You wouldn’t know it but Gaelic football faces a potentially seismic event next month.
Not the prospect of Mayo ending the 70-year famine or Tyrone leapfrogging them in the roll of honour for their fourth Sam Maguire Cup but the Special Congress pencilled in to take place the weekend after the final.
The freshness of the September 11 pairing means there isn’t going to be a huge amount of debate about what is scheduled to be on the Clár in Croke Park seven days later. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be, of course. Had the final been played as it was planned this past Sunday, there would have been ample time to air the rights and wrongs of the two proposals up for debate.
That is to say there are two being put forward by the fixtures review committee established in former GAA president John Horan’s time — the four provincial conferences of eight teams and the All-Ireland SFC being played on the basis of the Allianz Football League. In the event both fail to receive the required 60% support to come into force in 2022 on a three-year trial basis, then the pre-2018 qualifier system and the awful Super 8 system are back in contention.
Whatever happens, delegates have to vote in a format for next season.
Hopes in Croke Park that the GAA will be “bold and trial one of the new formats” as president Larry McCarthy called for last February are dwindling. It hasn’t helped that the discussion has dropped off the radar and the body that put forward the proposals are no longer operational.
If the provincial roadshows on which the fixtures review body outlined their recommendations are anything to go by, neither will receive enough support. The eight-team provincial football championships was the preferred choice of 47% of those who filled out feedback sheets while just 15% endorsed the league-based All-Ireland SFC.
Then there are also those in officialdom who don’t want either of the new systems to come into place. Some believe that the split season, which commences in earnest next year, is enough of a platform to devise something better over the next while. Others feel sticking with the qualifier system for another year or two would be no bad thing.
What can’t be dismissed either is the power of this novel final pairing. Emboldened by the appearance of Tyrone on football’s ultimate day, Ulster will be even stronger in their opposition of anything they see as upsetting their competition.
“We would not be in favour of breaking up the most successful provincial championship in football,” Antrim chairman Ciarán McCavana said last January before dismissing the league-based All-Ireland SFC.
“That’s downgrading the Ulster Championship to a glorified McKenna Cup and I don’t think that will fly in Ulster.”
That can be taken to the bank but if one county should be backing a breaking up of the provinces in favour of the league it’s Kerry.
Two years of knockout football has taught them hard lessons about being undercooked, having no game prior to facing Cork last year being a hindrance and then beating two Division 2 and one Division 4 team by a collective 50 points in contrast to Tyrone beating one Division 3 side and two Division 1 outfits by an aggregate 15 points.
The Munster Championship can no longer be trusted to prime them. It’s often been said that a strong Cork makes a stronger Kerry. In the 10 previous occasions they have reached the All-Ireland final, in getting there Kerry have beaten Cork in Munster on seven occasions, losing three. The average margin between the counties in those years spanning 2004 to ‘19 were two points. Contrast that to this year’s 22-point difference between the neighbours in Killarney.
Ask Peter Keane now if he would like to be going into an All-Ireland quarter-final on the back of a Division 1 campaign and while he mightn’t admit it you can be sure he would love to be going into an All-Ireland quarter-final on the back of seven games against the best teams in the country.
In his three years, Kerry have topped Division 1 twice (beaten by Mayo in the 2019 final, deigned champions having finished first last season) and shared the title with Dublin in this year’s geographically split top flight.
Based on their 2019 and ‘20 finishes, they would have faced Division 2, 3 or 4 opposition in their quarter-finals. A breather after being the best in Division 1.
The return of the Super 8 would be the next best alternative for Kerry if only to prepare them for Croke Park where they have won just one of their last eight championship games. Any lack of battle fitness in Munster would be offset by playing teams who have qualified for the last eight. Or found out, as was the case in 2018.
Either way, tradition is no longer as much a friend of Kerry’s.
Many Tyrone people will feel Pat Spillane was wide of the mark in some of his pre-match commentary on Saturday but similar numbers in Kerry could argue the same about Kevin McStay’s on The Sunday Game the following night.
“I thought the psychology of it was going to be difficult for them,” said the former Roscommon manager. “Let me put it this way, when Tyrone re-entered the competition, it electrified the county — they were back in it.
“Now all of a sudden there was a sense that Kerry somehow had disrespected Tyrone’s right to be in the Championship as in they were looking for a warm-up game for the final. I know that’s not what they set out to do but that’s the way it was perceived and you know teams will grab on to anything they can.”
Little in what’s come from the Tyrone camp would indicate that was how the Ulster champions viewed it.
Kieran McGeary’s post-match comments did point to the inspiration gained from being written off.
But they were never out of the competition and in giving the GAA the greenlight to provide Tyrone an extension, Kerry knew what they could be letting themselves in for.
If McStay is correct, Tyrone won’t have the same psychological jump on his native Mayo on Saturday week.
Ridiculously, their press activity is already done, James Horan having arranged it when their final opponents were yet to be revealed, so they will be nothing said about Tyrone that might upset their opponents.
However, Brian Dooher’s camp know most of the country will want to see Mayo end their famine and there is no county better at cultivating that ‘them and us’ mentality than Tyrone.
Whatever about Tyrone’s seniors, the reaction of their minors to Saturday’s heartbreaking All-Ireland minor final to Meath illustrated just how much of a team they truly are.
Instead of falling to their knees as they would have been perfectly entitled to do when Conor Owens’s free to equalise went wide, many of them went to console the unlucky kicker who had buried his head in his jersey after the final whistle.
It was also reassuring to see Owens embraced by his family in the Hogan Stand afterwards.
In his first season in charge, manager Gerard Donnelly can take so much from this summer but the reaction of his players to Owens must surely hearten him more than any Ulster title or All-Ireland final appearance.
Owens, quite frankly, shouldn’t have been put in such a situation.
Combining the game as a curtain-raiser to a senior All-Ireland semi-final involving Tyrone was an understandable call by the Central Competitions Control Committee but to heap such pressure on 16-year-olds is hugely unfair.
Anyone we have spoken to who coaches teenagers regards the difference between U17 and U18 as gargantuan. Their mental resilience is not yet built up. We might see Meath goalkeeper Oisín McDermott stroking over two 45s when in U18 minor finals of 20 to 30 years ago they were virtually punts to nothing but that ability tells nothing of their emotional development.
An All-Ireland final deserves a stage worthy of its billing but in Croke Park and playing it before senior matches the fall is too great for the losers.