It’s not just the Munster hurling championship that’s making a big break from tradition this weekend.
In Ulster they’ve finally said yes to something new — a whopping two football matches over the one weekend.
All our lives we’ve been reared on the thing being dragged out for as long as possible — just the one standalone game every weekend (barring replays), seven games over seven weeks before a fortnight’s break for the final.
But this weekend, all that changes.
On Saturday evening, Armagh visit Brewster Park where Fermanagh will be out to revive its reputation as one of football’s fortresses.
The very next day, Healy Park and Tyrone host Monaghan for what we’d normally describe as an eagerly anticipated tie, being a clash between two of the country’s top six teams, but which the (lack of live) TV coverage would suggest we’re hopelessly misled.
The following week, it’s the same drill. Two Ulster quarter-finals in the space of 24 hours: Down, with a rare home championship game, taking on Antrim on the Saturday evening, with Donegal facing off against neighbours Derry in Celtic Park on the Sunday afternoon.
Again, those ties may not hold the appeal or the intrigue that they would have had just a few years ago, like back in 2014 when Jim McGuinness brought his Donegal team into that lion’s den that shadows and is shadowed by the Bogside against a home team that only weeks earlier had reached the Division One league final.
A Leo McCloone goal after half-time proved to be the difference between the sides that day, opening up Donegal’s season all the way to Croke Park in September, but a score or two the other way and it could have been their season instead of Derry’s that derailed there.
Derry and Celtic Park is no longer regarded as such a potential banana skin, at least to the general supporter, yet that upcoming game in Derry, along with those other aforementioned games in Enniskillen, Omagh, and Newry are not mere irrelevancies when others would have you believe the only show in town this summer seems to be the Super 8s.
Even Galway-Mayo last weekend was deemed as only shadow-boxing by Darragh Ó Sé, the Kerry great claiming the old line about the championship only starting until the quarter-finals “has never been more true than this year”.
But here’s the thing: Who’ll make the Super 8s? OK Kerry will, which might explain Ó Sé’s dismissiveness and disinterest in anything prior to then. Dublin will too, and after last Sunday’s outcome in Castlebar, Galway as well. But after that? The winner of Monaghan-Tyrone most likely, but who’s most likely to win that?
As of now there are only three teams you could say are assured of their last eight spot. Mayo aren’t, especially if they’re pitted against whoever loses in Omagh this Sunday, home or away (both Monaghan and Tyrone have each won upon their last visits to MacHale Park, just like most teams seem to these days, the Mayo capital being another former bastion that’s lost its fortress status).
On the other hand then, you have up to 18 or 20 counties that could and should have aspirations of making the Super 8s.
Take the two teams who meet in Enniskillen on Saturday night. Armagh made the last eight last summer. Fermanagh won promotion from Division Three this spring and pushed them all the way in the league final, so if Kieran McGeeney’s men can dream of the Super 8s, Rory Gallagher’s men can too.
In fact any team who are in Division Two or Division One next year should be looking to make the Super 8s. Even a few Division Four teams should. Like Laois. Or even Derry, now that they have Chrissy McKaigue and the rest of the Slaughneil contingent back — if they can push Mayo to the brink as they did last summer, they can compete with most teams.
It comes down to mindset. For too often, mid-tier counties, let alone the so-called weaker ones, have taken a dim and sceptical view of the Super 8s, compounding their victim complex.
But now that it’s here, they should be embracing it.
Clare are a classic case in point. Colm Collins was one of the most outspoken critics of Paraic Duffy’s proposal the few months either side of Congress 2017 but he now is probably seeing how much it has to offer his county.
Take what happened to them in 2016, which tends to be forgotten and overshadowed by the Tipperary experience the same year when the Premier ambushed Galway to make it through to the All-Ireland semi-finals. That year Clare made the quarter-finals, only to find their opponents up in Croke Park were their old nemesis and provincial slavemasters, Kerry.
An occasion that should have offered novelty instead brought depressing familiarity.
Had the Super 8s been in place though, they would have two more games to look forward to: A crack at the Dubs, probably in Cusack Park, or if not there, a home game against Donegal.
Back at Special Congress in 2000, the intention was that all provincial champions would have home advantage in the All Ireland quarter-finals. But then the Clare delegation kicked up and painted the scenario of what if they were drawn against Kerry in the All-Ireland quarter-final? Sure what chance would they have in Killarney? The argument swayed Congress and, as a consequence, all future quarter-finals were hosted at neutral grounds, in most cases, Croke Park, but when that situation arose in 2016, the outcome was hardly any better for Clare.
The Super 8s would change that. A guaranteed game in Croke Park, a guaranteed game at home, and the novelty and adventure of playing away at a venue you’ve probably rarely played in before.
The Super 8s is not ideal. In time the GAA should come up with some system that guarantees a better programme of championship games for all teams.
But for those who make the Super 8s, they’ll have a brilliant programme of games.
And the chase and the race for who’ll make the Super 8 should guarantee the rest of us a very interesting programme of games over the next couple of months. Cork, Tipp, Clare, Cavan, Fermanagh, Armagh, Kildare, Meath, Monaghan, Tyrone, Roscommon, Derry, Down, Mayo, Donegal… Who’ll make it? Who won’t?
Anyone who thinks the provincials and qualifiers are mere shadow-boxing is going to find themselves knocked out.
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