By Frank Craig
JUNE 11, 2000 was Donegal’s last involvement in straight knockout Ulster Championship football.
Their opposition that day was Fermanagh. And a Rory Gallagher inspired Ernesiders would upset the odds to dump the Tir Chonaill men out of the Anglo Celt running at the very first hurdle.
Coincidently enough, it was a result that ended their then (and now) boss Declan Bonner’s first tenure in the Donegal bainisteoir’s bib.
Raymond Sweeney lined out at full-back that afternoon in Ballybofey. The following season, the ‘back door’ was introduced to Gaelic football. It not only changed the summer landscape, it also altered the mindset.
“It did (feel more serious) back then,” said Sweeney. “You have that safety net now of the back door, a fall back. I don’t know if it’s the right word but there was a sort of fear going into it that if you were knocked out that was it, one game and you were gone.
“The stakes were high. It felt huge on the day of a championship opener. Your whole summer was on the line.”
The safety net or last chance saloon that the Qualifiers concept offered, worked well for some.
Since its introduction six teams have won the All-Ireland through the backdoor – Galway in 2001, Tyrone in 2005 and 2008, Kerry in 2006 and 2009 and finally Cork in 2010.
But the Rebels’ win is a decade old now and, even before COVID-19 reared its head, many pundits were begging the question if whether or not the back door was now a stale format?
On the other hand, even with the introduction of the ‘Super 8s’, it could be argued, given Dublin’s continued dominance, that football is, in fact, a stale product.
Regardless, the coronavirus pandemic has forced the GAA to look at alternative ways of getting their All-Ireland Championship played before the end of the calendar year.
If there is any possibility of that happening, a slimmed down format looks like the only real option. A knockout template has been suggested.
From a player’s perspective, and Sweeney has sat on both sides of that fence, there is a world of difference going into a season with and without the knowledge of a possible second bite at the championship cherry.
“If it gets to a stage where it’s safe to go back this year, then if ever there was an opportunity to try something different then this is it. We’re not going to have summer football.
“More than likely, if we have anything at all, it’s going to be possibly sometime like November. And that’s if we’re lucky.”
A knockout or, as Sweeney suggests, a World Cup style championship, would solve a huge ‘here-and-now’ problem for the GAA but it might indirectly create a much bigger headache for the Association down the line.
There is the hypothetical scenario where we get a concentrated but brilliantly bonkers 2020 championship run off. To add to the complete unpredictability of it all, Dublin are dethroned along the way.
There could be a sudden and whole new appetite for a change or even a return to a guise similar to the old format, inside and outside of the provinces, last seen in 2000.
That just wouldn’t be as financially beneficial to the GAA as the current inflated model, ‘Super 8s’ included.
“I don’t know (about that),” he added. “I think we’re looking at a unique set of circumstances. We’ll hopefully never see the likes of this again. Apart from Ulster… the rest of the provinces are that poor anyways.
“But something has to give this year for football to be played so I don’t think that, a fear of making a rod for their own back down the line, will be any kind of issue.
“I’d like to see a championship, played intensively over a short period, similar to a World Cup format. I’d go with a first or top 16. Because at the end of the day third and fourth division sides aren’t going to win an All-Ireland.
“It would serve no purpose for them to be hockied by the bigger sides. So give them a similar format and you’d also have some amazing and competitive games.
“For sides to improve, they need to be grouped with sides of a similar standard. You’d have two competitions with four groups of four in each. Play it off in the month of November or December.
“You’d have your Division One and Two teams split evenly amongst the four groups. And the same with Division Three and Four in the second competition. Each side would be guaranteed three games. It would be great to try something new like that.
“Straight knockout has been mentioned but from a players’ point of view, I think they’d rather gear themselves up for something like that. The preparation and commitment that would be needed from players to prepare, and after the wait they’d have had, one game and straight knockout just wouldn’t be fair.
“If we got to the point where it was safe for something like that to take place it would give the whole country a massive lift at the end of it all.”
Revising his own experiences in the then new Qualifiers format 19 seasons ago, Sweeney and Donegal initially took some time to warm to the championship change of direction.
First time out in 2001, Fermanagh accounted for them once again in Ulster but they exacted a measure of revenge against the same opposition in the Qualifiers. But the side’s season came to a forgettable enough end when Kildare edged them out in Newbridge in round two.
A year later and a four-point Ulster final loss to Armagh buoyed hope that real progress could be made this time out through the Qualifiers. They earned an excellent win over Meath before taking Dublin to a pulsating draw in the All-Ireland quarter-finals.
But an old problem reared its head and another notorious bout of indiscipline, where a number of the side stayed on to party in the capital, disrupted preparations and they were subsequently drubbed by 10 points in the replay.
Fast-forward to 2003 and Donegal would enjoy their most memorable foray through the back door – a run that culminated in an All-Ireland semi-final appearance. Again Fermanagh, somewhat of a bogey side for the Hillsmen back then, ended their provincial dream.
But this latest and unpredictable venture into the unknown would see Donegal tangle and come out on the right side of clashes with a real mash of sides that included the likes of Longford, Sligo, Tipperary and Down in the Qualifiers.
“We just seemed to build momentum as we went,” Sweeney explained. “It was week-on-week, with games around every corner. That’s what players love and we bought into it more and more as we went.
“There was no room for any huge amount of dogging on the training field. You simply ticked over in between. And going through that list, not one of those was an easy game.
“It was a change of scenery, and you were coming up against players you’d usually not have had the opportunity to play against. It was enjoyable. There was none of that Ulster baggage you’d have had against your usual provincial foes. Because every game in Ulster was like that.
