Belfast Telegraph

Monday 24 November 2014

Joe Kernan: The original Champions League was created here

There is a suggestion doing the rounds that the formula for the All Ireland Football Championship could perhaps be revised and modelled along the lines of the European Champions League.

While many will welcome this as an innovative and indeed revolutionary step, I would have grave reservations in relation to any major tampering with the existing Championship structure — and I hasten to add that I am by no means the biggest fan of the Qualifiers system.

While the envisaged new format may have its plus-factors, the current championship campaign has provided even the most cynical among us with food for thought in relation to the value of the Qualifiers.

And it must also be pointed out that any introduction of an amended format would almost certainly involve the scrapping of the provincial Championships which would be a backward step, in my view — and I’m not thinking solely of the financial benefits that accrue for the four provincial Councils via their domestic competitions.

No, the fact that many players may not get the chance to share in All Ireland glory but do have a realistic chance of landing provincial championship medals means that the incentive to push for honours remains.

When the Qualifiers system was first mooted eight years ago, it was welcomed enthusiastically, particularly by those teams whose championship ‘campaigns’ up until then invariably started and ended with just one match.

Yet look what has taken place this year, for instance. Antrim, Sligo and Wicklow along with Meath have now left an indelible imprint on the championship canvas.

Let’s remember that Antrim, Sligo and Wicklow are all Division Four sides but the colour and pageantry they brought to the championship, not to mention their skill and courage, helped to cement the value of the Qualifiers in providing a meaningful outlet for teams’ ambitions and talents.

No team, indeed, has benefited more from the Qualifiers this year than Kerry — and that might seem a contradiction of sorts given their indifferent form up until they met Dublin in the All Ireland quarter-final.

The Kingdom only managed to squeeze past Longford and Sligo before unleashing a late scoring burst to see off Antrim, yet the fact that these unconvincing wins earned them their passport into the last eight nonetheless offered the wake-up call the team needed to stand up and be counted against the Dubs.

And while Kerry remain in the hunt for ‘Sam’, other sides have to make do with a lesser but nonetheless welcome prize — fresh respect.

Look what Wicklow have done under the direction of Mick O’Dwyer, a legend who, rather surprisingly, still has his share of critics within the GAA.

His team beat Kildare in the Leinster Championship last year but lost to Westmeath this year before capturing the national spotlight by beating Fermanagh, Down and Cavan in the Qualifiers and then losing to Kildare — and all without using one substitute! That must surely be some sort of record but then only a man with Micko’s charisma, inherent self-belief and absolute faith in his players could chalk up such an astonishing statistic.

To say that Wicklow enlivened the summer would be an understatement although Antrim, under the capable baton of Liam Bradley, brought their own gloss to the Championship while Sligo were distinctly unfortunate to lose out to Kerry in the Qualifiers when David Kelly’s late penalty miss cost them so dearly after they appeared to have the Kingdom on their knees.

All this drama, colour and spectacle would not have been possible had the Qualifiers not been in vogue — it was indeed a rather boring summer in days gone by when Kerry played about three and a half matches to win All Ireland titles!

The Championship proper and the Qualifiers to date have thrown up many outstanding individual contributions and in my opinion the following quintet have stood head and shoulders above their peers:

Dermot Earley (Kildare): An inspirational midfielder, he has been the real heartbeat of a Kildare side that came within an ace of reaching the All Ireland semi-finals. Dermot’s work-rate, fielding, distribution and support play are right out of the top drawer.

Bernard Brogan (Dublin): As a top-class scoring forward, Bernard made a massive impact this summer. Having lived in the considerable shadow of his brother Alan for some time, he took a centre-stage role lately and his artistry, guile and finishing had much to do with Dublin’s progress into the quarter-finals.

Paul Galvin (Kerry): He may have been much-maligned last year — and not without good reason — but Paul has played a huge part in bringing the Kingdom into their All Ireland semi-final against Meath. When other players in the side were floundering in the Qualifiers, he stepped up to provide drive and leadership against Antrim and Sligo in particular and was prominent again against Dublin.

Graham Canty (Cork): An all-action, battle-hardened player who has fulfilled a central role in Cork’s renaissance. His versatility, strength, athleticism and tackling make him one of the most formidable opponents in the sport. Possessed with a great engine, he never knows when he’s beaten.

Justin McMahon (Tyrone): Still only 22 but already something of a father-figure in the Tyrone side because of his calm assurance, reliability and wide-ranging skills. Drafted into the full-back position as something of an emergency measure last year, he duly went on to win an All Star award just a few months later and could be heading for another. An outstanding defender, he also enjoys going forward.

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