DOWN captain Darren O’Hagan has given a resounding two thumbs up to the ever-increasing prospect of a knock-out All-Ireland Football Championship this summer.
GAA activity has been postponed to March 29 as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, but that date is expected to be extended considerably in the very near future.
That narrows the playing time window and raises the possibility of an old-school championship, and the Clonduff man is all for it.
He said that his opinion has been coloured by the great days supporting Down as a youngster, and he referenced the magic of the famous 1994 Ulster win over Derry at Celtic Park.
“If there had been backdoors in 1991 and ’94 maybe Down wouldn’t have won those All-Ireland titles,” said O’Hagan.
“They beat Derry in the first round in ’94 but if that had been the way it is now, Derry maybe could have come back and got them in the backdoor.
“There just seemed to me more bite to the game back then. It was do or die.
“There would be some spice this year if it does come in, it might give football that wee spark that it needs.
“If you get on the right side of the draw you might get a good run too. You could see a couple of big teams on one side of the draw getting knocked out and then you could have a Division Three or Division Four team getting a good run to take them to a quarter-final or a semi-final.
“I would be happy enough with 32 teams in a hat and just draw them out.”
The fact that some teams appear to approach the provincial championship with the safety net of the Qualifiers in their minds does not sit comfortably with O’Hagan.
“Look at the Mayo game in Newry last year.
“It was a Qualifier match but it was straight knock-out and our season or their season was going to end.
“We got a good crowd to it and there just seemed to be a better atmosphere at it.
“In an Ulster game Down might go in against Donegal or Tyrone and some people might think ‘okay Down aren’t going to win this but they have the Qualifiers’ and you feel that in the atmosphere.
“That’s unfortunately the way it seems to be instead of everyone going with real hope that Down are going to beat them and that atmosphere being there as a result.”
O’Hagan would also be fully supportive of a knock-out championship in his own county this year.
Currently there is a second chance for teams right up until the quarter-final stage, but he would embrace a return to the old days.
“When I was growing up, Clonduff was always used for knock-out games and I remember going down to the pitch to watch Kilcoo-Castlewellan, Burren-Rostrevor, Mayobridge-Kilcoo.
“It was unreal, the atmosphere, the crowds, and football just seemed a whole lot better because it was make or break.
“It’s gone to being about money receipts now, getting more people through the gate instead of what it should all be about – big days out.”
CAVAN livewire Martin Reilly believes a straight knock-out All-Ireland would open the door to the return of possible big shocks in the championship.
The prospect of smaller counties reaching the latter stages of the tournament seems an ever-dwindling possibility with Tipperary’s run to the semi-final in 2016 the last real example.
The Killygarry man feels that the removal of a safety net would see more big names exiting early.
“I think it would add a bit and it gives the lesser teams more of a chance to take a big scalp.
“If the big team loses then they’re gone, there is no second chance there for them.
“You have seen over the years that it has happened many times but the big team has been able to regroup and come back stronger and still make their way to the semis and finals.
“It could be a blow for some of the bigger teams but it would be exciting.”
Reilly feels that players will accept the situation, whatever it is.
“Something like that has to be done because the season has to be condensed with the delays we have seen so far.
“You have to be thinking of the players, you don’t want to be playing right up to Christmas. You can’t with what was originally planned.
“You have to think of the clubs as well, they need their time too, so something has to be done to condense the inter-county season.
“It might not be nice and it will be tough to take for the teams that have trained all year but are knocked out in the first round.
“I suppose that’s just the way it is and there is not much you can do. It’s an unusual situation so things are going to be different.”
The Cavan Championship is most lengthy club championship in Ulster.
Reilly’s Killgarry, for example, played eight games last year – six in the league and two knock-out matches – yet didn’t get past the quarter-final stage.
Again the player is expecting to see some big changes when the GAA season eventually resumes.
“The club calendar will have to be condensed too obviously,” he said.
“I don’t know what the plan is, I’ve heard rumours that there mightn’t be a league at all and you might go straight into the championship.
“I suppose something like that will have to end up being done. We don’t want to be playing late in the winter when the pitches are bad and the evenings are dark. I don’t think it will work.”
THE result may be something that he would like to forget but former Monaghan goalkeeper Glenn Murphy has the honour of lining out in his county’s last ever straight knock-out Ulster Championship match.
Back in 2000 Murphy was between the sticks as Raymond Gallagher, Stephen Maguire and Raymond Johsnton all found the net as Fermanagh defeated the Oriel county 3-12 to 1-10 at Brewster Park.
Murphy was also in goals for their next championship match as they returned to Enniskillen and gained revenge in June 2001, and he also played in Monaghan’s first ever Qualifier game as they lost out to Armagh having been dumped out by Cavan in the provincial semi-final.
So he has viewed both sides of the argument, and he feels that it would be a disappointment if 16 county teams had only one championship game this summer.
“I was there at the time as a player and I thought it was a good thing,” he said. “You were getting a second day out.
“Monaghan weren’t going too well at the time and I played many a year when you trained all year, played one match and you were out.
“Now you’re meant to have that second bite of the cherry so it would be tough for teams if they didn’t get it.
“For a spectator it gave them a second day out and something more to shout about too.”
Murphy said that the players’ approach to championship football didn’t necessarily change from 2001 onwards when there was the guarantee of two games.
“I don’t think it impacted on how you trained in any way,” he said.
“You were still giving it your all and individually you were trying to make the first 15.
“It wasn’t any different that way but still at the back of the head there was a knowledge that if you didn’t make it today you’d still have another chance the second day.
“Collectively as a team there maybe was a bit of that too, especially as Monaghan weren’t going too well at the time.”
Murphy said that any football, no matter the guise, would be welcomed this summer given the circumstances.
“I’m a supporter now and you try and get to as many games as you can and the way things are, you never know when you’ll next get to a game.
“If it’s a knock-out competition, so be it. At least it will be something. The last thing we want is a whitewash.”