KIERAN SHANNON: Open the curtains, matters are brightening up in the football championship

Hey, it’s actually got quite interesting the last few weeks, hasn’t it? In fact, it’s been rather decent, don’t you agree? You weren’t exactly expecting us or anyone else to be saying that about the 2016 football championship, were you?

We can hardly blame you. In recent years following the football championship has been a bit like being stuck on an Irish holiday when it’s done nothing but rain, or being a jaded Phil Connors at his lowest point in Groundhog Day, depressingly outlining to Rita in the diner how every day is February 2.

Just like he knows there’s going to be a grease fire in the kitchen and Larry the cameraman is going to walk right through the door, you could set your clock to the football championship. Dublin stroll to another provincial title in Leinster. Mayo likewise in Connacht. Cork end up either second-best or best in Munster, Monaghan or Donegal claim the Anglo-Celt Cup up north, while the qualifiers are a damp squib compared to the wild fun they were in the noughties or the never-to-be-repeated miracle season that was 2010.

Even the most discerning of commentators have become conditioned to trotting out the same lines. The league is much better than the championship. We need a new championship format. The championship has been flat. The top four or five are out on their own. The championship doesn’t start until August.

As it happens, the first couple of lines probably still hold true. But if you’re still repeating the others because for a long time now you always have, well, you’re missing out on something. It’s brightening up outside. It’s hardly a heatwave a la 2010 and we probably won’t be having one but it’s time to acknowledge and possibly even enjoy the fact we’re having the best and least predictable championship this side of August that football has had in three or four years.

Of course, this year’s championship was still a ridiculously slow burner. About the best game of football for the first six weeks of the championship was Roscommon’s scare in New York, and it wasn’t like the nation was sitting down to watch that one. Instead, every Sunday we were served games lacking either the necessary level of competitiveness or proper interest for the neutral.

But in the last few weeks it’s changed. Tipp have beaten Cork. Galway have beaten Mayo. Longford have beaten a Monaghan team that were involved in two cracking games against Donegal. Cavan could have beaten Tyrone. Fermanagh should probably have beaten Mayo. Clare dramatically beat a Laois team that dramatically beat Armagh. It’s bubbling up nicely, and this weekend promises even more.

True, Dublin will win the Leinster final by at least double figures. And last Sunday’s Connacht final was something of a dampening bore. But we had to smile at a couple of former Mayo players tweeting about how shocking the fare from Salthill was. Five years ago, when Mayo won their first Connacht title under James Horan, the match and conditions were similarly poor with one side scoring 13 points and the other putting up 11 scores. Neither Roscommon nor Galway will win this year’s All- Ireland, the same way that Mayo were never going to win it in 2011, but a first Connacht title won ugly or otherwise could be the launchpad for a consistent championship push in the years to come, a la Monaghan 2013-2015, whatever about Mayo 2012-2015. The game that really whets the appetite this weekend is Donegal-Tyrone.

It’s actually a rivalry that has propped up the first half of several recent championships. Early in 2012, we knew that Donegal were very likely looking at a faceoff against Mickey Harte’s men. In 2013 and 2015, the pair of them were drawn to play each other in the preliminary round, two tetchy but absorbing games in Ballybofey that proved to be real old-school championship fare. Next Sunday though they each meet in a different place. In 2013 and 2015 having to peak so early in the year left Donegal tired and vulnerable come mid-July, while Tyrone in those years still always looked like a team a year away from being where they needed or wanted to be.

Now Donegal appear to have struck a nice groove and momentum; good against a good Fermanagh team, very good against a very good Monaghan team, now ready to rock against a very, very impressive Tyrone team, one with that running power that would remind you of Mayo 2012-2014 or Donegal 2012 in their pomp; for McGlynn, Lacey, Keegan and Vaughan bombing forward, read now McCann and Harte.

Both teams need to win this Ulster title. A pattern with Donegal is plain there for everyone to see; win and they’re on course for a year like 2014, maybe even 2012; lose and it’s hard to see them not going the way they did in 2015, whatever about 2013. Tyrone could make an All-Ireland semi-final regardless, like they have so often through the backdoor under Harte, but that firm conviction required to win an All Ireland can only be done with a core group of players who first know what it’s like to taste success in Ulster.

The qualifiers too, for the exploits of Longford and the presence of Mayo, haven’t been this intriguing since at least the 2012 Kerry-Tyrone showdown in Killarney. In the first-half last Saturday, Mayo looked like a side caught between two eras and two stools and identities, with the over-stifling and defensive tactics, the absence of Donie Vaughan, and what was with wearing that black-and-lime kit at home?

It’s fine to dare to be different and to have the option of setting up a bit different defensively against a Dublin and wear the alternative gear on the road, but against Fermanagh, at home?

In the second-half, they went back to what they knew best. A big part of what made Mayo Mayo the last five years was a thoroughbred like Vaughan breaking through the middle, popping it off to a shooter on the loop or going on to score himself. Any shackles Mayo have tend to be shaken off when he’s on the field because he just breaks through them. They’d do worse than to start him next Saturday against Kildare in Castlebar and to ditch the shackles and black-and-lime gear while they’re at it.

It could be a good and long summer for them yet. And for all us neutrals.


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