The ebbing tide that has lowered most boats

SOME years ago a wise-guy whose county hasn’t been visited by Sam since 1982 said to me that the enduring appeal of the All-Ireland is not really in discovering who will win; it is more about finding out how long the other counties can avoid losing.

Like all good voyages with a beginning, a middle and an end, there will are going to be strange surprises (Down v Kerry 2010), some savage certainties (Uncle Sam will visit the Faithful county before Sam Maguire will) and some brutal and disfiguring drama (Cork v Dublin 2010) before we reach the conclusion of this year’s championship.

Maybe the man from Offaly is right. Maybe it really is all about the journey and not the destination. Maybe the championship is not so much what happens on the third Sunday in September as what happens along the way in June, July and August.

Perhaps Sligo players and supporters cherish the memories from a year that saw them beating Mayo, then Galway, before being scuttled by Roscommon and then Down. Perhaps that is enough to sustain them for another leg of their journey.

What of Meath? After hitting Dublin for five goals and winning the Leinster title they would have been entitled to think that they had the wind in their sails, but a dispiriting eight point beating at the hands of Kildare put a shuddering halt to their passage. And then there’s Tyrone, whose journey began with a nice trimming of the previous year’s upstarts, Antrim, followed up by a quiet quelling of fires against Down and a resounding Ulster title defence against Monaghan. All going well until they hit Croke Park, their old prairie home, only to be sunk by a resurgent Dublin. For managers of ambition such as Kevin Walsh, Seamus McEnaney or Mickey Harte the journey is all well and good but the destination and not arriving there is ultimately what they and their players judge themselves on.

Although the GAA championships have maintained a consistent rhythm between tradition and possibility, choosing the best team in Ireland at the start of Championship 2011 has never been easier and what used to be strait between the possibles or probables and the no-hopers has now become a gulf.

The transition from player to pundit sees circumspection replaced by cynicism at this time of year. As a player, cautious optimism became a default setting on the cusp of championships but preaching from the penny pulpits these last six seasons, I tend to view the form, the momentum and, more specifically, the boundless optimism of teams and players with a little more of the cynicism that is reflected in the bookies pre-championship odds. If the odds are to be believed this time, either Kerry, Cork or Dublin are going to win the All-Ireland and the rest may as well not show up at all. It wasn’t always thus and we used never be this hard-nosed!

THE speciousness of Dublin’s recent attempt at winning a national title has left me confused and if anything, has only served to exacerbate my cynicism. For what it’s worth, I still hold the Dubs as favourites for Sam this year but how their long-suffering fans must wish for something infinitely more trustworthy than what they’ve been given up to now.

By reinforcing their own pathology in last month’s league final, Dublin have, of course, dampened the hype that surrounds them at this stage every year, but to suggest they are better off for their collapse against Cork is a mendacious, even if less painful, reality. When the smoke cleared on their most recent league and championship performances against the Rebels, Dublin supporters would have looked confidently to the next championship, but those with sharper senses will know the last time their team cudda, wudda, shudda won an All Ireland semi-final only to lose by a point (v Armagh 2002) they gave the next three years navigating some choppy backwaters without as much as a Leinster title for sustenance.

So what’s different this time? How much more will the Dubs have to endure to emerge a champion on the other side? If we are to believe all we say and write about the national league and about what Dublin have learned and achieved during the course of the spring series, we really can’t back against them. If we are to believe all we say and write about a team not needing motivation or specific causes to rally them, then Dublin is the only show in town. Kerry and Cork are the only two who can outplay them and that’s only because Dublin have yet to learn the art of closing out games. Beating either or both would represent instant self-actualisation for Dublin. Simply put, if the Dubs met either of the Munster giants at the tail end of this year’s championship, they have enough players who owe them one and that counts for something.

Cork’s private motivations as champions must be different. Not so long ago the past used to be a burden to Cork. Serial indignities, mainly — nay exclusively — at the hands of Kerry, made them feel bad about themselves. Last season’s deliverance resolved an awful lot of issues but there is still a sense that Cork’s bona fides aren’t accepted. Like legendary former Kerry player John Egan, they’ve found that being under-rated becomes a reputation in itself. If you ignore individual players often enough (as the All Star selectors did to the likes of Patrick Kelly and Daniel Goulding last year) then their cause becomes a team cause and that in turn can be grist to the mill for a team seeking that elusive X Factor.

Cork people will bristle at the notion that Kerry remain unconquered and unconquerable waters for them but much like Tyrone’s pre-eminence in their clashes riles Kerry folk, there is very little a team can do about it until they meet. Cork, like Kerry, had their chances to slay the dragon in previous encounters and the much anticipated Croke Park showdown for the ages might never materialise this year. Like Albert Camus’ rebel, the current crop of Rebel footballers might believe it “better to die on one’s feet than to live on one’s knees” should they meet Kerry in Croke Park but we won’t know that for sure until it happens.

Kerry are keenly aware of their vulnerabilities after last year. Having seen their Kingdom crumble from within in 2010, they know that something precious could be snatched away at any moment. It may be a bit simplistic to say indiscipline cost Kerry the crack at a magical seven All-Ireland appearances in-a-row but when Jack O’Connor and his charges became witness to themselves last winter, they will have accepted indiscipline was a factor. The age profile of the team crystallises the need for quick salvation as this could be the last hurrah for some of the greatest players of this or any other generation. Can they do it? They’re going to have to get an awful lot right before getting to the last four but if they do, you’d be mad to take your eyes off them.

Outside of the big three, Tyrone, because of the course they’ve navigated before and Down, because of their audacity, are the only other counties capable of reaching port next September. All others will merely be a trial and a vexation to their supporters. Predictions at this stage of the journey are pointless as the ebbing tide is lowering all boats, but Cork, Dublin and Kerry are the waypoints.


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