Eamonn Sweeney: Take a deep breath and away we go
Happy days are here again. There's nothing in Irish sport quite like the Sunday when the championships begin in earnest. It's like the start of the school holidays or that moment when you wake up and realise it's Christmas morning. Only a very dull dog indeed can fail to be gripped by joy and expectation at the prospect of the whole four-month circus beginning again.
Will it live up to expectations? Of course not. No competition could live up to the expectations we place on the championships. But the annual unfounded optimism is part of the ritual. And if in the end it doesn't live up to the Platonic ideal of the perfect championships we have in mind, we're still going to see a lot of very good stuff and feel a great deal of excitement before it's all over. At which stage, a few seconds after the final whistle sounds in September, we'll start feeling a sense of loss no matter how much we've complained while the competition is actually going on.
The championships are part of the cycle of Irish life. Many of us can track our lives by reference to championship Sundays. The barely comprehending early trips with parents, the wild and boozy outings of youth and young manhood or womanhood, going to matches as a couple, bringing your own kids and realising that someday you'll be that fabled figure of your childhood, the granddad or granny brought along so they can insist that no-one today matches the players of their youth.
That child who bridled at the insistence that Mick O'Connell puts all of today's stars in the ha'penny place is fated to become the codger saying the same thing about Jack O'Shea. Before too long Seamus Callanan and TJ Reid, Ciarán Kilkenny and Lee Keegan will be figures from the good old days, functioning as a standing rebuke to a decadent modern era which in its turn will eventually be converted into nostalgia. The championships will be 130 years young this year and, barring global apocalypse, will be here in another 130.
It's not just the monomaniacal sports fan who, when hearing a year mentioned, thinks first of the relevant All-Ireland finals. Or maybe not even an All-Ireland final: 1994 will always have a magical resonance for the Leitrim man as 2004 has for the Westmeath woman. The mere sight of an All-Ireland final result from the past can plunge you into a reverie about what was happening in the rest of your life back then.
There are memories of family members who've now gone, of watching The Sunday Game over the shoulders of strangers in pubs, of unbelievable elation, pitch invasions and celebrating not wisely but too well, of journeys home which begin in silent disappointment until the shoulda-woulda-couldas of the post-mortems begin, of traffic jams, of hawkers, of crepe paper hats, pipe bands and transistor radios conveying crackly dispatches from elsewhere, of players showing you something you never thought was in them, of others finding that the championship is very different from the league, of insane optimism, disabused realism and misplaced pessimism, of hand-passed goals, third-man tackles, drop kicks, sidelines kicked off the ground and the parallelogram, of seven-point leads squandered, five-point deficits made up, single-point leads held on to, this must be the last kick of the game, blow it up will you, blow it up will you, he's trying to make a draw of it, was that the whistle? Ha-hooooooooooooooooo. Me heart.
One reason we love the championships so much is because of the way they mirror the seasons. Their beginning heralds the arrival of summer, they end as we begin the descent into winter. Perhaps that's why we associate great championship days with blistering heat, clear skies, short sleeves and sunburn. Given that the Irish summer generally produces as many rainy as sunny days this is hardly accurate but it's undeniable that the mention of the championship conjures up visions of ice cream rather than umbrellas. The championship and optimism go hand in hand.
At least they do for the ordinary fan. Some pundits like to deride the competition because only a few counties have a chance of winning the All-Ireland. This year only Dublin, Kerry and Mayo are realistic contenders in football while Tipperary, Galway, Kilkenny and, at a pinch, Waterford have a shot at the hurling title. This is undeniable. It is also largely irrelevant. And virtually unavoidable.
Most major sporting competitions have a pretty circumscribed list of contenders. In the last four years just four clubs have made the final of the Champions League, a competition encompassing an entire continent. Two clubs have divided the last five Champions Cup victories in rugby between them. In the circumstances it's quite an achievement that, from a small base, five different counties have appeared in the last four All-Ireland hurling finals.
The big American sporting events are more competitive than their European counterparts but that's largely because of the draft, the institution whereby the lowest-ranked teams get first pick of the best young players each year. The best way to battle inequality in the football championship would have been to divide the all-conquering Kerry minors of the past three years between the likes of Waterford, Leitrim, Carlow and Wicklow. Proceed like that for a couple of decades and you'd get something close to parity. Given that this will never, and shouldn't, happen, perhaps it's time to stop bellyaching about a problem which afflicts most sporting competitions everywhere.
