Tomas Ó Sé: This is the time of year when you find yourself looking over your shoulder
Published 15/05/2015 | 02:30
Walking out of Pairc Ui Chaoimh one year, trying to clear the place as quickly as possible after a Munster Championship defeat, I happened across a young Cork fan who couldn't have been more than 10 years old.
Now I prided myself on how quickly I could make my escape from the scene of the crime and move with such stealth through the throngs. A losing dressing-room propelled me even quicker.
But this young man recognised me beneath the cap and breached my anonymity.
"Championship is for the big boys," he beamed as I tried to step out of his path.
Momentarily I was stopped in my tracks. When I think of it now, all these years later, he made quite a simple but telling point that day. Championship is for big boys. It is THE time. It is different.
The whole build-up, the media engagement at local and national level, the talk, the speculation all feed into it.
I always felt the pulse quicken when I sat at home on the couch watching one of those early live games in Ulster or Leinster on a Sunday afternoon.
There was a strange comfort about it. You could relax and enjoy it because these teams were far enough away on the horizon yet. But still you were a little nervous, sizing them up as potential opponents in the distance.
For an inter-county player this is essentially the twilight zone, that period in early summer that is stalked with uncertainty.
Personally I didn't enjoy this time of year; I dreaded it almost. There was too much of the double-edged sword to it, being pulled in every different direction.
The buzz of Championship was there somewhere but you never really got to grasp it properly because you just never knew where you stood.
Heavy training mixed in with club championships dragging out of you and the interruption to that snappy, concentrated inter-county stuff that you needed to get you right, to have you sharp. I know it's vital to play club but I hated how it broke your stride as you bounded out of the League.
May always filled me with apprehension.
One year we went to Tipperary and I knew I just wasn't right. My man got away from me and kicked a couple of points. We pulled through but I was stuck to the ground and struggled. That's May for you.
I never held anything back, I always aimed to be 100pc but I always needed that inter-county fix to get me right. Being away from it unnerved me.
There was the fear from within too. Fringe players with big Leagues behind them, mad for road and threatening your patch.
May was when I looked over my shoulder most. You sensed pressure, and in your own mind had worked out the potential permutations for change. No matter what medals jangled in your pocket you always asked yourself 'could it be me?'.
I genuinely feared losing my place to one of these players. This time of year could have that effect on me.
I wasn't long into this punditry business this time last year when I hopped off the ropes for the first time.
My description of Donegal being a 'skeleton' of the team they once were backfired somewhat in Celtic Park and sent me sprawling to the canvas. I was seeing stars in round one!
It helped to reinforce one thing for me that I always believed anyway. The difference between League and Championship is so great it's out the gap.
I know there are plenty of teams who win both in the same season, but for me there just isn't a comparison.
Derry went well in last year's League, Donegal were only purring along but, come Championship, they blew them out of the water and my bold prediction with it.
Even Dublin can't be judged by what they did in the League because they had it so easy.
You'll hear no end of predictions in these pre-Championship days but really, is there any point to it?
The time for nailing your colours to the mast is after the provincial championships when a proper picture has built up. I find something false about this time of year that you can't base anything on. And after Kerry's success last year it's hard to pull a winner.
My merit list consists of five top teams - in no particular order, Donegal, Mayo, Monaghan, Kerry and Dublin - and then a chasing pack that are a bit behind.
I like the cut of Donegal. Rory Gallagher has injected something fresh into them and he strikes me as a sharp guy. They will set up very defensively again. Why should they change? Only for one poor kick-out last year. . .
But the draw up north is tough on them and somewhere it will catch them out, maybe not in their own province.
I've included Monaghan because I like the football they play. Maybe they lack a bit of consistency. The draw is kind to them and they can potentially take a scalp in an Ulster final but it's down south that this group have to prove it now.
Dublin are the name on everyone's lips, but their demolition of Cork did them absolutely no favours. Now they are going to go through Leinster and there won't be a paw put on them there either.
How Jim Gavin would love to have those old Meath teams coming against him to toughen them up. It would be so good for them, going into an All-Ireland quarter-final.
My soft spot for Mayo hasn't changed. I still think this team can win Sam. They have probably been the most consistent team over the last five years but there is still no sense of completion for them.
Maybe with a new management there will be an added bit of spark. They were unlucky in Limerick against Kerry, a really galling defeat for them - they should have won the first day. But mentally they need to toughen again.
Kerry will rattle into this Championship but back-to-back titles are so rare and so difficult.
There is so much talk of what 'Gooch', Tommy Walsh and Paul Galvin will bring - and they'll bring plenty.
For me, the bigger questions hang over the younger players who won their first All-Ireland last year. The likes of Paul Geaney, Paul Murphy, Peter Crowley, can they reproduce the hunger and drive?
Beyond that five is another group of five that, to my mind, can shake a few trees: Cork, Roscommon, Galway, Armagh and Tyrone.
I said before that Tyrone had a swagger about them in their prime but that's no longer there now.
Still I think there is a big performance in them on Sunday. They'll enjoy being so roundly written off. And you write Mickey Harte off at your peril.
But I don't think they are physically strong enough to penetrate Donegal; I don't feel they have the scoring power to hurt.
The lower the score, the better their chance is and it's Donegal that might find themselves doing the pressing.
One man I'm looking forward to seeing again is Michael Murphy. If you shoved all the qualities you need to be the complete footballer into a machine, out would pop Murphy.
To win an All-Ireland from Ulster you have to climb Everest twice; to do it with the gradient Donegal and Tyrone are facing this week will feel like a third ascent.
But for the first few weeks, Ulster really is the only show in town.