Last Friday, the GAA confirmed there will be no Qualifiers in this year’s Football Championship. For the first time since 2000, second chances don’t apply. This news won’t impact some of the bigger counties. They will still expect to feature in the All-Ireland series. It is the sides who just aren’t good enough to win their own Province it will hurt. Teams in this category still believe they can reach the latter stages of the Championship via the back door route. I have looked back on five occasions where the “weaker” Counties have benefited from the Qualifiers.
Fermanagh had shown promise since the turn of the millennium. That appeared to be fading away with a nineteen points hammering by Tyrone in the 2003 All-Ireland Quarter-Final. Matters got wrong in the spring of 2004 with relegation from Division One of the League. A short Championship campaign loomed on the horizon for the Ernesiders. They started off with the daunting task of facing reigning All-Ireland Tyrone in the Ulster Championship Quarter-Final. Unlike the meeting in Croke Park the previous August, Charlie Mulgrew side could be proud of their efforts. Stephen Maguire was on form with frees (five in total) but it wasn’t enough. Tyrone progressed to the Ulster Semi-Finals on a scoreline of 1-13 to 0-12. Fermanagh could enter the Qualifiers with confidence.
Fermanagh found themselves into the second round without kicking a ball. Tipperary gave a walkover as they were unable to field a team. For the second year in a row, they faced Meath. Once again they came out on top, winning by the bare minimum, 0-19 to 2-12. Round Three paired them against another powerhouse, this time Cork and a trip to GAA HQ. The nightmare of their previous visit eleven-month earlier was put to bed with a 0-18 to 0-13 shock victory over the Rebels. Midfielder Liam McBarron topped off a day to remember by getting married after the game. Familiar foes Donegal awaited in the next round and the last hurdle before the Quarter-Finals. Extra-time was needed to separate the sides and it was Fermanagh celebrating a 1-10 to 0-12 win. Tom Brewster was the hero with the winning point in extra-time.
Ulster champions Armagh were the opposition in the All-Quarter-Final. The Orchard County were heavy favourites but were dealt a blow with the first-half dismissal of Enda McNulty. Just like the Donegal game, Tom Brewster came up with the goods to seal a dramatic 0-12 to 0-11 victory. This win still remains Fermanagh’s finniest hour. The county that had never won a provincial title (still hasn’t) were in their first All-Ireland Semi-Final. Mayo was the side to end the fairy tale journey after a replay. The drawn game finished 0-9 each on a horrible day for Football. Despite leading 1-8 to 0-10 inside the final ten minutes, Mayo scored three late points to book their place in Gaelic Football showpiece event. A brilliant year for Fermanagh concluded with full-back Barry Owens winning an All-Star.
Wexford entered the 2008 Championship high on morale after winning Division Three of the League. Most people still wouldn’t have talked about the prospects of the Yellowbellies’ playing Football in August. Fifty minutes into their Championship opener vs Meath and the thoughts of August was a long way off. Trailing 2-12 to 0-8, a Leinster Championship exit at the Quarter-Finals stared them in the face. Goals from Redmond Barry and PJ Banville helped produce one of the greatest comebacks in GAA history. Wexford turned the game around to triumph 2-14 to 2-13. There was no such drama in the Leinster Semi-Final vs Laois. Mattie Forde was the star of the show with six points, in a comfortable 0-18 to 0-12 victory.
A first Leinster Final appearance in fifty-two years became a nightmare. Dublin secured a fourth title in a row with twenty-three points to spare. It all went downhill in the second half. The Yellowbellies’ only scored two points and conceded all three goals. Rookie Manager Jason Ryan was faced with a massive job to lift spirits. Wexford was drawn against Down in the last Qualifier round and the opportunity to redeem themselves. They yielded more than just redemption. First-half goals from Ciaran Lyng and Redmond Barry laid the foundations for success. Seven points separated the sides, 2-13 to 0-12. Round 4 Qualifiers are never easy for a beaten provincial finalist but after a twenty-three points defeat in a provincial Final takes that to another level. Wexford never gets enough credit for what they achieved vs Down.
The All-Ireland Quarter-Final pitted them against Ulster opponents again, in the form of Armagh. Like four years earlier vs Fermanagh, the 2002 All-Ireland champions were strong favourites. Lighting was to strike twice, as Wexford pulled off an upset. The South-East side was always behind until Mattie Forde’s goal in the sixty-second minute. Wexford kicked on from that score and was celebrating a Semi-Final berth, thanks to a 1-14 to 0-12 scoreline. This was a fantastic result for a team that operated in Division Three of the League vs a team that had All-Ireland winners.
