Gaelic football can be a funny old game. Maybe it’s a sign of the times, but the ‘recency effect’ seems to take grip of county supporters up and down the country. The evidence of an entire season of performances is quickly thrown to one side and the final evaluation is based solely on the evidence of the last day out.
Variables such as injury, suspension, the opposition, a loss of form and pure bad luck — the uncontrollable obstacles in any season — are disregarded. A bad defeat overshadows all of those. A few weeks ago, Roscommon were the only undefeated team in Ireland. With five minutes to go against Clare, they were odds-on to make it to an All-Ireland quarter final.
But after the extraordinary outcome to that game, they now face a wintry mood of disappointment and anger at home, and the next few months of debate and gossip will be tough for them.
[ Clare footballers reach All-Ireland quarter-finals at Roscommon’s expense, again ]
Donegal went from being a provincial favourite and All-Ireland outsider to being a total mess, all in the space of a few short weeks as they saw their confidence and composure implode. Their season has been reduced to those fatal closing minutes in the Ulster final against Derry when, with ball in hand and experience on their side, they were frozen into inaction and refused to search for a winner. Then, the wheels came off against Armagh. The next few months won’t be pretty in the Hills either.
On the flip side, Dublin are back on everybody’s list of possible winners. Written off after the 2021 defeat to Mayo, they have somehow become the public’s darling again by getting themselves relegated from Division One and hammering a bunch of lower division teams they were always going to hammer in Leinster. And by reaching an All-Ireland quarter final, they were always going to reach! What has changed?
Mayo beat yet another 2022 Division One team for the second week in a row (Monaghan and Kildare) and yet were widely criticised by all of us in the media. Mayo’s currency is at an all-time modern low, it seems. But then they draw Kerry, the favourites, and in 24 hours, the currency markets inexplicably show them riding high again precisely because they are facing such an impossible task. Athleticism, physicality, familiar matchups — bring on the chaos.
The defeated team in that Round Two qualifier game was Kildare. They depart this championship with their stock rising and a sense of a team going in the right direction. Even though they lost the game by squandering a five-point lead to Mayo with 10 minutes remaining, they somehow get a free pass into 2023.
So is this just the way of the world? Instant results reflecting instant success and gratification? Can we blame this knee-jerk reaction on the so-called snowflake generation? Or is it just further proof of the oldest sporting truism: you are only as good as your last game.
In four fast weeks it will be all wrapped up with a ribbon and a long stemmed rose. Eight teams are left to fight it out but only one can emerge victorious.
[ Jim McGuinness: Armagh driven by vicarious experience ]
What is known right now is that those teams which made the business end last year (namely Mayo, Kerry and Dublin) simply won’t get the job done this time around by doing the same thing. And we can safely predict that of those teams, Kerry and Dublin will not be doing the same thing this summer. The jury is out, for lack of evidence, on Mayo and what exactly they might be doing.
Kerry, Dublin and Derry look like shoo-ins to come through their respective quarter finals. The true intrigue surrounds the outcome of the Armagh v Galway game. It is the star game of the weekend.
Derry are the interesting newcomer. A question posed immediately after their Ulster win concerned their ability to replicate their defensive type of game plan in Croke Park, in a different atmosphere to the suffocating arena of the northern game. Where there’ll be a faster surface, a larger playing surface and a completely different opponent with a playing style very much their own.
Nobody was legislating for them being drawn against Clare in the last eight when these questions were asked. So Derry could well prevail without having to address them. Clare do not possess enough athletes and hard-hitters to know if the Derry game will travel. Clare have done wonderfully well to make it to this stage, but for Derry the game represents a free pass.
Dublin got their free pass too. Cork are at a point of inflection, having slid down on a negative curve for perhaps the past six years or so (I often mark their ‘fall off the cliff moment’ to be a 2017 Division One game against a newly promoted Roscommon team when they were abject in a shocking defeat in Pairc Ui Rinn). Their trajectory is rising, slowly, incrementally but nowhere yet at where it needs to be.
Dublin, the lone Leinster survivors have arrived at this juncture by virtue of wins over ... Wexford (Division Four next year), Meath (Division Two next year), Kildare (Division Two next year) and now Cork another Division Two team in 2023. No fault of theirs of course, but proof again of the daftness of the system.
[ If Gaelic football’s banjaxed it’s the kind of banjax that’s sure to endure ]
I was home in Mayo late last week chatting to a room of older men (and a few women) about men’s health and on the issue of minding one’s mind. The unspoken fact of course was that a burst by the Mayo county team over the next few weeks would do more than an ocean of talks and workshops and seminars. A win over Kerry might see the waiting rooms empty out for anything up to a year! It’s always an elixir in Mayo.
And while I could find nobody who gave the green and red a serious chance, I’ve a note to self that states ‘Mayo are Still There’. The end of that note has a scribbled line ... “There for the taking”. We shall see. But it would be their most audacious win to date. Arguably.
No, Armagh and Galway is the true cliffhanger. There is so little evidence to separate them. Both teams took different but character-building approaches to get to where they are. And both look to be the most dangerous of the outsiders remaining.
They have strong forward lines with Galway’s defence yet to be tested in a way that Armagh’s has. On the goalkeeping front, Armagh’s Ethan Rafferty looks the better which is saying something seeing as he’s not a goalkeeper by nature!
The Armagh bench looks stronger than Galway’s too: Paddy Burns is likely to return, Conor Turbitt is very decent and Ross McQuillan got a trot early on in the Ulster championship. If Connaire Mackin makes it back in time, then this is a serious advantage to the northern team.
What can Galway bring that we have not seen yet? I feel it will be their traditional ability to show substantial improvement from the province to the All-Ireland series. This is a quality established in the middle of the last century and one they have generally built on in the intervening decades.
And it is here that the potential for significant improvement from players is quite likely — Matthew Tierney, Cillian McDaid, Rob Finnerty, Johnny Heaney, Michael Daly, Dylan McHugh and Kieran Molloy are now established on the provincial ladder and they and their county are waiting patiently to announce themselves on the national stage.
Likewise, their superstars — Shane Walsh, Damien Comer and Paul Conroy — are expected to give career statement performances in Croke Park. And Galway often tend to get that type of return from new players in Croke Park simply because they enter the arena booted and suited in the fundamentals of the game (excellent skill levels: both hands, both feet, good timing and avoidance skills) and only have to deal with the pressures of the day to excel. There is usually no expectation on the football side of the game that will prove too much for them.
So, we are back, then to the fine margins: an injury, an official’s call, the bad break of a bouncing ball, a hawk-eye call that goes against ... the stuff against which a team cannot legislate.
Páidí Ó Sé famously said “a grain of rice is going to tip the scales” to determine the winners from the losers. What is often left out is what he added if victory was to be theirs, “you’ll need to be steely tough upstairs ... willing to break your gut.”
That is always true. And the winners this weekend and in the weeks ahead will have to do all those things. But it is impossible to see beyond a Kerry v Dublin semi-final on the strong side and on the other it must be Derry to face either Armagh or Galway.
I’m giving the Galway lads the nod here, meaning the four winners of the provinces- the traditional path to progress- will be left standing when the dust clears.