Friday 15 December 2017

A lot more to football than winning Sam

Barring draws, the provincial skirmishes will be over by Sunday week and what many people then regard as the REAL All-Ireland championship will commence.

This is a viewpoint that has come to the fore in recent years, with the assumption being that for the first 10 weeks of the championship, it is simply a matter of separating the chaff from the wheat so that the real contenders for the Sam Maguire Cup can get going from the August bank holiday weekend.

This is the sort of condescending approach towards the majority of the 33 participating counties that is entrenched in the minds of many GAA people -- the notion that if you have no hope of winning the All-Ireland, then your entire championship season is little more than a pointless ritual.

This is completely at variance with the reality. Most of those weaker counties have elevated their ambitions way beyond what was envisaged 10, 20 or 40 years ago. Within the overall championship framework there are actually several exciting targets for most county teams, apart from aiming to win the All-Ireland, which is still, and always has been, the prerogative of about half a dozen counties in any year.

Local derbies are the first such encounters and the first opportunity for progress within each province. Tyrone and Armagh may have slipped from recent lofty heights and are no longer real All-Ireland contenders, but that did not lessen the intensity, or the public interest, in their Ulster championship game -- the best game of the year so far.

The Clare versus Limerick Munster semi-final was a big match for both counties and was a huge mark of progress for Clare, when they snatched victory against the odds and got a rare chance of playing in a Munster final.

Shock results are another important goal for counties and Meath's success over Kildare is a classic example of that. So, too, was the lift that Carlow got when they beat Louth last year and drew with Meath this year in dramatic fashion.

Results like these are very important in the psyche of weaker counties, because it shows them that with the proper conditions they can improve, if only on a temporary basis. In 2010, Sligo did not win anything, but they did beat Galway and Mayo in the Connacht championship for the first time in generations and the fruits of those victories have had long-term effects in building self-belief.

Longford are a perfect example of relative success within the provincial system, even though they did not even reach the Leinster semi-final. But they did play three Leinster games, in itself very unusual, and when they beat Laois in the opening round, it was only their second victory in the province in 10 years.

To Longford football people, that was progress. Their only regret, of course, was that they blew their chance of playing champions Dublin when losing the replay to Wexford. So, the provincial championships still have many opportunities to create mini All-Ireland scenarios at local level.

Then we get the second tier of exciting propositions with the qualifier draws each year. There have been many famous examples where so-called weaker counties have had marvellously successful seasons that way. Wexford and Fermanagh almost got to All-Ireland finals.


Westmeath got close to a semi-final. Kildare, while not a weak county, have done better from the qualifiers than in the previous 50 years in the old-style championship.

And Sligo were unfortunate not to beat Armagh in a replayed quarter-final on the latter's way to the Sam Maguire Cup in 2002.

Therefore, it is unfair to regard the lesser counties as just adornments to make up the numbers for the strong counties. Many are genuine football teams composed of players justas dedicated as those from Dublin, Cork or Donegal -- but who are grateful with every morsel of big-time football they get at this time of year.

This weekend we have some hugely attractive matches in the qualifiers such as Roscommon and Tyrone, Cavan versus Kildare, Kerry playing Westmeath, Longford playing their FIFTH championship game of the year and even Leitrim trying to win their first ever qualifier game after 11 years.

Thankfully, there is a lot more to inter-county football than winning or not winning the Sam Maguire Cup.

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