Donnchadh Boyle: 'Football has plenty of sub-plots to make the fast start it needs after long winter'
In terms of the inter-county season, winter came early and it feels like it was a long time leaving.
The pages that recorded Dublin's four-in-a-row or Limerick's leap to liberty have long since yellowed with age. With no September song to speak of, Croke Park has sat silently for longer than usual. The GAA season as we knew it changed dramatically in 2018 and threw everything else out of sync.
The vacuum had to be filled. So we've busied ourselves with talk about rules in football, the attempts by the GAA to shorten to season only to see another arm of the association elongate it at the other end and even the hike in ticket prices.
Anything to fill the void. Such house-keeping is a necessary part of the close season and has its place but, mercifully, significant action returns this weekend.
The football story of 2019 is obvious. Jim Gavin has hardly been seen since steering the Dubs to a fourth title in a row. Instead of coming back to the pack in their record-equalling season, they won their most comfortable All-Ireland final to date in this run. Save for the first 10-15 minutes, Tyrone couldn't summon the tempest they needed to trouble the good ship Dublin, let alone sink it.
Football's show-time team are looking to make history and complete five in a row and yet their profile could hardly be any lower. For a few weeks after the All-Ireland final, the Dubs were rolled out for various media events. They've scarcely been seen since and word is that will be the way of things for 2019.
It's a matter of wait and see with several interesting sub-plots amongst the other main contenders. Tyrone have fired their usual January flare in the McKenna Cup and in Darragh Canavan have summoned the son of their most celebrated footballer, Peter. Mayo's boys of summer will return too with a familiar feel. The league is traditionally not their playground and whatever they put down in the spring can be all but written off. But theirs was an unusually long break after defeat in Newbridge and there's talk of a renewed zest out west. James Horan's second coming adds another layer of intrigue. Not for the first time, it feels like make or break for at least some of Mayo's stars.
Mayo's first concern will be turning the tables on Galway. When Horan first departed the Mayo hot seat, he left behind a perfect record against their near neighbours with Mayo winning three championship meetings and one league encounter by an average of just under ten points. When they lost to the Tribesmen earlier this month on a penalty shoot-out in the FBD League, it was the sixth 'derby' defeat on the bounce in all competitions.
Donegal are another side who might struggle for traction early on given that star forward Paddy McBrearty is working his way back from injury, while Declan Bonner is also without his Gaoth Dobhair contingent for another few weeks at least. But the introduction of ex-Mayo manager Stephen Rochford to the management team will add a new dimension, and he will work alongside the highly rated Karl Lacey, who is part of the coaching ticket having originally indicated he would step away for 2019.
There's a Mayo connection in Kerry too after they snapped up Donie Buckley. Of all the contenders, Peter Keane's men are the most unpredictable and by extension the most exciting. Perhaps Darran O'Sullivan best summed up the mood as Kingdom supporters know little of their 2019 vintage: "If they (the new players) walked in here I wouldn't know them. I'm like most Kerry fans, I'm curious."
And in the midst of all the noise around football, hurling sits quietly, happy with its place in the world and out of the news for all the right reasons. With the changes to the league that are coming down the tracks next year, spring is likely to be a little less high-octane than before.
No relegation means that managers will be afforded more room to experiment ahead of the championship. It might be unfair to expect the fireworks of last summer but with the number of genuine All-Ireland contenders heading for double figures, the top end of the game at least is in good shape. It's football that needs to make a fast start and regain some lost ground. And it can, given the excitement the league has thrown up in recent years. Let the games begin. It's been too long.