Martin Breheny: 'That non-event in Omagh was a betrayal of the championship - it's time to scrap Super 8s'
COMPLETE with inequality for some, privilege for others and inconsistencies for all, the football championship format may be deeply flawed, but it has still managed to deliver the four pre-season favourites for next weekend’s semi-finals.
Dublin and Kerry arrive as provincial winners, while Mayo and Tyrone, original fancies in their respective provinces, replace title holders, Roscommon and Donegal as Connacht and Ulster representatives.
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The pairings (Dublin v Mayo on Saturday and Kerry v Tyrone on Sunday) are very interesting in their own right, but of course there’s another dimension which adds to the intrigue.
Dublin’s five-in-a-row pursuit has given this season a special feeling as they attempt to achieve something that no team has ever managed in either football or hurling.
It’s a pity that in such an interesting year, the championship should be damaged by the nonsense which applied this weekend when two of the four Super 8s games were ‘dead rubbers’ while a third was relevant to one side only. It left Mayo v Donegal as the only contest with any merit and while it lived up to expectations, one meaningful game from four runs goes against everything the championship should be about on the first weekend in August.
Other than trying to end the season on a positive note, Cork v Roscommon was irrelevant, while Tyrone’s team selection for the clash with Dublin made it clear what Mickey Harte thought of that fixture. It allowed Jim Gavin to leave several front-liners at home, yet Dublin still had enough to win a game which was an insult to the championship.
Pre-season competitions have featured more intense action, but that was always going to be the case once both had qualified for the semi-final after their first two games.
The Super 8s are due to complete their initial three-year experiment next season, but after this weekend’s charades, there’s no need to proceed any further.
A round-robin at the quarter-final stage doesn’t work as it leaves openings for meaningless fixtures, which are the ultimate betrayal of the championship. It also takes up valuable time, forcing the hurling and football semi-finals to be crammed into two weekends, which is a pure waste of promotional gold.
A special Congress takes place in October to consider a Tier 2 football championship, so there is an opportunity to deal with the Super 8s issue. Scrapping them and returning to straight knock-out quarter-finals is the sensible option.
After the non-event in Omagh, they have no viable future, so why continue with them for another year? Hopefully, the GAA’s management committee and Central Council will act as they should and move to protect the championship by bringing a motion to Special Congress proposing the removal of the Super 8s.
It was bad enough to have a non-competitive game between two of the semi-finalists, but the nonsense moved a stage further when the prize for winning it was to get one day less to prepare for the next game. Given that both managers fielded weakened teams, that may not appear especially important, but it highlights another deficiency in a discredited format.
While Kerry v Tyrone will be intriguing, it can’t match the fascination surrounding Dublin v Mayo, a rivalry that has delivered so many great contests since 2012 when James Horan’s men ended the Dubs’ one-year reign as All-Ireland champions.
Jim Gavin took over as manager a few months later and since then they haven’t lost to Mayo in championship or league. They have met six times in the championship, with Dublin winning four (three by a point), while the other two were drawn.
All very painful for Mayo, but the memories have resonance for Dublin too, as they know that the green-and-red have been the toughest opponents throughout their golden era.
It looked earlier in the summer that Mayo’s race was run, leaving Dublin eyeing up other threats. Now though, with the five-in-a-row within touching distance, they find a rejuvenated Mayo back in serious business.
After coming so close to Dublin in the 2013, ’16 and ’17 All-Ireland finals, it would be the ultimate irony if Mayo were to emerge as the team to scupper the five-in-a-row ambitions.
On the basis of their compelling performance against Donegal, Mayo are ready to produce another massive effort. One thing is certain: Croke Park will be a sell-out on Saturday.
It will pack them in on Sunday too for Kerry v Tyrone, a clash of contrasting styles. It’s 16 years since Mickey Harte sent out a team which smothered Kerry into submission in the semi-final.
Even a vastly experienced outfit weren’t ready for the tyranny Tyrone imposed on them and while the Kingdom’s latest model won’t be surprised by whatever is thrown at them next Sunday, they know they will be confronted with a different challenge to anything encountered so far.
Their quick forwards will find the channels jammed with checkpoints, while David Clifford can expect at least two Red Hands to be in his vicinity all the time. He and his fellow Kerry forwards will be a lot wiser in the ways of the world afterwards.
Cathal McShane, who in addition to being an excellent free-taker has scored 3-19 from play in this championship, can expect similar scrutiny at the other end as he is bringing something different to the Tyrone attack this summer.