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We need to keep back door: Westmeath boss in plea to GAA

 

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PLANNING: Westmeath manager Jack Cooney. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

PLANNING: Westmeath manager Jack Cooney. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

PLANNING: Westmeath manager Jack Cooney. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

Westmeath boss Jack Cooney has urged GAA fixture chiefs not to abandon the 'back door' as they finalise plans for this year's delayed All-Ireland senior football championship.

Croke Park's inter-county roadmap will be unveiled imminently, with growing speculation that the revised SFC format will embrace the existing provincial championship draws feeding into All-Ireland semi-finals - and no qualifiers.

This touted return to traditional straight knockout is predicated on a desire to ensure the race for Sam Maguire is completed in the calendar year.

For Westmeath, that would entail a daunting Leinster SFC quarter-final date with Dublin - and no second chance in the likely event of defeat to the five-in-a-row All-Ireland champions.

However, Cooney believes the Central Competitions Control Committee should preserve the qualifiers, even if it means extending the 2020 football championship beyond Christmas.

"The players in Westmeath, since I went in, have put in an unbelievable effort so we just want to keep that going," he explained.

"For us it's important that we do have an opportunity to develop. I think we should exhaust the back door system - win, lose or draw against Dublin.

"I can see no problem with it running into January, because it's also requested from the players (according to a GPA survey) that they want the 2021 season put back a little bit, so it's not on top of a late-finishing 2020 season.

"It's going to be tricky going from 2020 to 2021, depending on when you finish in the championship … but I certainly think that, irrespective, the back door system has worked."

Fond memories

Cooney has fond memories of the qualifiers: in their inaugural year, 2001, he was a selector under Luke Dempsey when Westmeath embarked on a marathon run to the All-Ireland quarter-finals.

He was again a selector in 2004 when Páidí Ó Sé's team stormed through the front door, shocking Dublin en route to a first Leinster title.

But Dublin have only lost one Leinster fixture since then - to Meath in 2010 - and will be chasing an unprecedented ten-in-a-row this year. Moreover, the recurring trend of double-digit massacres inflicted by Dublin on all comers - Westmeath included - has shredded the status of what used to be an ultra-competitive province.

Cooney is adamant that providing more games to developing counties outweighs the benefits of finishing the championship a few weeks earlier.

Harking back to the original Leinster draw last October, Cooney said: "If you had asked me at the start of the year what way are you approaching Dublin, we obviously would have given the league utmost priority and then the championship.

"And I'd still hope this is the case - it wasn't really about the Dublin game, it was about what we do after the Dublin game, win, lose or draw. So, I just hope that we're not denied that opportunity."

Reflecting on how the qualifiers were pivotal to Westmeath's original rising under Dempsey, Cooney stressed that "momentum" is the one thing you can't substitute at inter-county level.

But he added: "It's important to say as well that we'll relish the challenge against Dublin. We're playing against five-time historic All-Ireland winners. We won't be baulking at that for one second.

"Having said that, talking for myself and possibly for a lot of other counties, the back door system works for counties who are trying to make strides."

The Dublin/Westmeath quarter-final was originally scheduled for Tullamore on May 23. However, if social distancing rules for spectators are still in play when the county game resumes, the fixture conceivably could move to Croke Park. Another disadvantage for David against Goliath.

"We haven't had any feedback on that," said Cooney. "What is important is supporters' welfare. It depends on the criteria for attendances, and what the guidelines are from the Government at that stage.

Encouraged

"At the moment it's fixed for Tullamore; we don't know where we're going to be at that stage, come late October-early November. I would hope that it's going to be there."

The Westmeath boss is encouraged by reports that the CCCC aims to restart inter-county football, in mid-October, with the last two regulation rounds of the Allianz League. His team currently lies joint fourth in a congested Division 2, two points off the promotion places but just one point off potential relegation, with outstanding fixtures at home to Laois and away to Kildare.

"We're still speculating as to what the format is going to be and we're half-shooting in the dark, but I think it's a good initiative that they're going to play the two league matches first," Cooney ventured.

"First and foremost, we would love to secure Division 2 for next year - as a platform to develop and progress.

"On the championship, I thought with the year that's in it, this was just a great opportunity to try something different and new, a little bit innovative. But I also understand and appreciate the importance of the provincial championships."

As for suggestions that county managers will seek a head-start on the opposition, long before they are officially allowed to resume collective training on September 14, Cooney demurred: "We're not even at the end of June here, and we're going to be out in competition in the middle or end of October - that's a long way away.

"These are exceptional circumstances that we're in, and I think the clubs deservingly need their opportunity to play out their championships.

"Personally, I think there's a window for us to get back and get prepared before October 17 … so we just have to work around those dates."