With little in the way of promotion other than the nuisance of the Mayo-Roscommon Connacht SFC opener being so close to the former’s Division 1 final, the provincial football championships begin the weekend after next.
Scant build-up, minute anticipation and the majority of the Sam Maguire Cup places already being taken, love for the competitions is close to non-existent with the notable and customary exception of Ulster.
Because of the unseeded nature of their draw, interest in the Connacht SFC will peak at semi-final stage before dropping come final time. However, as all three in the Division 1 half of the draw are through to the Sam Maguire Cup some of the edge has been taken off it.
The Ulster SFC will attract attention, as it always does, but four of the nine starters – Tyrone, Monaghan, Derry and Armagh – are already certain of Sam Maguire Cup football and Donegal will join them next month when a Division 1 team reaches a provincial final.
The northern province might not be as lopsided as Connacht but when three of the teams on the stronger side of the draw are guaranteed a minimum of three Sam Maguire Cup games – Tyrone, Monaghan and Derry – the fear of losing is diminished.
In the grand scheme of the All-Ireland SFC, there is no tangible advantage for a Sam Maguire Cup team reaching an Ulster semi-final compared to losing a quarter-final. Should Monaghan fall to Tyrone on April 16 and Tyrone later be beaten by Derry on April 29, they will likely both be third seeds, only Monaghan will have had two extra weeks to prepare for the start of the All-Ireland series in May.
Gone are the days when the Ulster SFC was launched with pomp and ceremony. Monday’s event in Armagh, coming five days before the first two of its three teams are in league finals and a day after the conclusion of the league’s round stages, was totally lost.
As many in the GAA hierarchy see it, Ulster’s jewel, much like the senior hurling championship is for Munster, stands in the way of what is required to optimally alter the All-Ireland championship structure.
It was former GAA president John Horan who, while in office, indicated that attitude when he derided the competitions during the first lockdown in June 2021: “One of the big challenges is to tackle the monster that is the traditional feature of the GAA that is the provincial championships. Ulster and Munster, you’d find it very hard to move in terms of the Munster hurling championship and the Ulster football championship.”
It would appear the managed decline of the Ulster SFC and the three other competitions will be administered by a thousand cuts. Ten of the 16 Sam Maguire Cup have already been filled, the non-Ulster teams being Mayo, Galway, Roscommon, Kerry, Dublin and Westmeath. Sure, seedings can be improved by a provincial final but that almost 63% of the runners and riders are confirmed for the main event when a football has yet to be kicked in the provinces tells a story.
As do the truncated timescales of the competitions. In total, the Allianz Football League took 58 days to complete. This year’s Sam Maguire Cup, from the first round-robin game to the All-Ireland, will take 72 days, almost twice as long as the provincial championships. The larger Leinster and Ulster SFCs will be done and dusted in 37 days, while Munster will be over in 29 and Connacht 30. Ten years ago, the Connacht SFC lasted 78 days.
Dwindling in duration and slowly being marginalised as events, the provincial championships are only going one way and this new All-Ireland SFC structure serves merely as a sticking plaster for them. Croke Park knows this format is only temporary and yet it was the only way of keeping Ulster on side while expanding the non-provincial section of the All-Ireland SFC.
As with the other three provinces, Ulster's finalists may provide first and second seeds in the Sam Maguire Cup series but where once their champions earned All-Ireland quarter-final spots, they might now have to win a further three round-robin games or play four matches to gain that reward.
The writing’s on the wall; the provinces will fall.