Kieran Shannon: League drama whetting the appetite nicely for the summer

The games will come thick and fast this summer with most of them in packed provincial grounds. And a lot of those games will be close and even with so little between so many teams
Kieran Shannon: League drama whetting the appetite nicely for the summer

DRAMA: Mayo players, from left, David McNrien, Conor McStay, Jordan Flynn, Matthew Ruane and Jack Coyne react as referee Fergal Kelly awards an injury time free to Armagh, which Rian O'Neill subsequently kicked to tie Sunday's Allianz Football League Division 1 match at Box-It Athletic Grounds in Armagh. Pic: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Although a lot of (football) league games can have a taste of championship about them, it’s rare that one in early February could actually pass for mid-summer.

Watching Armagh-Mayo on the telly last Sunday though, that’s precisely what the newly-named Box-It Athletic Grounds looked and felt like – as pure box office and sheer summertime theatre as when the same two counties served up a thrilling qualifier in Castlebar back in 2019.

If anything last Sunday’s clash had an even more cauldron-like atmosphere and televisually was the more impressive spectacle.

Although the game four years ago was played in front of a larger crowd (18,800), there were still rows of unoccupied stone seats behind each goal. Last Sunday the 14,113 that paid and crammed into the ground meant that, as Rian O’Neill nicely put it, there wasn’t an empty seat to be seen.

Even the weather was more pleasant on the eye. Four years ago the Castlebar sky was decisively overcast; last Sunday the Athletic Grounds was gloriously sun-drenched. Had Kieran McGeeney been sporting a peaked cap like Kieran Donaghy instead of one of the woollen variety, you’d nearly have thought it was June.

Both teams have changed considerably since their last championship meeting. Only three Mayo players started in both games. For Armagh the number was as many as eight but back then Evan Rafferty was a forward coming off the bench rather than a goalkeeper flying up the field. 

Armagh are a more seasoned side now, approaching the zenith of their team cycle, whereas Mayo have lost such a wealth of experience – a combined 18 All Stars from that night in Castlebar – it’s probably no surprise that they could only muster a draw last Sunday in the wake of a late Armagh onslaught whereas four years ago they happened to hang on in the face of another to win by a point.

Whatever way you slice it though, it served as a pleasant reminder of just how much fun this Armagh team are to watch – their injury-time comeback reminiscent of their similarly late charge against Galway last year – and how we can likely say the same about Mayo again.

Sometime somewhere last year – probably the league final in Croke Park to be precise – that joy seemed to disappear, for players, management and supporters alike, and was most starkly evident in how their All Ireland quarter-final against Kerry petered out, in total contrast to how Armagh had exited the championship only hours earlier with Mayo-like drama and defiance.

If we’re to go by their opening two games of this year’s league though, as well as the good reports we’ve heard about how Kevin McStay has impressed his veterans and newcomers alike, there is a freshness and sense of adventure about the Mayo project again. They might still be quite away yet from having – and certainly bettering – that blend of vibrancy and guile they had for most of the Horan and Rochford years, but for now naivety is better than the staleness and flatness that characterised and compromised their final seasons of 2018 and 2022.

McStay himself through his post-match interviews and demeanour has indicated how much he’s enjoying this ream of games, not just as a Mayo manager but as a football man; though his most important public is now the Mayo dressing room and its supporters, he’d be mindful of how there are obligations to the media, the public and the sport itself. And that’s part of the reason why while his team can’t help drawing, he can’t help smiling. Just like Galway-Mayo last week was a cracking game, so was Armagh-Mayo. Maybe that trio of teams are all still somewhat short of Kerry or even Dublin and of winning an All Ireland but it’s going to be a bit of craic watching them try.

You could say the same about a raft of teams. Two games in and the only team in Division One with maximum points is Roscommon and the only one without any are Monaghan; after a decade of raging against their limitations, they might now be on the verge of falling back down to the altitude the county is traditionally accustomed to operating at.

Division Two is also fascinating. Meath have topped that league before in recent years but never as convincingly or at least as excitingly as they have by striking for seven goals over their opening two games. Back when he was over Ireland in 1999, Colm O’Rourke seemed like the manager of the future; then when he finally became an inter-county one, he seemed like a relic of the past. It was interesting though to hear James Horan, one of the outstanding managers of the past decade, recently say on the Irish Examiner podcast that O’Rourke’s capacity to hold and command the respect of that 1999 International Rules dressing room could still translate to the current day. While Meath should always regret that he wasn’t the man tasked to assume and continue the Boylan legacy, no better man it still seems to at least revive it.

Cork are another sleeping giant that are showing signs of awakening from their slumber. The county has had multiple false dawns over the past decade – the drawn Munster final of 2015, all the goals they scored qualifying and playing in the Super 8s in 2019, that Mark Keane goal in 2020 – but beating Kildare where and how they did last Sunday was Cork’s most impressive league win since the county dropped out of Division One seven years ago.

The point we’re making is this: with the way the championship is structured and scheduled this year, we’re going to have a lot of games and scenes like we had in Castlebar and Armagh and Newbridge this summer. The games will come thick and fast, with most of them in packed provincial grounds.

And a lot of those games will be close and even with so little between so many teams.

For the guts of a decade we had a distinct Big Four – Dublin, Kerry, Mayo and then Donegal or Tyrone taking turns making up that quintet – with only Monaghan manfully making a stab to break into it. And even within that four, one towered above the others.

The football skyline and landscape is considerably different now. While Kerry are clearly the best team in the country, they are some way from enjoying the kind of dominance and air of invincibility that Gavin’s Dublin did. Nor is there an obvious big four. Reckon Galway are one of them? Well, Mayo and Armagh would fancy beating them, and if Derry or Cork and Meath got either of McStay’s or McGeeney’s side at home in their Sam Maguire group of four, they’d fancy taking either of them. Clare football for all it has done in the Colm Collins era is salivating at the prospect of finally having a big gun and claiming a big scalp in Ennis in championship.

The round-robin format to the championship is going to be relentless and rollicking fun in a way the GAA public hasn’t known since the first year of the round-robin in hurling in 2018 and football hasn’t known since the novelty of the backdoor back in 2001. True, only four teams will be eliminated from the race for Sam after the four groups of four are completed. But almost every group game will still be meaningful. Finish top of your group and you’re straight through to the quarter-finals and get a precious weekend’s rest while the others slug it out in the preliminary quarter-finals.

Summer is still sometime away. But never in early February has it seemed closer.

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