An electric championship is emerging beyond the Pale

An electric championship is emerging beyond the Pale
GAA president John Horan with boys and girls from Scotstown GAA Club in Co Monaghan with the Sam Maguire Cup at the launch of the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Series yesterday.

It may have escaped your attention, but beyond all the din and distractions, a pretty enjoyable football championship is happening out there with the prospect of a lot more fun to come. Don’t beat yourself up if you’ve hardly noticed, or you failed to appreciate such a development.

With all the outcry over Dublin’s dominance and the GAA’s purported complicity in facilitating it — some of the scepticism justified, some of it not — and all the noise about whether to tier or not to tier the championship, along with virtually nothing but hurling on your screens every Sunday, it could happen to anyone.

But almost every week another gem of a match and a prospect seems to reveal itself. Last Saturday evening was a fitting snapshot of this summer’s capacity to offer up a pleasantly surprising number of competitive and entertaining games, as well as players you’d like to see some more of.

Both Mayo-Armagh and Clare-Westmeath were decided by a solitary point. In the midlands derby, Laois and Offaly were level seven times in the first half before the home side pulled away to win by five.

These weren’t tentative, low-scoring affairs. The three losing sides all scored at least 15 points. In the day’s other game, Kildare scored 1-15, albeit not near enough to keep up with Tyrone.

There are numerous sides we could pick who’ve exemplified just how enterprising and watchable much of this summer’s football has been, but one that jumps straight out is Armagh. If a side that beat Down in the Marshes and Monaghan in Clones can’t even play into July, the level of competition — whatever about the structure — in football must be in robust-enough health.

Although this was the first time since 2016 that they failed to reach the last 12 of the All-Ireland series, Armagh still managed to play five games this summer, each of them a terrific contest and virtually all of them tremendous spectacles.

Their two opening games required extra time — the first to separate them from a Down side that managed to score 3-13 yet still lose, and the second that still couldn’t untangle themselves and Cavan before the latter edged the replay, though Armagh kicked a 17-point tally both days against Mickey Graham’s men.

Ten days ago, they ended Malachy O’Rourke’s magnificent tenure in Monaghan, a game that was level 10 points apiece before it was even half time. And then last Sunday there was their cracker in Castlebar, where they took one of the most hardened teams the sport has ever known right to the brink.

Jarlath Óg Burns and Rian O’Neill would be worthy nominees for newcomer of the summer just as Jamie Clarke would be a contender for any Turn Back The Clock award, delightfully reminding us that he has been one of the most stunning, if too fleetingly visible offensive talents of this decade.

And yet, as Éamonn Fitzmaurice opined in these pages last Monday, it wasn’t as if this Armagh side was dependent on a few stellar talents. He’d refer to Blaine Hughes for his kickouts, Paul Hughes and Paddy Burns for their man-marking — a quality they’re not exactly overflowing with down in Kerry — and Brendan Donaghy’s capacity to sweep. And that’s before getting to their midfield or attack, all of whom he’d namecheck and laud.

“Kieran McGeeney is building something special,” he’d conclude.

They have many of the ingredients to make it to the top tier and challenge for big honours again.

We can assume by “big honours” he meant the Anglo-Celt Cup for starters, but just as it is a tangible target for Armagh next season, it would be no surprise to find them pitted in another dogfight in some Connacht ground in an early-round qualifier next year again. The competition in both those provinces is that deep.

Of the Ulster sides who have already departed the championship, only Monaghan and Antrim will be disappointed with how they’ve progressed or regressed this year — and even then, the new Monaghan manager will be mindful that they’ll still be in Division One, just as in Fermanagh they’ll give significant weight to how comfortably they retained their Division Two status.

For a second consecutive year and possibly a fourth time in seven years, Tyrone could miss out on an Ulster final yet be the last team from the province standing, in an All-Ireland semi-final or better. Which means for a second straight year they’re likely to dump Cavan from the qualifiers, but that doesn’t alter our view that Mickey Graham’s side reminded us of the magic and validity a provincial championship can still hold as much as eventual winners like Roscommon and then Wexford and Limerick in the hurling have.

This year’s Connacht championship has also been as competitive and as satisfying as we could have wished for, not just for how Roscommon beat both Mayo and Galway — keeping clean sheets each time, breaching the opposition’s rearguard and Conor Cox’s missiles from the touchline — but for how they celebrated on their opposition’s home ground.

We’re even now getting the one Connacht head-to-head we all wanted to see but thought we’d missed this Saturday. Will this be the day a core of Mayo’s veteran warriors finally run out of road, or will it be the day Kevin Walsh’s manful attempt to push his own team and boulder to the summit ends with him being flattened?

The stakes are much higher than they would in a Connacht championship game. The Munster championship is routinely dismissed as a formality for Kerry, but it’s quite conceivable that both Clare and Cork will also qualify for the Super 8s, and on merit too for their defiance in defeat against Kerry last month as well as the manner of their victories against other teams.

Gary Brennan’s last-minute marks in Mullingar already form part of the highlight reel of Clare football history, alongside Martin Daly’s dramatic goals in ’92 and ’97 and his back-heel point against Tipp in 2000. He and his colleagues will be looking to add to or even eclipse that collection in the coming weeks.

On Sunday week, Killarney will crackle with either Mayo or Galway in the house, both western sides having effectively ended Kerry’s season the past two years. Who’ll win that day? Who’ll come out of that group which will also feature Donegal?

The trendy thing to say at the moment is that Declan Bonner’s men are the side who looked most equipped to test Jim Gavin’s — but will they even get out of their Super 8 group?

Any of this weekend’s eight teams can make the Super 8s. Any of six sides could make the All Ireland semi-final. And any of five could make the final. Even if you think Dublin’s march to September and Sam Maguire itself is a formality — which we don’t — that doesn’t mean there’s no scenery or football to admire.

Blink or remain blinkered and you’ll miss Jamie or Gary Brennan’s latest wonder score, another Mayo epic in Limerick, Brian Hurley’s refusal to quit and keep ballin’, the Rossie resistance, Michael Murphy’s majesty, the latest decade-in-the-making overnight sensation à la Darren Coen, Conor Cox or Gearoid McKiernan.

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