Mayo's difficulty is Galway's opportunity
But the Tribesmen will need to display more ruthlessness, says Colm O'Rourke
They're off. A bit like the Grand National, except that the fallers at the first fence have a chance to remount and join the field again. Some start early, others much later, so it is unbalanced, unfair and favours the stronger counties.
Yet it will captivate, infuriate and cause divisions among players and supporters. There is nothing which captures the mood of the nation quite like the championship, nothing which inspires as much loyalty, and the farther from home the stronger that sense of place.
Today there are games in Cavan, Galway and Mullingar. There will be passionate support there too but also in Sydney, New York, Toronto, Dubai, and a thousand other places around the globe, where people will turn up in bars with their county jersey on and wish they were at home.
When Alexander Pope wrote in An Essay on Man that "hope springs eternal in the human breast," he could have been talking about the GAA championship which is so fundamentally flawed and unfair yet players from every county are gearing up now. They are forgetting the odds stacked against them and hoping for a good run in the qualifiers as many will know that the provincial championship is beyond them. And a lot of mothers will also be hoping for a run for their counties and, more importantly, for their sons as the plane to Australia or the United States is put on hold until after the championship. If the county last a good while, the club championship becomes appealing too and summer could turn into autumn before emigration is discussed again.
At least the championship opens with two games that look competitive. Cavan and Armagh meet in Kingspan Breffni Park and Galway meet Mayo close to the beach in Salthill. It looks like the weather gods have relented a little too and players may have to wipe the sweat off their brows for the first time this year.
The match between Westmeath and Carlow is the most predictable. It would be surprising if Carlow can hold Westmeath to a respectable margin but the others are well-balanced games and a couple of these teams will hope to be playing football at quarter-final stage in the big field next August.
Cavan and Armagh had similar league campaigns, albeit in different divisions: Armagh in mid-table in the second and Cavan slipping after looking early on as if promotion was likely in the third. Neither side are part of the fancied group for Ulster never mind the All-Ireland and one has a long road to travel after this evening.
Yet Ulster for all its charms, or whatever people might like to call it, is suffocating for many counties and the qualifiers are no serious drawback. Armagh are hot favourites but this is the year of the underdog and if Cavan are able to play like they did against Meath in Navan, then they will win. The inconsistency in other league matches shows that Cavan can't be trusted. But they can't win Ulster under 21 titles without having good footballers and maybe their time has come.
The big game of the day is in Galway. It may appear like an early Connacht final and at least one of these should be in an All-Ireland quarter-final. Mayo will certainly fancy themselves to be there. They are making incremental improvements every year. Yet Mayo have shipped a huge number of injuries to leading players and are extremely vulnerable as they do not have the strength in depth of the other top counties.
Almost 100 years ago the leaders of 1916 viewed Britain's difficulty being Ireland's opportunity when the first World War was at its height. Galway are in a similar position now with regard to Mayo and Alan Mulholland and his players are probably much too nice to even dream of such sedition. However, if you are not ruthless, you miss the boat.
I will be interested to see how some of the players on the Galway team that won the All-Ireland under 21 title in 2011 and those from this year's success on the panel can combine at senior level. Add in Michael Meehan and Seán Armstrong and the forwards in particular should be dangerous.
The performance of two of the younger men, Fiontán ó Curraoin and Tom Flynn, will be central to their hopes. Underage titles are no guarantee of anything.
On the opposite side, it looks as if Mayo have better backs than forwards. Ger Cafferkey and Keith Higgins have had a few good solid years and the same holds for Donal Vaughan and Lee Keegan, even if they should have it imprinted on their foreheads that they are defenders not forwards. Too many backs think that if they score a couple of points it makes up for not marking. The old rules still apply: take care of your man, everything else is a bonus.
These two sides almost always provide an entertaining game. Maybe it is because they find it runs against the grain to pack the defence and don't appear in the least offended by being termed a nice team. That would normally be seen as a backhanded insult if one Ulster side spoke in those terms of another. The hard edge that Mayo and Galway must gain has nothing to do with dirty or cynical play. It is an attitude of mind. If Galway want to be a serious team, then they should win today. I think they will.
Rounding up the usual suspects is hardly a novel approach to picking the winner of the All-Ireland. I suppose it could be worse, it could be hurling with one, two or three choices if you really pushed it. The simplest way in football is generally to pick the top six teams out of the first division of the league (Donegal this year being the exception) and if anyone else wins it then the final will surely be in Lourdes.
Donegal, Dublin, Tyrone and possibly Kerry are the most obvious contenders at this point. If someone else from the chasing pack like Kildare, Mayo, Cork or Derry climbs those steps, it will be a surprise. If it is anyone else then it is time for jubilation for all and repentance on my part. The game always needs a new face.
Keep these predictions close to the dartboard.
(I might change my mind on the way.)