Ok. I know. There you are, thinking you’re a great lad, writing an All-Ireland football championship preview. There you are, trying to be all “cool” and trendy, but there’s only one problem. The championship already kicked off last weekend between New York and Leitrim.
Last Sunday’s game in Gaelic Park was a corker. New York nearly pulled off a shock but they were pipped just at the post, and if that’s what we’re in store for for the rest of the year then we’ll be lucky. And Sligo have already beaten London in their first round match too. So yeah, the whole “pre”view element of the championship is a bit of a misnomer. It’s already kicked off. You’re not wrong mate. In fact, I would go as far as to say you’re quite right.
It’s a strange anomaly of the “All-Ireland” championship, that two games have already been played in the tournament, yet not one of them has actually occurred on the aul sod itself. Should we be coming up with a new name for this thing? On the other hand though, you could argue that while last week’s thriller was a fitting start to the “championship”, it wasn’t really the elite squads in action.
You might also say that if there was to be a tiered competition in the football championship (and that’s an argument we’ll come back to another day) then New York, London, Sligo and Leitrim would most probably be in the second tier. You could argue, that while the championship has “started” there hasn’t been a serious contender who’ve faced action yet. But when Mayo face Galway in Castlebar on Sunday, no one can dispute it. Because not one person can, in good conscience say, that Mayo and Galway aren’t All-Ireland contenders.
So yes, we know that this isn’t really a championship “preview” but just for the fun of it, let’s roll with it shall we? The RTE cameras are coming to town, Joe Brolly is perfecting his best mashed up squinty face, and while there’s a certain inevitability about what the end result will be, you still can’t help but feel a tinge of excitement about it, can you?
So Roscommon won the Connacht football championship, and in some style last year. We know that they got promoted to Division 1 this year and have made great strides under Kevin McStay. We know that they could have, nay should have, beaten Mayo in the first of the quarter finals last year. And against a Leitrim side who are struggling, they are almost certain to make the Connacht Final again this year.
Having said all that, you can’t help but feel that this weekend’s game between Mayo and Galway in Castlebar will have a decisive bearing on who will take home the Nestor Cup. It’s been an inspiring spring for the tribesmen. Sure, it didn’t end with silverware, but there was enough in it to suggest, that they could win major honours somewhere shortly down the line. Up to now, they were a talented side who were capable of pulling off a shock “on their day”. Nowadays, they’re trying to make every day their day. And while they do so, Mayo may just get caught in the crosshairs.
And what about Mayo then? Well Sean Cavanagh was on the Sunday game last week saying he didn’t believe Mayo had it in them to reach the latter stages of the competition this season. The usual arguments. They’ve had a poor league. They’ve gone to the well too many times. They don’t have enough new blood. Sure Andy Moran must be fit for a bus pass at this age! And yes, we know it because we’ve heard it all so many times before, but still, this is Mayo isn’t it? They could survive the nuclear holocaust but they still probably wouldn’t win the All-Ireland at the end of it. Even given that, if they’re not playing championship in August and possibly September this year, I’ll be massively surprised.
Hmmm. How do you try and sell a one horse race to punter? How do you try and dredge up enthusiasm for a team going for a potential 8 in a row? There’s being a dominant team, and then there’s being Dublin in the Leinster football championship. Because Dublin are Gulliver, and Leinster is their Lilliput.
So yes, it’s fair to say, Kildare gave Dublin their toughest game pre-September last year but it still wasn’t enough to get within 8 points of them. And there’s a strong argument, after a disastrous league, that the Lilywhites have gone back this year too. Meath have gone from being the most feared footballing county in the country to being an irrelevance. If their 28 year old goalkeeper Paddy O’Rourke doesn’t see the point of playing for the side, what hope do their fans have either?
So maybe Carlow, or Longford, or Westmeath, can rise from the ashes and give the monster a game of it, but asking them to win it is like trying to convince an NRA member that, you know….maybe guns aren’t that good an idea? It ain’t going to happen my friend.
It’s not the same is it? Do you remember a time, when three different sides from Ulster won the All-Ireland, one of them twice, in a period of four years in the 90’s? Do you remember when the 2 best sides in the country were Northerners and they had to move the provincial final to a packed Croke Park just to cater for demand? Well, I may be showing my age here, but I sure as hell do.
It’s not the same now though. I mean, sure there are good Ulster sides. Sure, when he’s not campaigning for a No vote in the abortion referendum, Mickey Harte is just about the hardest working manager out there. And yes, Donegal are due a bounce under Declan Bonner and Malachy Rourke is bound to squeeze every last drop out of Monaghan like he always does. But still, it’s not the same, is it?
So Tyrone romped to victory in the “most unpredictable province” last year and there’s a fair chance they could do something similar this time. Donegal look like they’ll make a good fist of it, but playing that preliminary round play off against Cavan is a killer, and it doesn’t really get any easier from there afterwards.
The story of the Munster football championship is really the story of the demise of one county. Dowtcha boy, it’s Cork.
It used to be the case that Cork were the best football team in the country. Then they slipped to being one of the best teams in the country. Now, they’re hardly even one of the best teams in Munster. Waterford gave them a massive scare last year. Clare have beaten them in the league the past 2 years too. And if Tipperary get through their first round match against Waterford, you’d fancy them to overcome the rebels in the Munster semi final relatively comfortably as well. It’s been one hell of a fall from grace.
On the other side, you know Kerry are just going to plug away as Kerry are given to do. It’s probably going to be Clare who they face in the Munster semi-final and that will be a nice tuning up for whoever they need to beat in the final. But really, it’s only a warm up for the serious stuff that will start from then on in.
There’s been a lot of handwringing about the merits of the super 8’s and how much it will cause yet further elitism in the GAA but here’s one thing that’s unlikely to be disputed: the football will most probably be top class. Just imagine, watching high quality “Division 1” fare in fine weather in the Summer. What’s not to like? In fact, shouldn’t the championship always be like that?
Getting down to brass tacks, I’d be very surprised if Dublin, Galway, Mayo, Donegal, Tyrone and Kerry were not in the hunt come mid July. Obviously, there is a “luck of the draw” element to how far teams get, but while Armagh, Kildare, Roscommon, Cavan, and maybe, maybe Cork, will see themselves as last 8 contenders, I fancy Tipperary to be a bolter and make it through.
From there things get murky. On the basis of last year’s championship both Tyrone and Donegal are still a bit off being All-Ireland contenders, and it’s hard to see them bridging that gap in one season. Monaghan have always struggled in Croke Park and Tipperary may be lacking the squad depth to make it further.
Galway have progressed so much in Springtime that a semi-final spot will be expected, nay demanded. Which leaves the usual three beside them. If David Clifford is the force he showed at minor last year, Kerry could cause an upset, but is Kieran Donaghy still a man that can win an All-Ireland for you? I doubt it. So then you’re left with the old gruesome twosome. The Sean Cavanagh’s of this world may write them off, but they overlook the old chestnut of Mayo’s indefinable resilience. It could be enough to see them through to the final game. So Sam McGuire’s coming home to Mayo? Ha. Romance tells me yes. Cold logic tells me no once more.
Dublin, Galway, Mayo, Donegal, Tyrone, Kerry, Tipperary, Monaghan
All-Ireland semi finalists
Dublin, Kerry, Galway, Mayo