YOU know the Gaelic football world has veered into an unusual orbit when the talk in Kerry is not of the near-annual pilgrimage to Croke Park for the All-Ireland final, but of the need to adjust their aerial to pick up the latest vision for the game from elsewhere.
It's all the more surprising that a county with 36 senior titles -- four in the last eight seasons alone -- would be so interested in the transmissions from Donegal and Mayo, who, between them, have won one All-Ireland in 60 years. Still, that's what Kieran Donaghy said in an interview with this newspaper last Saturday.
His programme-finder also included Dublin, who have beaten Kerry only once in the championship in over 30 years, and Cork, whose loss-win ratio with their neighbours stands at two to one -- as examples of trend-setters whose systems need to be studied.
"We're just going to have to become fitter, stronger, more tactically aware, better organised and maybe a bit more cynical. But the ingredients are there. That's why winter will be fun, trying to come up with ways to take on the Donegals, Mayos, Dublins and Corks," he said.
Who would have thought in late August 2011 after Kerry beat Mayo by nine points in the semi-final that a little over a year on, the Kingdom would be pondering how to deal with the advance from the western front? And when Kerry held a four-point lead six minutes from the end of the All-Ireland final, Dublin's systems seemed unlikely to merit much consideration in green-and-gold land any time soon.
Kerry always believe they can beat Cork in Croke Park. As for Donegal, Kerry would have regarded them as an item of curiosity, whose defensive misers might spook others but not the O'Sullivans, Galvin, Gooch and Donaghy.
A year on, it's all about Donegal and Mayo while the rest have been despatched into various pigeon-holes. According to consensus, Cork and Dublin softened rather than solidified after winning an All-Ireland; Kerry didn't stay true to their instincts and besides, they wrecked their chances of beating Donegal by handing them one of the softest goals seen in Croke Park for years; Tyrone discovered that switching from older heroes to younger contenders is a lot more difficult than expected; Kildare continue to find that four-mile stayers aren't suited to Gold Cup pace; Galway, Meath and Armagh have slipped off the radar, while Down are unable to build on the progress of 2010.
Of course, limitations always become apparent in defeat, while those still standing are hailed as the real deal. For now, that honour is jointly held by Donegal and Mayo but by Sunday evening (barring a draw) the losers will be laid bare, every fault line expanded, every individual weakness highlighted, every tactical option X-rayed. They will join the other beaten teams, their season seen essentially as a failure.
Harsh? Definitely. True? Absolutely. In fact, it will be worse than usual for this year's losers because they won't have been beaten by regular All-Ireland winners, leaving a terrible sense of dejection over a squandered opportunity.
Neither Donegal nor Mayo would admit it but they are each privately delighted to be playing each other rather than opposition with a proven All-Ireland pedigree. Take Donegal, who have already beaten Tyrone, Kerry and Cork, winners of eight of the previous nine All-Ireland titles.
If, after that treble hit, Donegal were to lose to the -- whose last All-Ireland win was 61 years ago and who melted in the 2004 and 2006 finals -- it would be really hard to take.
As for James Horan (pictured below) and Mayo, they would regard Donegal as much more manageable than counties who are used to being in finals. Mayo lost to Cork, Meath and Kerry respectively in the 1989, '96, '97, '04 and '06 finals, but then they have a poor championship record in that company, winning two of 17 games against them in 60 years.
They have no such baggage with Donegal, whom they met only once previously in the championship. Granted, Mayo lost the 1992 All-Ireland semi-final to Donegal, but one defeat scarcely constitutes a pattern.
The novelty aspect of this final multiplies the fascination among neutrals but increases the pressures for Mayo and Donegal in what is possibly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. After all, how likely it is that next year's final won't include at least one of Cork, Kerry, Dublin, Tyrone, Kildare, Meath, Galway or Down? After all, every previous All-Ireland final back to 1950 (Mayo v Louth) did. It's against that background that the pressure to exploit a rare and precious opportunity is building rapidly on both Donegal and Mayo.
Cassidy left wondering
HOWEVER hard they try to disguise or dismiss it, Conor Mortimer and Kevin Cassidy (both pictured left) must be wondering if they made massive mistakes which may have cost them a chance to live the All-Ireland final dream on Sunday.
Cassidy was removed from the Donegal panel late last year after manager Jim McGuinness adjudged he had broken a code by talking about squad issues in interviews for a book.
In contrast, Mortimer left the Mayo panel of his own volition before this year's Connacht final against Sligo.
Having played for their counties for so long, it seems a terrible pity that neither will get the chance to win an All-Ireland medal.
In Mortimer's case, it's especially difficult to understand why he would leave the squad just as the season was shaping up so promisingly.
And then he watched as Mayo's two corner-forwards were taken off in the next game against Sligo as the team battled to victory.
Had he stayed aboard the panel, he would almost certainly have come on in the Connacht final and could well have been there ever since.
How can he possibly avoid thinking that this week?