Will minnows be inspired by Premier League’s Leicester?

Martin McGrath, Fermanagh, in action against Pat Kelly, and Gary Ruane (4), Mayo
Martin McGrath, Fermanagh, in action against Pat Kelly, and Gary Ruane (4), Mayo

At the tail end of last season Leicester City secured 19 out of a possible 24 points in their last eight games to secure their place in the Premier League.

They changed manager during the summer and last August they were a 5,000/1 shot to win the title. We all know what happened next.

None of the 33 counties competing in the race for the Sam Maguire Cup are available at such generous odds. 

Even New York, who nearly caused the upset of the century last Sunday, were only a 2,000/1 shot. Currently, London, Carlow, Waterford and Wicklow are propping up the market at the same price. 

But could any county do ‘a Leicester’ in Gaelic football?

In theory it ought to be more straightforward, as the All-Ireland is more like the FA Cup than the Premier League, which is a 10-month marathon involving 38 games. Kerry won their eight All-Irelands between 1974 and 1986 playing six fewer matches!

Of course, it’s not quite like that, not least because unlike all but eight of the teams in the race to secure Sam, Leicester actually play in the top flight of football.

Dublin came from nowhere to win the All-Ireland title under the guidance of Kevin Heffernan in 1974; likewise Down probably surprised even themselves when they captured Sam in 1991 – they hadn’t even won the Ulster championship in the previous decade.

But unlike Leicester, Dublin and Down had previously won All-Ireland titles and were regarded as traditional power-houses.

The truncated and disparate nature of the All-Ireland series makes it extremely difficult for counties to build that kind of momentum. Take Galway, for example, who are the last county to enter the race for the All-Ireland this year.

They meet either Mayo or London in the provincial semi-final on June 18 – almost 11 weeks after their last league game. Then there are three-week lead-ins to the Connacht final, All-Ireland quarter-final and the All-Ireland semi-final, before a four-week hiatus ahead of the final.

So it’s hardly a surprise that when minnows do challenge the status quo it is via the backdoor qualifiers.  

Only Fermanagh have really threatened a shock in the All-Ireland. Curiously, the man who coached them to within sight of the Promised Land in 2004, Donegal native Charlie Mulgrew, was a bit of a maverick in the mould of Claudio Ranieri.

Ulster football was at its zenith of 2004. Armagh had won the All-Ireland for the first time in 2002; 12 months later they surrendered their title to arch-rivals Tyrone in the first ever all-Ulster All-Ireland final.

Amidst all this excitement few paid any attention to Fermanagh, who are still seeking their first Ulster championship success.  

Even though they had contested the All-Ireland quarter-final the previous year – they were hammered by Tyrone – their two star forwards, cousins Rory and Raymond Gallagher, were no longer involved.

Even when they produced a fearless performance against the defending All-Ireland title holders in the quarter-final of the Ulster series – level at half time they eventually lost by four points – it was dismissed as a bad day at the office for Tyrone.

Fermanagh enjoyed an extraordinary stroke of good fortune when their scheduled first-round opponents Tipperary conceded a walkover due to a dispute over scheduling.

So it wasn’t until Fermanagh squeezed past Meath after extra-time in Round 2 that everybody sat up and took notice. 

Fermanagh blew Cork away in Round 3, hammering them by seven points in Croke Park.

This was a remarkable achievement in its own right as it pitted the county with the least number of clubs (22) against the county with the most (260).

A nervy win over Donegal in Round 4 brought Fermanagh back to headquarters for a quarter-final clash against the newly crowned Ulster champions, Armagh.

In one of the biggest upsets in the history of the All-Ireland, Fermanagh knocked the joint favourites out of the race for Sam.

Fermanagh were still the outsiders in a four-horse race with Kerry, Mayo and Derry. The fairy tale ended after a replay against Mayo, but they came astonishingly close to a first All-Ireland final.

Mayo played with 14 men in the last 30 minutes of the drawn encounter, but Fermanagh couldn’t finish them off. In the replay they were a point up with two minutes of normal time left, only to concede two late points. 

So could Cavan, Roscommon, Tipperary or even Clare pull off the impossible dream in 2016? Sadly the chances are remote.

The harsh reality is that the gulf between the contenders and the pretenders is far wider and much more difficult to bridge in the All-Ireland football series than the gap between the best and the worst team in the Premier League.

Or just maybe no inter-county manager can dream the dream quite like Claudio Ranieri has.