Colm O'Rourke: Old order unlikely to change unless drastic steps are taken at the top
Dublin look equipped for a three-in-a-row but counties giving up the fight is a huge concern
When I was playing football I loved the month of May. Long holidays on the horizon, good weather, the championship starting for club and county, a time of hope. The journey was about to start again. Now when I look back I realise that I lived for the best part of a decade in a fool's paradise. There was no hope, Meath were going nowhere fast from the mid-1970s until 1986.
One day in the early '80s I missed a championship match against Kilkenny; yes, that's right, Kilkenny were actually playing football in the Leinster Championship then. I was disappointed to miss it as it was a guaranteed win and a chance to get a bag of scores. How sad was that. Come back Kilkenny, all is forgiven. Dublin and Kerry were totally dominant. Kerry were winning semi-finals by cricket scores, crowds were falling and the All-Ireland was really a two-horse race.
Sound familiar? History repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce. So said Karl Marx anyway. The tragedy is that the mistakes of the '70s and '8os were not learned from, so giving rise to the pretence of a fair championship which is indeed farce. Of course the back door has been added and I don't know at this stage whether or not I should be proud to have been part of the committee which recommended it.
The problem is that it has never moved on to the logical next step, which is a structure that takes account of a county's status. Carlow versus Wexford is fine but putting the winners against Dublin will need some selling. Even the greatest games promotion experts in American football, the Premier League or rugby would not be able to sell that as a contest.
Of greater concern for the GAA in general is that so many counties are giving up. The war is not worth fighting. It is fine for the league but the players are too smart now to be conned. Many are walking away from the championship. The logic is simple. The gap is huge already and the top counties are putting such massive resources into preparation that the great divide is getting wider. So the league retains an attraction but after that the focus shifts to club football and high-quality players in weaker counties start looking at a summer in New York, Boston or Chicago. Nobody should blame them either.
There is honour in wearing any county jersey and a player can take satisfaction in seeing how good they can be. On top of that there is the hope factor. Maybe a few new players could make things better, the new management might inspire progress and nothing lasts forever. So if you don't really try then you are throwing in the towel without even a struggle.
Sadly, many seem to be doing that with Derry appearing to be the prime example. But there are many others who will go to war without some of their leading troops who have decided that living a life of constant discipline, in terms of lifestyle, training five or six times a week, and having very little in the way of a social life, is just not worth it. And this is supposed to be a leisure activity.
Many opt out and play club football where they may be very committed but do not have football impacting on every aspect of their lives.
For all that of course there will be great competition. The front-runners are of course Kerry and Dublin and the chasing pack are fading in the wing mirrors. The provincial championships have lost most of their appeal for the successful players; it is a quicker road to the real business of August or September but if an Armagh or Down or Meath or Roscommon player, just to mention a few, won a provincial medal, then they would rightly see it as a massive personal achievement.
The Ulster saga is not what it was. The competition is just as fierce and the rivalries intense but the football has been contaminated by a dreadful virus. Strangely, the crowds have held up well and support seems to thrive in adversity. For all counties the prospect of winning when playing the most awful style of football trumps all other considerations.
Nobody I suppose should be surprised at that. As a player, I could not care less about the quality of football or the fairness of competition. That was someone else's business. Business which was, of course, never looked after.
Who will win Ulster? Will it be death by a thousand cuts, Tyrone, or death by 999 cuts, Monaghan and Donegal? Maybe Armagh might offer something but Ulster is getting a bit like Connacht and Munster with just a few contenders.
I will go for Monaghan again in Ulster. They are the best small county in the country but the plight of Down, Derry, Fermanagh and Antrim is of more concern. Cavan and Armagh are in limbo, they are in a sort of twilight zone and Cavan are like a sailing ship caught in the doldrums.
They are bobbing about but must make a move soon with their successful under 21 players or another generation will pass on. In Cavan, they believed from the 1930s to the '60s in the honour and glory of old Breffni. That well is dry so it is time to drill again.
Connacht have more contenders than usual, even if Galway and Mayo are dominant forces. Perhaps Galway could build on a successful league and a very good under 21 team.
It must grate with Mayo that Galway appear occasionally with a team, win an All-Ireland and disappear again without trace for a decade or two while Mayo, who consistently play at the top, go back across the Shannon with nothing but regrets.
A bit of loyalty in Roscommon would not go astray and counties who wash their dirty shirts in public don't benefit. Yet for all of that I will stick by Mayo in Connacht. They have not much time left but they still have a bunch of outstanding players. Their problems generally only start further down the road.
Maybe there is a crock of gold waiting for them at the end of the rainbow and their resilience is admirable. Hopefully they can go and win the All-Ireland and put their county out of their misery. Now that they are without a Taoiseach, they need some compensation - Sam Maguire would do nicely.
Tipperary may succeed Cork as number two in Munster yet Kerry could be building another dynasty. If all the talented youth are as good as they seem then Kerry are set fair for Croke Park for another hundred years. The issue in Munster is Cork and there are more questions than answers.
Everyone in Cork has a theory but, like Ronald Reagan once said as President of America, "the buck stops here". In other words, it is all about leadership at the top in Cork and there seems to be a complete lack of concern among general GAA supporters. They have all gone back to their clubs and don't care about the Cork team. This is the real sign of a county without direction.
In Leinster, Kildare and Meath will be better but that is starting off a low base. The province is in trouble and Meath need a good year, one which inspires the youth again and makes life easier for all of us trying to persuade teenagers to give their all for their club, school and county.
One big win would send an army of young people in to buy green jerseys and the cycle would start all over again. Hopefully, it is not too far away but the certainty is Dublin when the smoke clears.
And the same certainty applies for most of the last eight. It will probably include Dublin, Kerry, Mayo, Galway and Monaghan. Add in three from Donegal, Meath, Kildare, Tipperary, Armagh and Cavan and there will be a springer from somewhere.
Monaghan and Fermanagh got the ball rolling last night and, even if there is predictability about a lot of it, I will enjoy most games and learn something new along the way. It would be great to think Mayo could win or Meath and Monaghan to meet in the final.
Yet on a shortening September afternoon it is much more likely to be Dublin and Kerry. Dublin for me.
What a surprise!