The result must have been some comfort to the longer serving members on the Donegal squad, especially those who were around a decade ago when the Tyrone and Armagh duopoly ruled Ulster with a hegemonic grip.
Back then, both Ulster counties were two-thirds of a three-way power struggle and, along with Kerry, they won every available All Ireland title between 2002 and 2010. Cork then emerged from the crazy mixed up year of 2010 when all provincial champions fell on August weekend.
But just as one troika disappears, there is a genuine case to be made in recent times for the emergence of another. Kerry, of course, remain, but ever since that shape-shifting semi-final of four years ago between Dublin and Donegal we have a new super-élite of inter-county football.
There is a new troika in town, and, sadly, because of their failure to land the big one, we must exempt Mayo for the moment.
On the face of it, the shortlist for Sam is starting to become depressingly familiar. A Donegal win would see them face into their fifth Ulster final in a row and a Dublin win would almost surely presage their tenth Leinster title title in eleven years. Kerry’s alchemical transformation of last year, their countless Munster titles as well as their fabled tradition mean they may well be around for a long long time. Even Mayo appear certainties to get to August weekend by claiming a five-in-a-row of Connacht titles.
When we endlessly parse and analyse games and seasons looking for patterns, narratives and meanings on a macro level we sometimes miss the beauty in the micro. We can get so hung up on the eternal question, ‘who will win the All Ireland?’ that we miss the beauty of the minor achievements on championship weekends such as this.
It is perhaps only natural that our focus for the next few days will be on Donegal and Dublin, and on Kerry shortly thereafter, but that would be to miss the entire point of the championship.
I was part of a Kerry team emerging from the doldrums in 1997 when the great Cavan midfielder Stephen King, then in his mid-thirties, lifted the Anglo-Celt Cup. It was Cavan’s first Ulster title since 1969 and they haven’t won it since. King was asked afterwards if winning the title had made all the suffering during the bad years worthwhile. “Not at all”, said King “because even the bad years weren’t all that bad”.
King had cherished it all. The playing of the game, the battles won and scraps lost, the minor revelations along the way. Another noted football man from that neck of the woods, Patrick Kavanagh says in his “Self Portrait” that “stupid poets and artists think that by taking subjects of public importance it will help their work to survive. . . . The things that really matter are casual, insignificant little things.”
So while Limerick will probably lose in Healy Park tomorrow, don’t let’s go bellyaching about the inequity of the system that sees a lesser team being beaten on a near impossible mission, and rather just marvel at the elegance of Ian Ryan’s play in the full forward line or at the enduring tenacity of Johnny McCarthy’s at the other end of the field.
Jamie Clarke might not get to play in the All Ireland final this year but it will be fascinating to see how he goes about his business in Armagh’s first step towards redemption in the Athletic Grounds this afternoon.
And what of Ciarán Lyng - soldiering for years in the purple and gold of Wexford but never making the big-time that seemed so tantalisingly close nearly a decade ago when Tyrone, Kerry and Armagh were still the teams to beat?
This evening he will be hoping to spring another shock against a Down team who, facing into 2016, have put three clear national league divisions between themselves and Wexford. Will any of that diminish Lyng’s contribution or his determination to squeeze as many good memories out of the game he loves while he still can?
This evening also, Louth, another team relegated to Division 4 this spring, take on Leitrim in the grounds once likened to those of Accrington Stanley by one of football’s aristocrats, Seán Cavanagh, in the very same season that he won Player of the Year. They say that footballing legends are born in Croke Park but if you can’t play in places like the Gaelic Grounds in Drogheda too, then you have no business at headquarters.
None of the teams in this weekend’s qualifiers are going to come from nowhere to win the All Ireland. Nobody does that anymore. What Down, Donegal and Derry did in the early nineties has only been replicated since by the Galway team of 1998. The Donegal team of three years ago had served its apprenticeship and shown its intent the previous year.
The bookies’ odds tell us that Dublin (6/5), Kerry (7/2), Donegal (9/2) and, at a stretch, Mayo (15/2), are capable of winning Sam Maguire. The odds on Wexford (2000/1), Louth (2000/1), Leitrim (3000/1), Limerick (3000/1) and Wicklow (5000) might speak of the widening gap between the haves and have-nots, but they don’t give us the whole story.
I expect Donegal to shorten their odds by beating Derry this evening but it might be more of a struggle than many anticipate. Donegal learned very little from their last outing two weeks ago against Armagh and that is never good. There are signs that Karl Lacey isn’t as elusive going forward in possession as he used to be and while Ódhrán Mac Niallais has emerged as a serious performer, I’m still not sure if his apparent lack of conviction with the ball is due to his languid style or if he misses having Michael Murphy and a bullish Colm McFadden to aim for inside.
Dublin too, should see off Kildare because every team in Leinster have stopped believing they can beat them and many still think it acceptable that staying in the game for as long as they can is enough.
Whether it is Meath or Westmeath facing them in a fortnight’s time the challenger needs to summon the courage and audacity to at least come to Croke Park feeling like equals.
Dublin, no more than Kerry or Donegal, won’t be this strong indefinitely but if their Leinster opponents don’t start talking and thinking positively soon, the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer.
So who will win the All Ireland?
“Ah!” (as Patrick Kavanagh might say) “there is the question to speculate upon in lieu of an answer.” Meanwhile, let’s just enjoy the games for what they are.