Then again complaining about the championships, football in particular, is another venerable tradition. In the late 1970s there were complaints that the dominance of Kerry and Dublin was making a mockery of things. A couple of notably dirty finals in the early '80s led to suggestions that the big ball game should be taken away and put out of its misery. Attendances dipped in the mid-'80s to such an extent that only 7,500 people attended the 1985 All-Ireland hurling semi-final between Galway and Cork. The abolition of the provincial championships and institution of an open draw was suggested by the kind of pundits who slightly later were gung-ho about the now forgotten idea of Croke Park being replaced by a super stadium somewhere in the suburbs. There's always something.
Given that this will be the last football championship before the Super 8, we'll have to endure a summer of Croke Park loyalists telling us how pretty much everything that happens 'Shows why we need the Super 8.' So it will be interesting to see who makes this year's football quarter-finals. Had the Super 8 been around last year they'd have included Clare and Tipperary, who I don't think are the kind of teams the hierarchy have in mind. I suspect they'd prefer Kildare and Meath as populous counties near to Croke Park, or Cork, who seem like a major football power even though they're not anymore. But that's the joy of the championships. Even the most interfering administrator can't guarantee the desired result.
It's customary to complain that the championships have become predictable. Well, if last year you predicted Cork's loss to Tipperary, Galway's upset of Mayo, Cavan's draw against Tyrone, Westmeath beating Kildare, Longford's win against Monaghan, Tipperary defeating Galway or even the strength of Mayo's challenge in the two All-Ireland finals, fair play to your clairvoyance. Hurling may have seen fewer upsets but the close shaves given by Galway and Waterford to Tipperary and Kilkenny in the semis were as unexpected as the extent of Tipperary's dominance in the final. Everything looks predictable after it's happened and the one sure thing about this year's championships is that they will as usual produce results which make you check to see you heard that one right.
Anyone who insists the championships are only about Dublin against Kerry or Kilkenny against Tipperary and that everything else is merely a preamble to be endured before the final few weeks is missing the point of the championships. Thinking only September matters is a bit like skipping straight to the last page of a crime novel to find the identity of the murderer or forward winding to the final episode of a costume drama to see who gets married to who. The journey matters as much as the destination.
The championships are a sprawling democratic tapestry containing many opportunities for local heroism which, even if they don't register on the national radar, will be cherished in their native counties. The name 'Super 8s' with its rugby connotations and the idea of a 'Champions League-style format' which inspired it betrays a wish that the championships could be like more glamorous sports with international TV audiences.
Yet in the words of Morrissey, Steven from Manchester not Tom the Clare midfielder or Eamon the Kilkenny corner-forward, "This one's different because it's us."
Buckle your seatbelts. Take a deep breath. Away we go.
Probables and possibles abound for Dublin’s treble-seekers and the nearly men of Galway
The two big questions about this year’s championships are: (a) is this finally going to be Galway’s year in the hurling?, and (b) can anyone stop the Dubs in the football?
Like a rugby final trial of old, the answers can be divided into probable and possible. We’ll start with the more likely prospect. There are very good grounds for believing that the most inexplicable fallow run in Irish sport may be about to come to an end.
It’s hard to credit that 29 years have passed since Galway lifted the Liam MacCarthy Cup. Since then the Tribesmen have won 10 All-Ireland minor titles and six under 21s while clubs from the county have picked up a dozen All-Irelands.
Scarcely a season has started without Galway having, on paper at least, a realistic challenge of winning the biggest one of all. Yet all they have to show is half a dozen final defeats and some of the most dispiriting collapses and no-shows ever to be produced by a reputable hurling county. No team has been more frustrating or put its supporters through more torment than Galway.
So why should it be different this time? Well, for one thing Galway have been pretty consistent over the past couple of years. Two years ago they defeated Tipperary in a classic semi-final and looked to be in a winning position at half-time in the final against Kilkenny before stalling like a horse unnerved to find itself in front. Last year they were slightly unlucky to be edged out in the semi by Tipp, a performance which looked even better after the awesome display of Michael Ryan’s men in the final.
Having talked the talk with their dressing room coup against Anthony Cunningham, Galway have walked the walk under Micheál Donoghue and seem to be on an upward curve. There was a nice ruthlessness about their demolition of Tipp in the league final. The team often seem to be discussed mainly in terms of Joe Canning. Yet while Canning is undoubtedly the side’s key man and looked close to his best in the league, Galway managed to make the final two years ago when the Portumna player looked out of sorts. Jason Flynn, Cathal Mannion, Conor Cooney and the rapidly developing Conor Whelan are all potential match-winners. Only Tipperary can rival that kind of firepower.