“There were always individual gripes, rivalries there or scores to be settled. This was a breath of fresh air as we didn’t know anything really about each other.
“We’d been having a difficult time in Ulster. And 2003, it looked like it was the same old story once more. Fermanagh again had our number in Ulster. But we got on a roll. The camaraderie and mood lifted with each passing week. And it carried us through that summer.”
In the All-Ireland series, they really grabbed the public’s attention with their disposal of a highly-fancied Galway.
In a dramatic final four showdown with their old provincial foes Armagh, Donegal managed to work themselves into a 1-5 to 0-4 lead at the start of the second-half.
Sweeney though, would pick up a harsh second yellow card and, as a result, his side went down to 14 for the remainder.
Donegal coped quite well for a quarter of an hour after Sweeney’s departure and actually increased their lead to four points before taking a three-point advantage (1-7 to 0-7) into the final quarter.
The Orchard men, the reigning All-Ireland champions at the time, would turn the screw and a Steven McDonnell goal helped propel them into a one-point lead nearing the end of normal time.
Adrian Sweeney – Ray’s All-Star brother – looked like he’d snatched another day out for an exhausted Donegal but five minutes of stoppage time meant they were eventually overrun and downed on a final scoreline of 2-10 to 1-9.
“You mentioned ‘off the cuff’ there and that’s exactly what we were. We’ve all been watching old games recently and that’s one of the games I finally had a look back at.
“Looking at it now, I’d always say the exact same thing, we were too off the cuff. We weren’t as robotic, honed or structured as say an Armagh or Tyrone. We simply went out and played.
“But that made us unpredictable and you just never really knew what you were going to get on any given day. It could be great but it could be just as awful in equal measure.
“I mean, go back to that year and the fact is Fermanagh beat us in the first round of Ulster. But we were then still able to get it together enough to go onto an All-Ireland semi-final and be competitive in it.
“That was the frustration. The supporters felt it but so too did the players.”
In an absorbing semi-final at Croke Park, Donegal, with just 14 men, looked as if they might just hold on for what would have been a remarkable victory.
But in typical fashion, Joe Kernan’s side rallied late and squeezed home at the end.
Sweeney had been booked in the 16th minute and paid the ultimate penalty just after the break for a foul on Oisin McConville as he bore down on goal.
Referee Michael Monahan subsequently waved the dejected Dungloe man to the sideline. In what was a tight, Ulster derby, under the unusual and unfamiliar banner of an All-Ireland semi-final, the punishment just didn’t feel like it fit the crime.
And the general feeling at the time was that Sweeney was hard done by.
“I watched the first half of it a few weeks back. It was late at night so I left the second half of it. It was the first time I’ve had a look to be honest.
“I looked back on it and there were a number of personal fouls in the first half. Could I have done better? Yeah, possibly. I’m looking at a few instances and I’m thinking ‘get your hands out’ and don’t be trying to hang off his hips.
“But you’d be your own worst judge anyway. At the same time, I don’t look back or dwell on it. Of course there is regret there.
“But the Armagh forwards were tough lads. I’d Diarmaid Marsden in he first-half and he was a handful. He was a powerful player. But that was the beauty of Armagh at the time. They were ahead of the curve in terms of conditioning.
“Stevie McDonnell and Oisin McConville, those lads could also look after themselves. You were in a real battle. They could give it as much as they could take it. With two big provincial rivals going at it, in an All-Ireland semi-final, you were on a real edge.
“Looking at the second card, you wonder should I have kept my hands out of there and maybe let him shoot? There is a level of frustration looking back at it. But that’s football.”
A snapshot or glimpse to the future was also revealed in the moments after as a distraught Sweeney headed straight down the tunnel. Donegal substitute Jim McGuinness jogged after him and the RTE cameras picked up the future Tir Chonaill boss consoling his team-mate.
“Yeah, I remember it well. I was heading for the dressing room. I was in that place, thinking ‘this is the end of the world’. It was an All-Ireland semi-final and I was lost in the moment of what had just occurred.
“I was basically hanging my head in shame that I’d been sent off, let my team mates down. But that was the character of Jim.
“In the middle of it all, the game was still going on, but he seen what I was going through. And he had the understanding I suppose to chase after me, telling me the lads are there and we’re still in this together.
“Had I went to the dressing room by myself it might have been depression city. Well, it was depression city anyway! But listen, like I said, that’s football.”
At that time, pound for pound, Sweeney felt that Donegal were a match for both Armagh and Tyrone in terms of quality.
But the Orchard and Red Hand men had taken things to another level in terms of physical preparation and tactical awareness.
“Definitely. The three of us were all in the All-Ireland semi-finals that season. But the organisation that they were now buying into was taking them to that next level. We just weren’t there at that stage.
“Looking at the same game, I look at the amount of ball we simply kicked away. We didn’t appreciate or value possession like the modern sides do, like Donegal now do.
“There are little or no 50/50 balls kicked inside at the top level. Sides are coached that unless it’s a guaranteed ball you simply don’t kick it. That’s what Armagh and Tyrone did back then, they took the element of risk out of it.
“Jim brought an even greater and evolved approach to that again. But you’re seeing sides are tailoring that a little, mixing it up again now. Dublin are doing it.
“Even last year in the ‘Super 8s’, Donegal backed young (Stephen) McMenamin inside on his own against (David) Clifford of Kerry. So it is opening up a little again. But the coaching element and the tactical side of things remain at a seriously professional level now.”