Posted by Ewan MacKenna
Friday 18 May 2012
So, you yearn for August already? We understand. Never before has there been a bigger convoy of elite teams that it seems inevitable they’ll all be there come the quarter-finals. Only then we can start to salivate as giants collide so hard that is shakes the biggest stadium of them all.
The problem is, it means the first half of the summer should merely be a formality as those same sides take off at high pace and leave the rest gasping for breath, bent double with their hands on their knees. On the surface, it all reminds us of the space race.
The superpowers of football have their minds so set on getting the better of one another that everything has been taken to a new level of detail and effort and no one else can compete. And, much like the Cold War, a lot of that is down to a combination of finance and numbers and you can only feel sorry for the rest as they look on, both star-struck and startled, without bothering even to glance skywards and pray.
But don’t wish away your lives even if, in all probability, the opening months of the championship won’t be like what we got in 2009 and 2010, where you turned right and there was some flabbergasted fan who’d just had his world turned upside down, then turned left to see a punter tearing up a bet slip and muttering about it being a sure thing.
Back then you had an upstart lurking in every shadow, beady eyed with clenched fists. But take a look at the middle-tier of counties right now. They are nervous and fidgety in comparison and what really have Derry and Monaghan and Laois to offer other than possibly to give some minnow the day of their lives.
Of course the strength of not just a big three but also the likes of Kildare, Mayo, Tyrone and Donegal have helped exaggerate the demise of those below them but what it all means is a tail heavy championship and it’s a little sad that there’s a lack of shocks ahead of us as so many outside the top seven are either untested or have been tested and failed miserably.
In all truth, the little romance of this season will come from Longford and Wicklow and the early curiosity will come from Meath as we look like rubberneckers on a motorway, waiting to see if anyone will crawl free from a mangled wreck.
But here’s another problem. Over the league we have gotten used to seeing the best go at it each week and next year that will be even more pronounced as the genuine top eight sides in the land have all parked up in Division One and despite the overcrowding, all will refuse to leave. However, we don’t have the best playing against each other enough when it actually matters and it leaves you with the feeling that we play too many elite games in spring and not enough in summer. Everyone would love to see Cork and Dublin and Kerry prove themselves against the aforementioned teams from four to seven yet so many of those combinations will never catch sight of one another across the greenest of grass and under the bluest of skies.
That all four provinces should hinge on just a single game says a lot and only in two of those will that game be in the final, signaling the start of the business end of the championship like a trumpeter taking a deep breath and giving one loud blast. In Leinster, Kildare will again go eyeball to eyeball with Dublin, like the baby of the family hoping to get the better of a bully of a big brother.
We reckon they’ll leave that day battered and bruised yet again but also victorious on the sort of occasion that will make up for all the heartbreak of recent years. The Connacht final too should be quite an appetiser if only because, while the west may not be up and about, it’s at least opened its eyes while lying in bed. Mayo are a genuine team while Galway and Roscommon can be as good as they can be bad.
The Munster title will be decided as Cork and Kerry, the best two teams in the land, shadow box and delve into their box of dark arts in Páirc Uí Chaoimh on 10 June. It will have to be something special to make up for the final that will follow because no longer is there a Limerick to give the victors a game. Less than three weeks later Ulster should be decided too. Tyrone, you’d think, will beat Armagh and they could beat Donegal. With Down’s dressing room a scene from the Crimean War right now, that will be that.
Then the heavyweight clashes can truly begin but keep in mind when spouting on about a Champions League structure and so on that the provinces do still matter despite all of the above. Maybe not right now because of the loss of wealth in the middle class of football, but a few years ago there was something tangible there to be won for every Antrim and Monaghan and Fermanagh, for every Sligo and Limerick and Louth.
Take away their chances of a trophy that matters to them and those already closer to the bottom of the food chain will get more disheartened, the gap will widen and football will be left with the pale and undernourished look of hurling. Nobody should forget that fact because while things could do with a lick of paint, the whole house doesn’t need to be gutted.
But if the championship seems to be just about August and thereafter, then scratch away a little at the surface and you’ll see for the many it’s about the now too. Kerry and Cork and Dublin and Kildare may not care for the moment and Mayo don’t even have a ball to play with until the middle of July. But for Louth and Westmeath, for Longford and Laois, for Galway and Roscommon, they are games that will settle a season and they are right in front of their wide eyes. In the case of that latter clash, the winners will suck in and lick their lips and think maybe.
But for the losers of all those clashes, in this climate, it’s hard to see youngsters wanting to hang around in a land of no jobs for a few months without the chance of winning anything meaningful. They might get over a qualifier or two but for those lesser sides in the back-door it’s a case of fattening a cow before slaughter.
Yet considering that environment that is all around every fan and every player is again crucial and makes football mean more than maybe it should. We can whinge and whine about the state of the game all summer, and many pundits and media will. But rather than boring people with articles about the politics and rules of the game, let’s realise that we have enough of that in other areas of our lives.
Let’s try and bring back a GAA that was full of characters and let’s bring back the stories. Let’s show that this is sport, that it’s only the players and not those covering them that have to deal with it all in such a tunnel visioned and grey manner. The rest of us can sit back and relax and watch on in Technicolor and have some fun. We need that.
Let’s not get bogged down if it’s not as good as 2009 or 2010 either, because plain and simple, it won’t be. But remember that those years are right behind us and it’s a sign of modern football that they even existed. It’s not the long-forgotten eras when the All Ireland was held up as a symbol while we forgot the rest existed and most games were played out between hopeless teams in front of bare concrete. These are the same players and managers and backroom staff that revolutionised the game and while there is a slight lull now, overall we are still on a high and we should be thankful.
Remember too, that it’s not some competition between our game and theirs. Ireland will, most likely, be in the European Championships for eight days but everyone in the GAA should hope that it’s longer. What’s wrong about having a chat on the terrace before some early championship game about whether it should be James McClean starting, if Kevin Doyle has lost it, how lucky those who are in Poland are, and whether the Italians have really improved that much. There are few enough rays of sunshine about, let’s not complain when a couple beam down on us together.
The same goes for the Olympics although any chatter about Paul Hession and Katie Taylor and Eoin Rheinisch will be limited because of the games we’ll have as summer draws to a close. For the record we think Cork will win by a nose, Kerry will lose out again, Colm O’Neill will be Footballer of the Year and they may not be loved at the end of it all because of the style of football they play.
But that’s for later in the year. Something special is here right now in these dark, dark days so make the very most of it. Yearn for August all you want, just don’t let the subplots that are every bit as important to summer bypass you completely.
Ewan MacKenna is a former sports journalist of the year runner-up, was the ghost writer of ‘The Gambler: Oisín McConville’s Story,’ ‘Darragh: My Story’, ‘Kenny Egan: My Story’ and is currently working on the autobiography of Bill O’Herlihy.
If you have any opinions, feel free to contact Ewan at Twitter.com/EwanMacKenna.
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