in Donnacha O’Connor, Paul Kerrigan and in Colm O’Neill have gifted forwards.
Unless their defence is vulnerable, I can’t see them being beaten therefore, I expect them to hurdle the Ulster champions and go on to lift ‘Sam’.