2009 marks the ninth season of the GAA qualifying or back door system. Brought in for the first time in the 2001 season it has given both hurling and football teams the opportunity to play at least two games in their respective provincial championship in any given year. Hurling, with fewer competing teams than football, has not seen as big a shift in dominance. (Although the new artificial provinces, introduced this year, will hope to achieve this eventually.) How has the qualifying system really changed Gaelic football and has it been for the benefit of the sport?
Probably the most obvious changes have been the Saturday night games and the cross provincial fixtures. Football, traditionally played on Sunday afternoons, has become a permanent fixture of Saturday evenings. Teams who have lost the previous Sunday do not necessarily play in their own province. They may be forced to travel the length and breadth of the country, sometimes over a hundred miles, to reach their competitors. For the first time in the competitions history, weaker counties have been allowed to face competition from outside their province.
Of course, while this gives teams the opportunity to play more football, it also gives them the chance to reach the final stages of the All Ireland Championship, without winning their respective provincial championships. For example, while Leinster has not enjoyed much dominance in the competition (having not won the All Ireland title since 1999) smaller teams, such as Kildare and Wexford have enjoyed longer summers than usual, making it to All Ireland Quarter and Semi finals. However, the benefit to the dominant provinces is unmistakable.
Both Ulster and Munster have benefited from the strength of their teams. In 2003, three of the last four teams in the competition were from Ulster and Tyrone won their first of three All Irelands in a final against provincial rivals Armagh. The success of Tyrone and Armagh, who have won four All Irelands since this system was introduced, cannot be solely attributed to qualifying, but the rise of other counties in the province can be. Counties such as Fermanagh and Monaghan, who in the past could not pass Derry or Down, or in recent years, Armagh and Tyrone, have made their presence felt in both All Ireland Quarter and Semi Finals. In Munster the two strongest counties, Cork and Kerry have succeeded in reaching the All Ireland Semi Finals four times in the past eight seasons and met each other in the final in 2008.
By the time a team in the qualifying stages reaches the All Ireland Quarter Finals, statistically, they have as much chance of winning the title as the provincial champions. The results seem to support this with four of the past eight winners coming through the qualifying system. However, what the statistics do not take into account is the fact that the teams who did not win their provincial championships played at least three more games than the teams they faced in the Quarter Finals, not including any replays or extra time. However, with the single exception of 2004, at least one qualifier has made it to the All Ireland Final since 2001. It would seem that amateur player excel as they play more football and their fitness levels rise. In the 1999 All Ireland Championship, the winning Meath team played just five games while Tyrone played ten games before winning the title in 2005. The advantage gained from this experience is also helped by the fact that provincial winners often have to wait several weeks to play a competitive game after their victory. In 2008 three of the four provincial winners lost their quarter finals with at least a three week gap between their games. Most of the qualifiers had to wait just one week.
The qualifying system has made the game more competitive and players more motivated. A loss early on in the competition does not mean the end of the summer for a team as it used to. It has seen the rise of many small teams and the dominance of strong provinces. However, in an attempt to give a boost to those who lose early on, it has given an advantage to those who do not win their provincial championship. Obviously scheduling is a difficulty for the GAA, especially when replays are factored in but provincial champions should not have to wait almost a month to play a competitive game. However, while a change is needed in the schedule, as fitness levels rise, competition grows stronger and the bar is constantly being raised, it is up to the team to remain competitive and not the GAA.