Sunday 17 December 2017

Is the football championship going to outshine hurling in August?

Tyrone's Colm Cavanagh has a shot on goal stopped by Meath goalkeeper Paddy O'Rourke during their exciting qualifier encounter in Croke Park on Saturday
Tyrone's Colm Cavanagh has a shot on goal stopped by Meath goalkeeper Paddy O'Rourke during their exciting qualifier encounter in Croke Park on Saturday

Liam Kelly/Vincent Hogan

August will bring a Harvest Festival of drama and excitement to Gaelic football fans as we enter the business end of the season. Already it has been a fascinating campaign and there's plenty more to come. For me, the early-season game that brought a pulse-quickening sense of anticipation was the Donegal v Tyrone clash at Ballybofey.

YES says Liam Kelly

It really was the stand-out fixture of the championship draws, and from the start of the year, it was the match this reporter was most keen to see.

Jim McGuinness and his merry men going head to head with the crafty veteran warrior Mickey Harte, who was reshaping Tyrone – what a clash to warm the cockles of any football fan's heart.

This is what the game at elite level is all about – pride, passion, tactical strategy, and full-blooded commitment on the field, preceded by weeks, if not months, of debate, argument and analysis.

In the end, Donegal got the verdict over Tyrone but it whetted the appetite for more of the same and it's even better now than we might have dared to hope. So many questions, so much at stake, and as the championship has already revealed, nothing can be taken for granted.

The four provincial winners have silverware in their grasp, and now look to push on to greater glory.

Fright

Jim Gavin's Dublin got a right old fright against Meath, who really put it up to their ould enemy, but the Boys in Blue hauled themselves back into a game that was a serious test for management and players.

The excitement surrounding this team has ramped up considerably on Gavin's watch, boosted by the talents of young bloods such as Paul Mannion, Jack McCaffrey and Ciaran Kilkenny.

Gavin is no fool. The Dubs may be favourites to return Sam Maguire to the capital but he knows everything gets tighter and more fraught with danger from here on in.

Mayo: the great conundrum. Everyone outside the camp says they haven't been fully tested, but for me the way they hammered Galway displayed a ruthless application that is now bedded in as a character trait of the team. They have what it takes to go all the way mentally and physically, no matter what anyone says.

Kerry? Even when they're supposed to be in transition, the Kingdom are a side that nobody can dare to write off, especially when we get to squeaky bum time of year.

And then there's Monaghan. Marvellous Monaghan. Manager Malachy O'Rourke got his tactics right to shock Donegal in the Ulster final, so why stop there?

Saturday's qualifier results just copper-fastened the football menu for the August Bank Holiday weekend and ramped up the stakes for the All-Ireland pretenders.

The fact that we have now a reprise of last year's All-Ireland final between Donegal and Mayo in the quarter-final next Sunday, plus Cork facing Dublin in a repeat of their titanic 2010 All-Ireland semi-final 24 hours earlier, is a mouth-watering prospect.

Truly a feast of football is there to be savoured in the next few weeks.

NO says Vincent Hogan

AT a recent funeral down in Kilkenny, two old county men came to shoot the breeze over a post-cemetery cup of tea. "Sure t'was getting boring anyway," one said to the other of a championship that had blown old certainties to powder.

The two agreed that the ending of Kilkenny's hegemony would be good for the game if, of course, that was what came to pass. And the funny thing is that they were wrong. Blindingly, roaringly, spittle-drippingly off-beam.

Because this hurling season had long since passed beyond the frontier of needing some novel punch-line to be considered glorious. Actually, it had already eclipsed that point by the end of June. Having Kilkenny removed was no longer a necessary imperative for the season to be considered, arguably, the best of modern times.

If anything, watching the greatest team of all wrestle with unfamiliar demons lent the narrative a vaguely Hitchcockian tone. Living or dying, their plight enriched the story.

So we don't need to know the final act now to understand that come September, whatever coloured tassles dangle from the Liam MacCarthy, this has already been the hurling year of years.

An epic final might well lipstick the perfect conclusion, but we're talking bonus territory. We have been for some time.

Eternity

Two breakthrough provincial champions, one bridging the small eternity of 52 years, the other crossing their own 17-year Alpine range, not to mention a conveyor belt of games that gave the nation goosebumps. To be in Limerick for their encounters with Tipp and Cork, to be in Portlaoise for Dublin's tilts at Kilkenny, to be in Thurles for Waterford's kitchen-sink throw at the champions and, maybe above all, to be in Nowlan Park the night Cody and Co came off the ropes to evict Tipp in an electric force-field of belonging was to breathe pretty pure air.

Set alongside football, the hurling produced has been like Riverdance set next to the Stations of the Cross. Take away Monaghan's miracle of Clones and the romance of London's opportunists making the final of a lop-sided Connacht Championship, football has looked like hurling's effete cousin.

And that's the essential beauty of what is left for us now. Hurling is incapable of anti-climax from here because there is no possible story-line that can bore. Whether it's John Allen's Limerick, Anthony Daly's Dublin, Davy Fitzgerald's Clare or Jimmy Barry-Murphy's Cork, nothing can dim the light of this coruscating Championship.

If, as the two old Kilkenny soldiers implied, repetition had begun to dull imaginations in hurling, the opposite now applies. Almost every game this year has flown a gloriously ungovernable path. In time, football may, of course, throw on an end-of-season tux and summon a climax fit for Hollywood, but hurling already has the Oscars. It had them before summer had even brushed its teeth.

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