Tommy Conlon: Northern lights illuminate the gloom all around them
If it weren't for the weekly blood transfusions from Ulster, the football championship at this stage would be all but comatose.
This is the competition that is supposed to be the GAA's shop window but, as usual at this time of year, the goods on display are second rate and poor value for money. Inside there is complacency and stagnation; outside there is public apathy and frustration.
The championship is limping from Sunday to Sunday and disappearing off the radar from Monday to Saturday. At a time when it should be dictating the news agenda, the hourly sports bulletins come and go as if it doesn't exist. It is a one-day wonder, opening for business a couple of hours on Sunday afternoons and closing down again for another seven days. The Saturday evening action barely makes a dent in the public consciousness at all.
Those who do turn up or tune in are left feeling cheated. The core appeal of any sporting competition is, strangely enough, the competition. There is supposed to be some prospect of a contest, a drama that will offer excitement, an outcome that isn't preordained. But the championship fixture list in its early rounds is a set of foregone conclusions which is alienating people in their droves, and turning the live television broadcasts into hours of dead air-time.
The championship in May and June has become a numbingly predictable parade of mismatches which, this year, has come close to bringing it into disrepute.
The hammerings dished out in Munster, Leinster and Connacht seem to have aggregated into some sort of tipping point this season. It's hard to quantify exactly where that tipping point was, but as long as the minnows could keep the scoreline within some kind of respectable margin, it seemed the GAA was happy enough to put lipstick on the patient and pretend it was alive and well. Anything less than a ten-point beating and the perennial also-rans could be said to be closing the gap, making progress, building for the future, etc etc.
But when, for example, Waterford are getting beaten by 26 points, Limerick by 18 and Tipperary by 17, the credibility of the competition itself is left newly exposed. Galway's 17-point collapse three weeks ago was an early warning of the washouts that were yet to come. By the time Westmeath turned up in Croke Park last Saturday to face Dublin, the air was heavy with foreboding. Sure enough, they got stuffed by 16 points.
This sequence of results is bordering on farcical. The debate about "championship structures" has now been going on in earnest for well over a decade. The reaction to these results among managers, players and supporters might be an indication that the penny has finally dropped. But the damning evidence stretches back years, not weeks, and it's becoming increasingly obvious that doing nothing is no longer an option, no matter how difficult it will be to engineer an alternative formula.
Meanwhile, if the championship has been a tissue of damp squibs everywhere else, up in Ulster they have kept the home fires burning.
The Cavan-Armagh game on May 19 might have been too naive for the joyless types who like their football to be grim and grinding. For everyone else the result was a pleasant surprise in itself, claimed by a Cavan team that combined quality build-up play with some delightful finishing.
A week later, the big guns rolled into Ballybofey for what promised to be a grind of industrial proportions. But Donegal and Tyrone served up terrific football in a match that made for compelling fare until the champions took over in the last quarter.
Then last Sunday Derry and Down delivered an early contender for game of the season. For starters it was played in a shockingly good spirit. In addition, the play flowed from end to end. There were shifts in momentum as one team took over and then the other came roaring back. Many of the scores were top drawer in terms of the passing, movement and finishing. The shooting from long range was outstanding.
Derry in particular produced passages of brilliant play. Their centre half-forward James Kielt has a classic left foot on him, all rhythm and elegance as he pulls the trigger. Kielt stroked over
some beauties from distance. Inside him, Eoin Bradley was electric. Down double-teamed him but Bradley's colleagues still managed to find him repeatedly with sliced diagonals that beat the screening defender and left him racing onto the ball.
Unfortunately for Derry, they only sustained it until the interval. In the second half it felt like Bradley had wandered into a different game; the supply dried up completely. Two Down goals in seven minutes capsized them. And yet in keeping with the energy of the afternoon, they kicked three points in a row to leave it once more in the balance.
But Down found a leader to take command in the home straight. Twice in the last five minutes Kevin McKernan barrelled downfield, devouring the ground and ripping two shots over the bar.
It's not too long ago that the Ulster championship was the GAA's dog in the manger, an unloved mutt that needed to be groomed and house-trained. But it was always ultra-competitive and this year it has produced plenty of style and class too. In the surrounding shambles, it has delivered in spades and stood out by a mile.