For a championship game to be vintage, it cannot leave the neutral indifferent, says Kieran Shannon.
Though our own county may not be involved, we have to be rooting for one crowd to win and the other lot to lose. The latter is nothing personal; in fact, in many ways it’s a form of flattery. You’ve won enough of these kind of games; it’d be nice to see this other crowd win one for a change.
It also helps if the game is a spectacle and not just a contest. Where we’re treated to our fair share of scores as well as a generous number of big hits, where we can applaud and cherish a moment of magic from a player we hope still ends up on the losing team.
You can have that score. In fact, thanks very much for that score. Just don’t score too much, today.
That’s what made last Saturday night in Armagh so magical. And Wexford Park a few weeks ago. And Cork’s two games in Thurles. And this championship in general.
The other evening against Down there was one passage of play where Conor McManus chipped up a ball on the run, rode off two tackles, hopped the ball with his right hand and then shot off his left — and supposed weaker — foot to curl the ball over the bar from 35 yards.
You couldn’t help but delight in that — and still be grateful that Monaghan couldn’t work the ball to him in injury time.
The same with Cillian O’Connor’s free from another country that brought Mayo to within a point of Galway — and the one he missed a few minutes later (there being neutrals wanting Galway to finally re-emerge as genuine All-Ireland contenders while still hoping Mayo finally, finally win it outright).
Or TJ Reid against Wexford; you had to applaud his two goals against Davy’s latest army yet pray he didn’t find a way to score a third.
Likewise Seamus Callanan’s pass for John McGrath’s goal against Cork. The favourites are still giving us moments to applaud but the underdogs are giving us moments to rejoice. We’re not just getting great games, we’re getting great results. We’re not just getting great results, we’re getting great games. After years of the usual suspects, we’re finally getting some novelty and romance in the early months of the championship.
Hurling had something like this as recently as 2013, though subsequent years showed just how much of a freakish outlier it was. The last time May and June was this much fun in football was back in 2010. It seems like another era now, because in football terms, that’s exactly what it is, a time before Jim McGuinness got his hands on Donegal and the old game in general. That summer Sligo shocked both Mayo and Galway. Louth made it to a Leinster final. Dublin didn’t. Donegal and Mayo didn’t even make it to July, losing in the first round of the qualifiers. Since then Donegal have never failed to reach an All Ireland quarter-final. Mayo and Dublin have never failed to reach an All-Ireland semi-final. Suffice to say, things changed.
Now they may be changing again. Donegal and Mayo are both playing in the backdoor this weekend. Being at home, they should avoid the ignominy of an early exit a la seven years ago, but the days of assuming they’ll reach and win provincial finals are over. For the first time since he broke onto the scene in 2011, Paddy McBrearty will not participate in the Ulster final. Stunningly, neither will Conor McManus. Instead the likes of Connaire Harrison, a bearded reincarnation of Peter Whitnell, will for Down.
By taking their place in the parade in Clones on July 16, Down ensured that all four provincial finals will be contested by a team from Division Two. While it still falls somewhat short of a high watermark year like 2010 when four of the provincial finalists came from Divisions Three and Four, it’s a measure of just how surprising and satisfying this championship has been.
Normally when we look on a championship season, we tend to either isolate football and hurling from one another or compare them to one another.
In a year like 2010 even hurling men like Michael Duignan bemoaned how hurling lacked all the upsets and new teams football threw up that year. More frequently the football will be compared unfavourably to the hurling. But actually, on another level, the two actually blend into one. One sport feeds the vibe for the other. When Galway pipped Mayo the day after Wexford foiled Kilkenny, it felt like a continuation of the same theme and competition. Another big gun tripped up, another shock, another stirring moment for this championship.
So far May and June have done so much more than we could have wished for. We were craving new teams and new characters and new storylines and that’s what both months threw up.
Eight weeks ago Mark Coleman was an unknown, a secret to everyone outside the inner circle of the Cork hurling team; now it’s as if he’s to the manor — or at least Thurles — born.
Lee Chin was just a recognisable face and name; now we’ve seen just how supreme a hurler and athlete he is. Likewise Caolon Mooney. Before we just knew the name as someone who tried playing pro down in Australia. Now we’ve seen him bombing up that field in the red and black of his native Down — and can’t wait to see more.
It goes on. Daniel Flynn and Kildare. Galway. Even Turlough O’Brien and the Carlow footballers.
The hard part comes now. Can Wexford actually win a Leinster final and/or reach an All Ireland semi-final? Will Down be just a flash in the pan again or will they finally win their first Ulster title since 1994? Can Kildare, if not win Leinster, make it to an All Ireland semi-final? Can Galway? Could they even reach a final? For the previous six years only four counties have played into September — Dublin, Kerry, Mayo and Donegal. Will this year be different?
Maybe it won’t. In 2004 Waterford and Wexford won hurling’s two major provincial titles but a few months later people were looking back on the hurling year with a sense of disappointment and familiarity after yet another Cork-Kilkenny final. Maybe this year it’ll once more be Tipp and Kilkenny, and Kerry and Dublin in the big ball. Who knows?
All we know is that May and June, you did your job.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved