‘It’s only the league’ doesn’t cut it anymore

In a way, it seems trite and even a little inappropriate to consider writing anything original on the weekend after sportswriting behemoth Hugh McIlvanney passed, but even he and his gilded quill would have struggled to find the beauty in the abyss of Castlebar on a night that would’ve made Shackleton cower.

‘It’s only the league’ doesn’t cut it anymore

In a way, it seems trite and even a little inappropriate to consider writing anything original on the weekend after sportswriting behemoth Hugh McIlvanney passed, but even he and his gilded quill would have struggled to find the beauty in the abyss of Castlebar on a night that would’ve made Shackleton cower.

Morrissey could not have written a song more miserable than the conditions that greeted Mayo versus Roscommon — the fixture that launched the GAA’s most entertaining football competition.

It was epic and comedic in equal measure, and a reminder that you can change and unchange the rules all you want, but in the west of Ireland, nature always wins. Really, the two league points should be given not to Mayo, but to God, or whatever higher power owns the rights to the weather.

Winter conditions aside, the fear for this opening weekend was that, in the top tier at least, each county would assume the role bequeathed upon them by recent history: Cavan, Roscommon, and Tyrone to struggle, Mayo, Galway, and Kerry to splutter, Monaghan to rattle Dublin before politely stepping aside. By 3.30pm yesterday afternoon, the prophecy was in danger of being fulfilled.

But, if the league opened a hostage to an Atlantic deluge, it ended leaving us thirsty for what’s next, as the defending league and All-Ireland champions succumbed to a rare defeat atop the stony grey soil of Clones.

“It’s only the league” doesn’t cut it anymore. In the league, the devil is in the detail. The one thing every fan, player, and team has in common as it commences is the one thing that will sustain, and kill most of us in the end: hope.

It beats stronger in some counties than others, and nowhere stronger than Monaghan after yesterday. Every spring, it comes to be that the previous summer did not happen, teams, keen for a fresh start, hit hard delete and systems are rebooted.

Crucially though, in Monaghan’s case, what they learned from last year’s exploits may be the very thing that propels them through spring and onto summer.

Their hunger and poise yesterday defied the month of the year. The defeated Dubs may have been quick to remind them, “remember, it’s seven months until All-Ireland final Sunday”.

This is the beauty of league football.

It means many different things to the many different actors on the stage: Consider the plight of the 23-year-old debutant, of which there were many this past weekend — he cares less about whether his team wins as he does how he performs; better hit two from play than be an uncredited extra in an opening weekend rout.

Similarly the 35-year-old veteran, who despite the aura that surrounds him in the dressing room, is as insecure and paranoid about his place in the world as Pete Doherty after Glastonbury weekend.

He may project surefootedness, but he has as much desire in seeing that 23-year-old excel as he does his number raised by the linesman, calling him ashore. Each panel across the four divisions is littered with a cast of characters with varying mindsets: there are those who are hungry, those who are scared, those who are tired already and those who are going to mark time, and ice their groins until the ground hardens.

That’s what makes it so interesting.

The disparity in expectations and goals. Everybody knows what they want from summer — go as hard as you can, as long as you can, whether you are Dublin or Waterford — but the league is different. The hopes of the manager, the player, and the fan are often opposed, often counter-intuitive.

Of course, every player wants to win, but not at the cost of their own performance.

It’s only the opening round, whatever happens, the one certainty is there will be blood.

If Championship was next week?

Mayo v Roscommon: For starters, if the championship was next week, the jerseys would not be dry in time, such were the apocalyptic conditions, and little was learned because of that. The big plus for Mayo was 70 productive minutes for young attackers Brian Reape and Conor Diskin.

Roscommon will know this was an opportunity lost, and Donie Smith will hope the GAA’s historical uncertainty in dealing with instances similar to his altercation with Keith Higgins endures.

Galway v Cavan: Galway are attempting to play more midfielders in their starting 15 than Spain did winning the 2012 European championships. It may suit them on the heavy winter ground, but a better balance — especially up front — will be required for them to impact the summer. Cavan need a win, and quickly. The problem with being the small fish in the Division 1 pond is a destructive league campaign can drain you before summer.

Especially in the Stalingrad that is Ulster.

Kerry v Tyrone: If championship was next week, then recency bias would have it that Kerry suddenly have a mean defence, given how frugal they were towards Tyrone. Truthfully, with the emerging Sean O’Shea and already established David Clifford, a defence of any significance would boost their power rankings. Conversely, Tyrone need to trust their untested youngsters to invigorate a struggling attack.

Monaghan v Dublin: If only the championship was next week. This game rescued the opening weekend, and Monaghan’s second competitive defeat of the Dubs in 10 months will go straight in the bank, surely to be withdrawn come summer. Jim Gavin will not worry so much about a league loss, as he will the reliance on his metronomic captain. Expect Cluxton back next week.

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