The Ulster opposition kept coming. Tyrone were all that stood in the way of a first All-Ireland Final since 1918. The Red Hand County was going to be a step up and it was evident in the first half. Eight points were between the sides after the opening thirty-five minutes in the Ulster side favour. In true Wexford spirit, they never threw in the towel, despite losing Mattie Forde to injury. A mini second-half revival, saw Tyrone lead stand at only two points with twenty minutes remaining. The two times All-Ireland champions had extra gears in them and pulled clear to win 0-23 to 1-14. Wexford received no All-Stars to many people’s shock. They might not have won have the individual awards but they became every neutral cherished team.
The summer of 2009 is without doubt Wicklow GAA proudest hour. Kerry man Mick O’Dwyer was into his third year at the helm and each year they were building. In 2007, the Garden County won the Tommy Murphy Cup. They followed that up in 2008, beating Kildare in the Leinster Championship. When they started the 2009 Championship with victory over Longford, few people were surprised. Even though Longford played one Division higher in the League, Wicklow were full value for a 2-12 to 1-13 win. Westmeath brought the curtain down on their Leinster Championship hopes at the Quarter-Final stage. Francis Wilson 0-5 haul went a long way to guiding the Lake County to a 0-16 to 1-10 success after extra time.
The Qualifier journey started vs Fermanagh in Aughrim and Wicklow found themselves a point behind at half-time. Seanie Furlong (0-5) and Tony Hannon (0-3) had their scoring boots on though and Wicklow found themselves in Round Two. Three points was the margin of victory, 0-17 to 1-11. Cavan were the next sides to make the trip to Aughrim. This was a more routine victory as the Leinster side never looked in danger. Paul Earls’ goal helped them to a 1-12 to 0-8 triumph.
Mick O’Dwyer was working his magic again and with a third home concessive home game vs Down, confidence was high. A game that went right down to the wire and it was still level in stoppage time. James Stafford had the chance to win the game with an easy point for the taking but the midfielder went for goal and Brendan McVeigh put the ball out for a 45’. Tony Hannon slotted the ball between the posts to seal victory, 1-15 to 0-17. Wild scenes of celebration erupted from the home supporters. Wicklow found themselves in the last twelve of the Championship for the first time. A County with no Leinster titles, this was new territory.
After a run of facing Ulster opposition, neighbours Kildare were the next challengers. The Lilywhites got their revenge from the previous summer but not without a fight. Goals from Seanie Furlong and Tony Hannon kept Wicklow in the game. A James Stafford point left the side’s level, 2-7 to 0-13. Kildare had the final say and came out on top 1-16 to 2-9. Wicklow didn’t get as far as the other teams mentioned in this article. However, they punched well above their weight for a mid-table Division Four team. In their ten Championship campaigns since Wicklow have never won more than once in a Championship season. That statistic makes their involvement in the 2009 Championship all the more eye-catching.
Twice All-Ireland champions in the 1990s, Down never featured at the business end of the Championship during the noughties. Going into 2010 and a new decade, there were reasons to be optimistic. One of the key players of the 1990s, James McCartan took over as manager. Former Minor star Marty Clarke returned home after three years in the AFL with Collingwood Magpies. The early signs were encouraging. Promotion was achieved from Division Two of the League. The Division Two Final defeat to Armagh illustrated the team still had some learning to do.
The Ulster Championship began with a tricky trip to Ballybofey to face Donegal. It couldn’t have got off to the wrong start, trailing 2-1 to 0-3 after nineteen minutes. The Mourne men showed the character they had built during the League to get back into the game and prevail 1-15 to 2-10 after extra time. Cult figure Benny Coulter got the crucial goal in extra time. Reigning Ulster champions Tyrone was a task to far still for this Down team. The six-times All-Ireland champions got off to a flyer and raced into 0-6 to 0-2 lead after twelve minutes. Tyrone greater experience took over after that and by the thirty-third minute, they established a 0-10 to 0-8 lead. In the second half, Tyrone played the game on their turns to wrap up a 0-14 to 0-10 victory.
Down Qualifiers journey commenced with Longford coming to Newry. In a game they never looked like losing, the Mourne men progressed on a score of 1-14 to 1-10. Offaly were next on the cards in Tullamore. This was a game where they really had to show fighting qualities. The sides were deadlocked at 1-8 each after fifty-five minutes. The visitors dominated the final quarter to come away with a 1-12 to 1-10 win. If Offaly had tested Down to the pin of their collar, the Sligo game was the complete opposite. Seven points to the good at half-time, the Ulster men showed no let-up in the second half. Substitute Ronan Murtagh scored 1-5, as the westerns were hammered 3-20 to 0-10.
James McCartan charges were in the All-Ireland Quarter-Finals for the first time since its introduction in 2001. The thought of facing All-Ireland champions Kerry would be horrifying for most teams but not Down. The Kingdom had never beaten their Northern counterparts and after seventy minutes in Croke Park, that statistic didn’t change. Down made the dream start with a goal from Mark Poland inside the opening two minutes. They never looked back from there and were full value for a six points triumph, 1-16 to 1-10.
Kildare provided a novel Semi-Final pairing and it was a game that had everything. Benny Coulter scored a controversial square ball goal in the eleventh minute. Marty Clarke displayed his class with 0-3. Down looked certain for the Final with fifteen minutes to go. Despite being seven points adrift, Kildare died with their boots on. Robert Kelly had a last-minute thirteen metres free to win the game. Two points down, his shot for a goal crashed off the crossbar. The Mourne men held out, 1-16 to 1-14 in a modern-day classic.
Down went in as underdogs vs Cork but held the record of never losing an All-Ireland Final. Records are meant to be broken as they say and Down suffered that faith. All-Ireland title number seven looked good for most of the first-half but Cork delivered when it mattered. Daniel Goulding gave an exhibition of placed balls, including three 45s’ as the Munster men pipped Down 0-16 to 0-15. Brendan McVeigh, Daniel Hughes, Marty Clarke and Benny Coulter got some consolation winning All-Stars. 2010 will still be remembered fondly by Down fans. It was some transformation from a side that were knocked out by Wexford and Wicklow the previous two summers.
After developing a number of strong underage teams in the early 2010s, there was a strong belief that Tipperary were going to make the breakthrough at senior level. In the winter of 2015, three of their best young left the panel. Colin O’Riordan signed for the Sydney Swans in the AFL. Steven O’Brien and Seamus Kennedy joined the county Hurlers. The early part of 2016 brought no upturn in fortunes. An underwhelming Division Three League campaign saw the Premier County register seven points and a final standing of sixth place. New manager Liam Kearns was dealt an additional blow soon after. Liam Casey, Jason Lonergan and Kevin Fahey decided a summer in America was a better alternative. Suddenly, all the questions around Tipperary Football were what’s going wrong.
A trip to Dungarvan to play Waterford in the Munster Quarter-Final was the confidence booster Tipperary needed. There were a few scary moments in the opening thirty-five minutes. Goalkeeper Evan Comerford made two good saves but after that it was plain sailing, winning 1-15 to 1-8. Cork travelled to Semple Stadium as Tipperary looked to bridge a seventy-two years gap vs the Rebels. The home side made life difficult for themselves. The game was wrapped up at 3-13 to 1-10 with eight minutes left on the clock. Going into added time, it was even-steven but Kevin O’Halloran landed two points. The full-time score read 3-15 to 2-16 and a Munster Final vs Kerry in Killarney was up next. The Kingdom were warned and their class was visible for all to see. Tipperary battled hard but they couldn’t disagree with a 3-17 to 2-10 defeat.
Three weeks later, Tipperary took on a rejuvenated Derry in Breffni Park, Cavan. It seemed unfair that an Ulster venue was chosen as a neutral ground. The Munster runners-up didn’t let that affect them and they came out on top in a shoot-out. Conor Sweeney, Michael Quinlivan and Kevin O’Halloran scored a combined total of 1-16 as Tipp snatched victory 1-21 to 2-17. Liam Kearns had overcome all the setbacks to guide a traditional Hurling county into an All-Ireland Football Quarter-Final. Connacht champions Galway were expected to end Tipperary’s ambitions but the underdogs had other ideas. Leading by three points at the break, two early second-half goals from Conor Sweeney ended the game as a content. Tipperary were in dreamland and their supporters enjoyed every moment of a deserved 3-13 to 1-10 triumph.
The golden crop of underage talent was starting to deliver. Talk of winning the double was on the cards going into the Semi-Final vs Mayo. Revenge was gained for the Hurlers vs Galway and they qualified for the All-Ireland Final the previous week. Unfortunately, there was no Football Final for Tipperary to start preparing for. Michael Quinlivan was on form with frees, scoring seven in total. The old saying “goals win games” was Tipp’s undoing as Mayo advanced by five points, 2-13 to 0-14. An amazing journey was over. Like Fermanagh, Wexford, Wicklow and Down before them, this young side captured the imagination of the Country. There was an individual honour for Michael Quinlivan. He became just the counties second-ever Football All-Star after Declan Browne.
We won’t see any emotional roller coasters like the above in the 2020 Football Championship. This year’s Championship will be special for a retro-style structure and the straight knockout element. It will still feel there is a void with the strong likelihood we won’t see any surprise packages. Fingers crossed normal service will resume in 2021.