Galway’s defence hasn’t been quite as impressive but the concession of a paltry 1-25 in their league semi-final and final suggests that at the very least it should be good enough to prevent the big totals of the attack being surpassed. And in David Burke they probably have the best midfielder in the game. There’s little between Galway and Tipp right now and the latter may even be slightly stronger. Yet hunger is a great thing and I think 2017 may finally be the year when Galway’s gets them over the line. Probably.
Will the Dubs also be dethroned? Possibly. For all the talk of their incredible dominance, the fact remains that they have won three of their four All-Ireland titles by a single point, a feat without parallel in GAA history. When they’re hockeying teams in Leinster it’s easy to forget that under Jim Gavin Dublin’s trademark in big games is not juggernaut invincibility but closing stages sang-froid.
Mayo had them on the ropes twice last year but failed to put them away. Kerry too had their chances in the All-Ireland semi. Dublin are undoubtedly beatable.
But only a little bit. They may well have been more vulnerable last year when the diminished contribution of Messrs Brogan, Flynn and Macauley left them in dire need of new leaders. They found them as the likes of Jonny Cooper, Ciarán Kilkenny, Dean Rock, James McCarthy and Philly McMahon stepped up. This year the returning Jack McCaffrey will be a huge asset while I suspect Con O’Callaghan’s name will be a familiar one to the sporting public by the time the three-in-a-row is completed. Dublin always find a way.
Or nearly always. Kerry’s league final victory seemed hugely significant at the time and there is no doubt that the Kingdom have the ability to score big against Dublin who don’t seem able to handle Paul Geaney. The main challengers have a couple of superb wing-backs, an excellent midfield and in Tadhg Morley, a player who so far looks born to the role of centre half-back.
Their Achilles heel remains the full-back line which looked positively panic-stricken after the introduction of Paul Mannion in the league decider. Would you really fancy them to hold on to a narrow lead in the closing minutes of an All-Ireland final? Shane Enright is the closest thing they have to a Tom O’Sullivan or Marc ó Sé figure. They need a couple more.
They also need to rejuvenate James O’Donoghue, the best forward in the game three years ago but a frustratingly peripheral figure since thanks to injuries and an apparent loss of confidence. Not just Kerry but the game in general would benefit from an O’Donoghue renaissance. At his best there is no more explosive and exciting player in the game.
And Mayo? I can’t help feeling their biggest chance went when Stephen Rochford made his bold goalkeeping selectorial decision last year. Their best players are getting on and the extra couple of scoring forwards they need didn’t materialise during the league campaign. Unlike Galway, they’re likely to be waiting another while.
The last word
O’Shea not to blame for Mayo’s problems
Will people just give Aidan O’Shea a break? Over the past couple of weeks it’s hard to escape the impression that open season has been declared on the Mayo star. It’s fair enough to point out that O’Shea has consistently underperformed in All-Ireland finals, though media darling Diarmuid Connolly has had the same problem, but a note of personal animus seems to have crept into the criticism.
It’s as though O’Shea is being held responsible for the shafting of Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly, though this was a collective decision by the Mayo players. Or for Stephen Rochford’s dropping of David Clarke, though the buck stopped with the manager on that one.
There seems to be a great appetite for waving the finger at the Breaffy man whose main problem seems to be that journalists and keyboard warriors alike suspect he fancies himself a bit. May he have a great championship and sicken the lot of them.
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The meeting of Cork and Tipperary is the most intriguing fixture of the first month of the championship. Not today’s hurling match, which can only be made interesting by invoking the ghosts of Christy Ring and John Doyle and making folksy references to hay and mushrooms, but the Munster football semi-final on June 10 which will take place after Cork beat Waterford next Saturday.
Should Tipperary manage to beat Cork for a second year in a row, it will indicate they have arrived as a footballing power and generate tremendous momentum for not just the rest of this season but the following seasons. A Cork loss would leave football in the county at its lowest ebb in living memory and fundamentally change the balance of power in Munster. It’s not often you have a game with the potential to define an epoch for both counties. The stakes will be that high.
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Few counties get the most out of themselves in the championship in the same way Longford do. Three times they’ve beaten Derry in the qualifiers after going in as outsiders while their defeat of Monaghan was the biggest back-door shock of last year. Demographic disadvantage makes Longford everybody’s idea of a second-tier county yet more than once their results have disproved the notion that there are two distinct tiers.
Most people would instinctively regard Laois as a much stronger county than Longford but they’ve declined precipitously since being regarded as All-Ireland contenders just a decade ago. Now they go into today’s home tie against Longford on the back of relegation to Division 4. That league campaign was a classic example of Laois flakiness as they beat Armagh away but lost five of their other six games. They scored more than eventual champions Louth but conceded at a rate of knots. Today’s clash of underachievers versus overachievers could be the most entertaining game of the weekend.