Part of Páraic Duffy’s reasoning in coming up with the Super Eight was in acknowledging the brilliance — even superiority — of a select few teams. If Dublin, Kerry, Mayo and Tyrone were the best exponents of football in the country, then let them play each other more often. Let the rest of us see them bounce off each more often. In risking the creation of the odd extra landslide and even occasional dead rubber, all that would be outweighed by the virtual guarantee of more crackers and nailbiters.
Over the previous two summers, there have been eight championship clashes between the Big Four. Only two of them finished up with more than two points between the teams: The 2015 monsoon All Ireland semi-final in which a late Kerry spurt saw them beat Tyrone by four points when the hits and pace were as intense and unrelenting as the rain, and a week later, when Dublin saw off Mayo in a replay in which the latter had been a goal up going into the last quarter of the game. On either of those days, there weren’t many hurling snobs tweeting about the superiority of their own game. Dublin-Mayo or Dublin-Kerry would make a convert of anyone.
Yet, whoever loses next Sunday week’s semi-final between Stephen Rochford’s charges and Éamonn Fitzmaurice’s won’t get to square off against Jim Gavin’s this championship. In fact, the winner might not get to play them, so formidable and primed are Mickey Harte’s team for their showdown against Dublin on August 27.
Of course, part of what makes the two upcoming semi-finals so eagerly anticipated is just how scarce such showdowns are, and how there’s no safety net for whoever falls off the tightrope, but does anyone really think a Super Eight group game between Kerry and Dublin next year would lack for intensity just because a loss wouldn’t necessarily knock the losing team out? If you know of such a person, send them a copy of this year’s drawn league game in Tralee, where they skelped into one another.
What’s also been overlooked is that if the Super Eight had been in place this year, then, with Mayo having failed again to win their provincial title, three of the Big Four would have been pitted in the same group. No chance of anyone holding back in that piranha pond, while in the other group, a so-called smaller fish, possibly a Roscommon could have emerged to a semi-final.
The Super Four is not permanent or impenetrable. Back in 2011, Kildare, Cork and Donegal were all members of a commonly-referred Top Six. It’s easy to envisage Cork, for one, back challenging in the next couple of years like they routinely did under Conor Counihan and the second coming of Billy Morgan, especially with a guaranteed home game. They only lost to Mayo by a point in Limerick two weeks ago. You think they wouldn’t fancy taking them in the new Páirc Uí Chaoimh, or Monaghan wouldn’t mind getting Mayo in Clones, or Galway wouldn’t love to get Tyrone in Salthill, just as they took down Mayo there back in June?
The Super Eight — while this column wasn’t in favour of it — has a lot more going for it than the doomsayers have been touting since those lop-sided All Ireland quarter-finals.
However, something else needs to be recognised by Páraic Duffy and the rest of the powers-that-be in Croke Park: If you’re going to have a Super Eight in the summer, then you can no longer have a Super Eight — namely, Division One — in the spring.
After last Saturday’s heavy defeat to Dublin, Malachy O’Rourke spoke about how the new Super Eight would favour a bigger squad, such as Dublin’s, compared to the challenge it would be for one such as his own. If O’Rourke stays on, we think he’d find a way to overcome it, but whoever manages Monaghan in 2018 and beyond, one of their calculations will be that to remain fresh and vibrant in the summer, they must sacrifice more of the spring.
A Dublin can cruise to a league final in second gear. A Kerry can avoid relegation in the same gear. For a Tyrone or a Mayo, it takes a third gear to avoid the drop and for everyone else it takes their top gear. For Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan, it’s foot to the mat. Kieran Donaghy can play basketball in March. Con O’Callaghan can play hurling. Monaghan and Conor McManus don’t have that luxury.
Back on the first weekend of February, Monaghan went to Castlebar and beat the All- Ireland finalists, gunning for action after an early championship exit in 2015. They also went to Killarney and won down there. Just to stay in the top six. But last weekend the zip and the zeal they had shown in Mayo and Kerry were gone. They were flat and, if you’re flat come August, then you’re road-kill for a juggernaut like Dublin.
With the arrival of the Super Eight, more Division One teams will take a leaf out of Kevin McStay’s book. Even his native county, Mayo, might; Tyrone have remained competitive in recent years despite the odd year out of the very top flight. Revert to old-school thinking and go back to using the league as less an exercise in survival and instead a time to limber up and experiment. If you get relegated, so be it. Otherwise, by exerting so much to stay in the top six — which retaining division one status essentially is — you’re hardly going to be fresh enough come July. You can’t have it both ways.
Or, if we’re to get to the kernel of all this, Duffy can’t have it both ways. The league’s Super Eight has shaped as well as reflected the gulf between the top teams and the rest. The GAA still have no idea of why the noughties was such a democratic era. The reason you had Fermanagh and Wexford making All-Ireland semi-finals was because they were making Division One semi-finals, as Division One was 16 teams, not just eight. They weren’t cut ashore from playing the Kerrys and Dublins, but they weren’t worn out either from then having to play Mayo and Tyrone the following few weeks either. To repeat a point this column has made before: Division 1A and 1B was working just fine. There was no good reason to change it.
It’s time now the GAA changed it back, otherwise they are indeed more about elitism and commercialism. If you’re going to have a Super Eight in the summer, fine, but you can’t then have a Super Eight in the spring.