Asking me to write a preview of the Senior Football Championship is a bit like asking Bad Santa to write a piece on the magic of Christmas.
Championship? What championship? Imagine the Liam MacCarthy pitted Kilkenny against Wicklow, Tipp versus Donegal, Galway versus Cavan? Three years ago, there were more U-14 footballers in Kilmacud Crokes (that is, those in their last year of U-14s) than there were in the whole of Co Leitrim. Yet our premier football tournament pits Leitrim against the Dubs. Antrim against Kerry. Carlow against Tyrone. It would be like allowing a pub team to play in the Champions League.
“Tonight in the Nou Camp, in the first round of the Champions League, the atmosphere is electric as Barcelona meet the first XI from the British Bulldog Bar in Majorca. What a treat for soccer fans. And some of the Bulldog lads look as though they’ve done most of their strength and conditioning in the Bulldog, Gary” ( Laughter in studio)
“You’re right Jeff, but you can’t write them off. They’re here on merit and sooner or later Barcelona are bound to trip up. That’s the beauty of football. It’s so unpredictable and the underdog always has a sniff.”
The RTE football punditry team did their best to put a brave face on it last Sunday. If they had hats, they could have been air stewards for Pan-Am, in their blue suits and ties and wide smiles. But in truth, we are all selling an illusion. The football championship is a triumph of delusion over reality. Here’s a realistic preview: Dublin will almost certainly win it. Kerry are the only other real contender.
Derry, for example, face boring, boring Tyrone in the first round. I was at the opening of the new Dungiven club rooms a fortnight ago and the place was packed all day with die-hard Dungiven football people. The pitch was swarming with kids in their Dungiven colours. Not a single person I spoke to said they were going to the game. Paul Murphy, the senior team manager and Dungiven legend, said: “Jaysus Joe, thank God it’s on TV, I can watch it from behind the sofa.”
Ten years ago, a meeting between the two counties would have been a spine-tingling affair. Now, it will be a defensive bore with Tyrone certain to win.
Leinster championship anyone? Could you seriously write “Meath have become realistic contenders for Dublin’s crown?” Could you write anything positive about it? I challenge even Enda McNulty to put a smile on the face of the Leinster championship. Dublin will win it forever, cantering along in mismatches, with the only sound in the final quarter being the sound of the seagulls squawking in a three-quarters empty stadium.
“Very interesting game today Peter,” Rachel will say, when they beat Laois by 20 points. “Yes Rachel, if you just look at the iPad here you will see that Laois took some great scores in the first half, hand-passing it quickly upfield.” “Although they only scored four points in the first half, Peter, they really were – as you said – excellent scores.” Senan interjects: “Yeah, Rachel, you know you’d have to say the scoreboard doesn’t do justice to Laois. The Dubs weren’t 20 points a better team today and they’ve work to be done for Carlow the next day.”
Then, we’ll go pitchside, where Jim Gavin will say: “Yeah, we were very pleased with the lads’ application today. We’ve obviously got a massive challenge ahead of us in the next round. Carlow are a very good side. Their keeper is only 16 but the fact that he is a double amputee can’t take away from the fact he is a top-class goalie. They’re not coming up to Croke Park to make up the numbers and we will be giving them the greatest respect.”
Back in the studio, Senan will say: “Wise words, wise words; Jim certainly isn’t going to let his players get carried away.”
In Connacht, Mayo get to beat up Sligo in the next round. The last time they played them in the province was two years ago in the final when the scoreline was Mayo 6-25 Sligo 2-11.
In Ulster, it is a contest between boring, boring Tyrone, slightly less boring Donegal and slightly less boring again Monaghan. Munster? Kerry.
The Channel 4 comedy series Big Train once did a parody of overenthusiastic sports pundits and anchors. The 43rd World Staring Championships consisted of a crude pen drawing of two opponents staring at each other across a table. BBC Sport’s Barry Davies provided the commentary, his voice filled with tension. Davies introduced the tournament as coming in “a golden age for staring”. The first match was “the eagerly awaited clash between the Romanian world No 3 Solowka and the Russian Uzliam”.
“Oh my word,” says Davies, “look at the audacious eyeballing the Russian is giving the Ukrainian. This is extraordinary stuff, absolutely nail-biting.” His co-commentator chuckles and says, “The pressure is simply enormous on both players, Barry. One blink and it’s all over.” The interesting thing is that the crowd sound effects, Davies’ infectious commentary and the co-host’s excitable contributions, almost bring the pen-drawing of the two starers to life.
I will soon don my blue suit, blue tie, and widest smile. As the cameras pan to me in The Sunday Game studio, I will turn to Michael with a serious expression, filled with warmth, and say, “Michael, we have entered a golden age of Gaelic football.” Trust me. Delusional thinking makes life a lot easier.