The Super 8: Fantasy football made real

The Super 8: Fantasy football made real
Brian Hurley’s return to full fitness has helped the transformation of Cork. Picture: Matt Browne/Sportsfile.

Back when the musician Prince was among us, he was renowned for making his way from playing in a big arena to go jam in some nightclub in front of a lucky, exclusive audience of late-night revellers.

One time when he made his way on stage for such an early-hours set, he teased those who had made the rush across town, being as mindful as they were of the mythical status such post-concert gigs hadassumed.

“You mean you’re actually going to hear what we’re playing tonight?! You’re not going to make up the notes in your mind?!”

The upcoming weekend — and month — of football evokes a similar sense of giddy anticipation.

Imagine how often you or a friend has said: “Imagine a Dublin or Mayo going down to Killarney for a championship game. The place would be packed. The buzz around town would be unreal.”

Well, it’s no longer just something on paper or in your head. It’s actually happening. Fantasy football made real.

A week after the novelty of an all-Connacht game in Limerick, Mayo and their supporters will now recreate all the atmosphere of a Munster final and more, offering the town probably its most unique and carnival-like GAA weekend since Cork and Tipp played a do-or-die hurling qualifier there 15 years ago.

No doubt we’ll return again to how football and its championship could be structured better, certainly better than what John Horan has in mind.

But now it’s not a time to again bemoan that the Super 8 is elitist as celebrate such clashes of the elite.

That includes Meath and Cork. You can make a case that you’d still rank a couple of teams ahead of either of them, but it’s not like either panel is an imposter.

Whatever fortune Meath got to get this far, they were due it.

Last month when this column interviewed Jamie Wall, the former Cork dual underage player but now primarily focused on hurling through his coaching, he made the point that the most competitive and satisfying division in either code is consistently Division Two of the NFL. So little separates first from last.

From 2014 to 2018, Meath either finished third in that division or just a point further back.

This year they finally won promotion, topping the table. Although Eoin Sheehan from Off The Ball AM for one has continuously placed them below counties like Kildare, Armagh, and Cork in his power rankings, Meath beat the lot of them this spring, the latter two comfortably.

The only side they lost to in the entire campaign was Donegal, twice. And both times only two points separated the sides. Ballybofey this Sunday will be no formality for the Ulster champions.

Indeed, with no repeat fixture against Dublin likely, Meath will be no pushovers for anyone. For years when this column would dream up our own preferred championship format, a fixture we often pictured was Mayo having to go up to Navan, with there being a cauldron and outcome not unlike Newbridge or Nowhere.

The weekend after next James Horan’s men will indeed face off against the Royals, only it’ll be in Croke Park, but Kerry have to go up to Páirc Tailteann, and most likely will need something from it.

Even if Meath are out of the qualification equation by then, pride will ensure it will be a battle. Just as there is no such thing as a dead rubber in the Six Nations rugby championship — or at least when its original five face off against one another — there won’t be one in these Super 8s.

Every single match will be a Test match.

Every single score will count too. It’s very conceivable that Donegal, Mayo, and Kerry all finish on four points, just as the Leinster hurling championship featured four teams finishing on the same number of points, only Meath won’t be trimmed by anyone like Carlow were.

It’s not a stretch either that Cork are among the last eight teams standing. You can reasonably quibble that they only had to beat Limerick and Laois to get this far but the manner in which they hammered both was as impressive as how hard they pushed Kerry in defeat.

Did any side who has already exited the championship string together three performances of such quality in succession?

It’s also lazy and even invalid to resurrect the matter of Cork’s relegation back in March.

That’s about as relevant as reminding someone still in the chase at Wimbledon of an early-round exit back in the Australian Open. Cork are a completely different team and animal now.

Ronan McCarthy deserves enormous credit for facilitating such a metamorphosis. Instead of getting busy dying, he got busy living, or at least reviving his team, organising a series of games against Division One counties.

You could dismiss them as merely challenge games but McCarthy couldn’t, and the wins and the confidence they garnered from them not just offset but erased their league record.

With Brian Hurley back, Cork seem to be back with him and to what they were around 2014.

Whatever the league table says, never again should they reside outside the top 12 teams in the country.

Right now they only have enough to rattle Dublin, not beat them, and the same is likely in the case with Tyrone the following week.

But there won’t be any repeat humiliation like Portlaoise 12 months. Such dog days seem over.

The weekend’s action of course all kicks off in Dr Hyde Park, which should be crammed for the visit of Tyrone, its capacity being a charm this week when last week it was a curse.

Previously in this millennium when Roscommon have won Connacht, there has been something almost anti-climatic about the setting of their next fixture.

Not this one. Should they turn over Mickey Harte’s side, it will trigger scenes even more joyous than those that followed the trumping of Mayo in Castlebar, whatever about those that followed the sacking of Galway in Salthill.

Killarney though is the game that most fascinates. Last year, the biggest attendance in the Super 8s outside Croke Park was 18,000.

Kerry-Mayo is likely to be a sell-out at 31,000.

Both sides will feel they have the other exactly where they want them.

Kerry haven’t lost a championship game on home ground since 1995. And after the atmosphere that pervaded their opening Super 8s game last year against Galway, they will be salivating at the prospect of this year’s opener in a packed stadium, their stadium.

Yet since James Horan’s initial appointment as Mayo manager in the autumn of 2010, Mayo have played in Tralee or Killarney four times and never lost. Éamonn Fitzmaurice in a recent column in these pages wrote about how for big games he liked his team being together the night before, but if there’s one team that feeds off that dynamic even more so it is this group of Mayo players.

Something about heading behind enemy lines as a unit galvanises them even more, and they will relish a date in Killarney as much as their supporters descending in their thousands down there.

Another intriguing dynamic to that pool will be the reacquaintance of old friends. Donie Buckley is now back in Kerry. Stephen Rochford is now up in Donegal.

James Horan is now back in Mayo. All are the better and wiser for their previous stint working with this group of Mayo players and in the case of Horan-Buckley and Buckley-Rochford, their dealings with one another.

But it wasn’t to simply reach the Super 8s that their respective services were snapped up last autumn. It was with the goal of emerging from them. And yet one of them will miss out. Fail, if you like, at least for this year.

In this group, there can only be two.

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