Spring break in the National Football League, and after three rounds of drama including timekeeping issues, ridiculous red cards and a fixture list designed by Jared Kushner, there exists much food for thought, even if the conclusions are pretty much the same.
As the curtain fell on two epic All-Ireland finals last autumn, there was a sense that we were closer than we had been in a decade to an end to the dominance of Dublin, which was as majestic in its execution as it was suffocating in its grim reality.
Like a relationship you know is doomed to fail but desperately want to succeed, we — that is everybody outside Dublin — ruminated over every sigh, every text, every ellipsis, as if it were a clue that the blue tide was going out.
Jim Gavin gone? Surely only a matter of time before Clucko joins him. As for Dessie? Na Fianna won nothing under him so surely he can’t be up to much.
Yeah, we did what all people do when they desperately wish something to be so, despite compelling evidence to the contrary. We sought comfort in the arms of other theories, believed what we wanted, disregarding the rest.
Three weeks of league football later, and the truth is a cold bitch.
Watching Dublin stutter to a draw Saturday night against Monaghan was nearly as demoralising as watching them hammer a team by a cricket score. At one stage, it seemed they were at least 40 points down with Monaghan showing no signs of slowing.
A quick change of the childer’s nappy and the gap had lessened but remained substantial enough to encourage a check on how Fr Ray was doing on. A loss, any loss, especially in Croke Park, would provide another morsel of evidence that the dynasty was dust.
Of course this was to ignore the fact the Farney were practically at full strength and and playing as if it was their last night on earth.
Alas, rarely has a draw been so brutal in its consequence — that being the realisation that everything begins and ends with Dublin. The gooey bit in the middle?
Well, that’s for us to savour because otherwise, what’s the point? The nine minutes of garbage time in Croke Park — only justified if consistently applied — played out like the movie. Nobody had a clue how it came to end the way it did, but all we knew for certain was some dreams were stolen. Specifically, ours.
So, where does it leave us? Right now, based on all the evidence presented from last summer to this past weekend, Kerry remain best placed to challenge Dublin.
Notwithstanding their travails in atrocious conditions in Omagh Sunday, their forward six — if minded — could destroy before them if given the platform to perform.
That platform very much depends on what is happening between the goalkeeper and midfield.
For the third consecutive weekend, the Kerry defence treated every opposition attacker that approached them as if they had the coronavirus. Either Donie Buckley has decided an effective defensive strategy is an ongoing process best executed mid-summer, or he’s not being listened to in the Kingdom. All the more reason the Kerry attack needs to stay fresh and healthy.
If there was any blessing that came with David Clifford’s controversial dismissal — presumably given for his offensive haircut — it was the merciful reduction in his playing minutes.
Their conquerors Tyrone might be odds-on to win the All-Ireland if it were played entirely in Omagh in the wet. Beating Kerry without the injured Mattie Donnelly and the returning Cathal McShane — spotted handing out business cards from his perch on the Tyrone bench — augurs well for Mickey Harte, who perhaps has more strength in depth than previously thought. How that translates into beating Dublin in August will be Harte’s problem to solve.
Which brings us to the housewife’s favourite, a mantle once worn by their neighbours Mayo, now carried by Paraic Joyce’s Galway.
Two weeks back, how I sniggered as Shane Walsh was shortlisted by the masses as footballer of the year material after he sauntered through the aforementioned tackle-phobic Kerry defence. Nothing like a January coronation, I wryly noted, thrilled to bits with myself.
As Al Pacino said of his nemesis Benny Blanco from the Bronx in, he has a bright future... if he can live past next week.
That’s how it’s been with Walsh. He has been the Next Big Thing for too long now, so every time he’d rabona a pass to Damien Comer the world would lose its collective mind, I would tut-tut and counter with the Benny Blanco line. I may be tut-tutting no more. Galway’s win and Walsh’s performance in the bearpit of Letterkenny is evidence (not proof) that they are developing the one trait most synonymous with its new manager: belligerence.
Galway, in footballing terms, has forever been a county divided. There is the west, all sandy beaches and silky footballers; and there is the north, its spiritual home, landlocked towns and parishes like Miltown and Corofin who have always seen themselves as club men first, county second.
The sense was that the previous manager, Kevin Walsh, never won the trust of the North, who perhaps were too suspicious of a team populated with Connemara men called Sean Pat and Mike Anthony.
Well, Joyce is one of their own.
The Galway footballer of his generation, anyone who ever watched him close enough would testify he reffed every game he played in, and not in a brutish, aggressive way either.
His craft was a cunning one, and his ability to manipulate referees like playdough points at an emotional intelligence which may be key in coaxing the best out the talented Walsh, and others, who too often have disappeared when the ground hardens and defences grow meaner.
Joyce was less subtle in his criticism of referee Joe McQuillan after his side’s victory last Sunday.
Then again, being unhappy with referees is the default setting for inter-county managers this weather.
Mayo and Donegal are both in a strange place. James Horan looks like he just wants to be left alone. Scraping by Meath will help his plight as few will see Mayo’s performances thus far as cause for optimism, notwithstanding he’s changed their lineup more times then Fleetwood Mac.
The league being the league however, Mayo could still either win the damn thing or sink a division. Likewise, Donegal, who next head to Croke Park on a trip that could either inspire or demoralise them. They lost a seven-point lead at home on Sunday, not something you want to be thinking about for two weeks.
Which brings us back to where it all began and will likely end, Dublin. Utterly outplayed for most of their encounter with Monaghan, the Dubs, with half of their regular team, distractedly picked away at the lead like a parent playing football with their kid while scrolling through their phone.
Watching Dessie Farrell after, it was reminiscent of when TV shows replace big characters with new actors and expect the viewers not to notice. Listening to him give absolutely nothing away, it was as if Gavin never left. It’s only the middle of February and already the season has a whiff of the familiar about it. We press on regardless.