PERHAPS it was the spring-like cawing of the crows around Dr Cullen Park, the car thermometer showing 12 degrees as darkness descended on an early January evening or the fact that Carlow and Dublin had delivered a tasty pre-season aperitif, but, whatever the reason, it was easy to enjoy the occasion last Sunday.
There were several other entertaining games around the country too and the public, who hadn't seen inter-county action for four months, responded enthusiastically. Officially, Sunday was the last day of Christmas and what better way to mark it than checking for early signs of GAA life involving your particular county team?
Come the end of January, nobody will care very much who won the various warm-up competitions, yet it's an important month for players, managers and supporters. Okay, so established inter-county regulars won't be judged on how they perform in January, but for those at the tail end of the previous year's panel and newcomers who are getting their first chance, this could be the defining stretch for their inter-county ambitions.
For the managers, it's a chance to assess fresh talent and decide if it's good enough to be retained. And for bosses who are new to the inter-county scene, it's breaking-in time, an opportunity to acclimatise themselves to a different environment. The die-hard supporters who never miss a game, irrespective of its importance, like the January action, too, as if enables them to make their own judgments on newcomers. Plus, of course, there's always the argument that certain other players should be given a chance.
However, the most interesting aspect centres on players who are presented with their big opening to move on to the next level. Wearing the county jersey is the ultimate ambition for every player and dozens get that chance in January. Several will do enough to be included on the panels for the league, some will actually break into the team and a few will retain their places and become regulars in the ever-evolving cycle.
For others, January is a wicked month, starting off with the exhilarating feeling of wearing a senior county jersey for the first time and ending with the great dream in shreds. It's the ultimate cull, accompanied by the realisation that the step up to the highest level was too much and may always remain so.
Still, January remains a month of dreams. What was it Brian Cody said?
"I always tell players that every career starts somewhere. It could be a Walsh Cup or some other tournament game. The day you pull on a county jersey is the day you get your opportunity. If you take it, you decide your own future, not the manager or selectors, since a player who keeps performing well won't be dropped. And even if it doesn't work out, it's still the day you were given an opportunity to represent your county. It's an honour that eludes many, so those who get it should always treasure the experience."
January is also a month of huge contrasts as players look ahead to what the season might hold. It was interesting to watch the Carlow and Dublin players filing out at Dr Cullen Park on Sunday, some as All-Ireland and multiple Leinster title winners, others for whom the high point was a rare appearance in a provincial semi-final. Even then, Carlow lost to Wexford by 14 points in 2011.
Brendan Murphy, one of the best midfielders in the game, played that day as did some others who were in action last Sunday. They included Brian Murphy, who regularly stretched the Dublin defence to breaking point, Darragh Foley and Daniel St Ledger, who also played well.
Brendan Murphy is only just back after recovering from a lacerated kidney and repeatedly underlined his class after coming on as a sub for the final 20 minutes against Dublin. For him and his colleagues, it's all about Division 4 this spring, followed by a Leinster first-round game against Westmeath, with Dublin awaiting the winners in the quarter-final at Croke Park.
"The sort of game you want to be playing in," was Murphy's description of a possible clash with Dublin in June.
Of course, even if Carlow were to defy the odds and beat Westmeath, the Dublin game would almost certainly be their last engagement in Leinster. As Murphy and his colleagues watched the likes of Bernard Brogan, Stephen Cluxton, Michael Darragh Macauley, Ger Brennan and Kevin McManamon file by, they knew that the Dublin stars were thinking much further ahead than a Leinster quarter-final.
For now though, they are on the same circuit as January unloads a fascinating mix into the system. Most of all, it's a month of optimism, a period when new year freshness dominates everything else. Even the crows around Dr Cullen Park seemed imbued with it.
Horan off the mark with 'media' allegations
MAYO manager James Horan is unhappy with the treatment of Mayo in the national media and has had a particular swipe at RTE over certain aspects of their pre-All-Ireland coverage.
"Pretty much any big game we play is always about the other team in the media. If you were paranoid, you might think that the representation we get from the national media isn't fair or reflective, but you'd waste your time if you went down that road.
"It's pretty much all about how strong the opposition are and how are Mayo going to stop them rather than talking about what we can do, but as time passes, we're changing minds and changing attitudes, I think," he said.
RTE can fight their own battles, but it's worth pointing out that Mayo have a much higher representation on the station's GAA panels than most other counties. Kevin McStay and Martin Carney are long-standing fixtures on TV, while John Maughan has been a regular on RTE radio. Could the many counties who have much less – or maybe no – representation on RTE complain about Mayo's privileged position among the pundit classes?
As for the general media view of Mayo, I'd suggest it's the same as among the majority of the football world. In other words, an All-Ireland win for Mayo would be warmly welcomed.
Age is just a number to magnificent Micko
James Horan may be unhappy with media coverage of Mayo but his case seems a lot less valid than that of Mick O'Dwyer, who has long been the victim of ageism.
It was highlighted yet again after his first outing as Clare manager last Sunday when most of the reports noted his age. What relevance has that? Acumen, not age, is all that matters in management. Micko has emphatically proved that.