It was a bit of a surreal experience being in Croke Park last weekend.
By virtue of their progress through the championship, the eight teams who played across the two days can lay fair claim to being the best in the country.
Because of that, it is legitimate to have expected top quality matches. This expectation was not met.
All four matches had their moments and there were some fine individual performances, but the whole thing never took off.
The raw truth is that it didn’t feel like championship football.
For more than a decade, the cry has gone out that the football championship really started with the playing of the All-Ireland quarter-finals on the August Bank Holiday weekend.
This was a bit of an insult to those counties who never made it that far, but it is still the case that it was at quarter-final stage that all genuine contenders needed to reveal themselves.
With the new structures, the August weekend has been lost and all this year — as the provincial championships rambled on — the cry has been: ‘Wait for the Super 8s’.
But the first weekend was a damp squib. The football was poor, the atmosphere non-existent, the whole thing was just drab.
There is a real problem that comes when you introduce a round-robin format into the middle of a knockout championship. By its very nature, it changes the tone of things.
The tone that revealed itself in Croke Park will have been entirely familiar to anyone who is involved with club teams around the country in any championship that is played on a round-robin basis.
The first round of matches in these championships are competitive and everybody wants to win, but they invariably lack the absolute desperation that defines knockout football.
You can convince yourself all you want about how ready you are and how you’re completely mentally prepared to do battle to the death in search of victory, but in the recesses of your mind there resides the inescapable fact that you have a second chance.
Every supporter knows that, too. That helps explain the lack of atmosphere around Croke Park last weekend.
No group of supporters were happier than the
Galway ones who saw their team beat Kerry for the first time in championship in more than 50 years.
That is the sort of feat that should have drawn an outpouring of emotion to rival that which followed
Limerick’s victory over Kilkenny in the hurling quarter-final.
And yet there were no real similarities.
That is partly because of the fact that the small crowd was lost in vast emptiness of Croke Park, but mostly because this was a victory that was not final.
Instead, it carries an asterisk — and the note behind that asterisk is a warning that all could swing next week if Galway lose to Kildare and Kerry beat Monaghan.
Put baldly: Galway did not get to experience the raw joy of knocking Kerry out of the championship.
Knowing that changes the meaning of a match in a fundamental way. It tempers the emotions that swirl around victory and defeat.
For all that last Sunday was a chastening experience for Kerry, they have a shot at redemption. This takes some of the sting out of defeat and it feels wrong.
Maybe it is a cultural thing and it is only the fact of being conditioned for knockout matches that makes you think like this. Maybe time will pass and we can all get used to this new way of doing things. Maybe — but something will be lost in the process.
After all, when you look at the baseball season in America, even the very best teams lose an awful lot of matches. So it is that at the halfway stage of the 2018 season, the most successful team in America are the Boston Red Sox. They have won 68 of the matches that they have played so far this season, but they have also lost 30.
And in some of the divisions in the baseball leagues, even the top teams have lost almost as many matches as they have won.
It might be argued that there is nothing new to see here in GAA terms, that the introduction of the All-Ireland qualifiers in football and hurling two decades ago meant that teams who lost championship matches went on to win All-Irelands and those losses did not devalue their ultimate successes.
And this is relevant — but relevant only to a point. A round robin system is qualitatively different than the old ‘back door’ system. If you lost in the provincial championships you were gone — and then if you lost in the All-Ireland you were gone. There’s a clarity about that.
But in this new Super 8s structure, you can lose twice in the round robin stages and still progress on scoring difference.
If you doubt that, then consider that Kerry could lose to Monaghan next weekend and still qualify for the semi-finals, provided other results go their way (namely that Kildare and Monaghan both beat Galway, and Kerry then beat Kildare). That is a series of results that is unlikely, but not so unlikely as to be unimaginable.
When it comes down to it, the matches last weekend in Croke Park matter only really because of how they tee up this weekend’s games. They matter because two provincial champions are now under pressure.
To this end, it can be argued that this — finally — is the weekend when the football championship will finally spring to life, particularly because, as well as the Kerry v Monaghan and Donegal v Roscommon matches, Galway against Kildare in Newbridge and Dublin’s trip to Omagh are also alluring fixtures.
The fact of such important matches being played in country towns is a great development.
But the whole premise of the Super 8s was the delivery of more high profile, high quality football games at the business end of the season.
One of the three rounds did not deliver on this premise and there is a real possibility now of meaningless matches in the third round of games.
For example, if Roscommon lose to Donegal, their final group game will see them play Dublin in Croke Park. What sort of a match will that be?
It can rightly be said that judging the success or otherwise of the Super 8s after a single weekend of play is wrong. That’s an attractive point to make and a fair one.
Except that the basic structural issue with the Super 8s remains the same now as it did when the idea was conceived and will remain the same until the structure is redrawn.
That issue revolves around the introduction of a round-robin system of games two-thirds of the way into a knockout championship.
It feels unnatural, something that reduces the intensity of a championship just at the very moment that that intensity should be gathering momentum.
The system is apparently set in stone for the next three years and then will be reviewed. It will surely be tweaked in the meantime, in respect of where and when matches will be played.
But no amount of tweaking will be able to disguise the basic fact that the first round of the Super 8s will matter and at the same time not really matter.
Championship football at quarter-final stage should not be like that — everyone knows that and the crowds for this round of fixtures will be even smaller next year.
There is a structural problem with the Super 8s that no amount of tweaking will change. Unless, of course, you are willing to accept that the first round of quarter-final games will be more league than championship.
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