With the long-awaited draw for the first round of the qualifiers finally set to take place in Carrick-on-Shannon on Sunday evening, it’s an opportune time to look at who we might pull from the hat at the weekend.
There are already thirteen of us in the draw for Sunday. As well as ourselves, this particular sea of souls comprises Armagh, Cavan, Donegal, Down, Fermanagh, Kildare, Limerick, Longford, Louth, Meath, Roscommon and Westmeath. Added to the pot on Sunday will be the losers of the matches between Monaghan and Derry, Laois and Wexford and Galway and Leitrim. In addition, if Dublin lose to Offaly, they get to join in the fun too (if Offaly lose, it’s straight to the Tommy Cooper with them) and, with seventeen teams then in the hat, there would be a need for a preliminary round on June 30th. On the face of it, this seems unlikely to happen.
Leaving aside the merits or otherwise of what kind of opposition we should be looking to get, it’s obvious from the above list that there’s a hierarchy of sorts in terms of potential opponents on July 7th. In order to keep this analysis reasonably neat, I’ve assumed that Dublin, Galway and Laois all win next Sunday, thus tipping Leitrim and Wexford into the pit whereas I think Derry and Monaghan are much of a muchness. So, for what it’s worth, here’s my hierarchy and who fits into it:
Tier 1 (extremely difficult to beat): Armagh.
Tier 2 (tough, particularly if drawn away): Meath, Donegal
Tier 3 (potential banana skins): Fermanagh, Kildare, Monaghan/Derry, Westmeath
Tier 4 (should win, regardless): Cavan, Down, Leitrim, Limerick, Longford, Louth, Roscommon, Wexford.
I think it’s safe to say that, for the first round at least, we want to avoid Armagh. They were extremely unlucky not to get past Donegal in Ulster where they looked to have done enough to win until that square ball goal gave Donegal an undeserved victory. It’s fair to conclude that Armagh wouldn’t have been whipped out the gate by Tyrone last Sunday and, although they’re not as powerful as they were in their heyday, Armagh are still a major force to be reckoned with. If we draw them away from home, it could be the end of our championship for this year.
Meath and Donegal would both be tough customers and, given our previous clashes with both of them, we could expect any tie with either of them to be spiky enough. I’d love us to pull Meath – they’d be a real challenge and I think we’d be fully fired up for it. If we got past them, we wouldn’t care all that much who we drew in the second round.
The likes of Fermanagh, Kildare, Monaghan/Derry and Westmeath could all, on their day, give us plenty of gip. We have, of course, lost to two of them in the qualifiers in the past – Westmeath in 2001 and Fermanagh, in 2003. (Curious aside: that defeat to the Ernesiders four years ago was the last time we lost to anyone except Kerry and Galway in the championship.) If we’re not on our game (you know the crack: over-elaboration coming out of the backs, not assertive enough in midfield and headless chicken-like in attack) we could find ourselves under pressure against any of these. However, if we have made the kind of improvement that Kevin McStay was gushing about the other day, then we should be able to handle any of them.
We should be too good for any of others, regardless of how sluggish we are. If, however, we’re up against maybe Down or perhaps Longford away from home and we’re playing particularly poorly, then we might be in trouble but, really, there’s no way we should fail to get past any of these.
That’s it – only a few days to go till we know who we’re playing on July 7th and then this ridiculously long interregnum (which will have lasted almost half the length of time that elapsed between last year’s All-Ireland final and the start of this year’s NFL) will finally be nearing its end.