Hard as it is to credit, the opening championship week will be with us in a fortnight. Part of the disorientation is the time of year. The clocks haven’t even gone back yet and the football league has yet to be finalised.
The one incontrovertible is that the upcoming championship is wide open and whereas there are four months between now and the All-Ireland, on current evidence half a dozen counties will feel capable of being the last team standing.
We’re coming out of as elitist a two decades as football has ever experienced. Three counties have won 18 of the 20 championships (Dublin eight, Kerry six and Tyrone four) with just Cork and Donegal intruding.
Any of those dominant counties – the last three All-Ireland winners – could conceivably win again but there are others: Derry, Galway and Mayo, entertaining ambitions of their own.
The league began in a blaze of speculation about the cut-throat prospects of Division Two. Which two teams would finish in relegation places and be banished from the land of Sam Maguire? Which others might be compromised by a low placing in the event of a Bolshevik uprising by downtrodden counties in the provincial championships?
Instead, the main issues in the division were largely done and dusted with a week to spare. Limerick and Clare drop out and Derry head up whereas Dublin at least have a ‘must win’ conclusion against the league’s least expected success story, Mickey Harte’s Louth.
Reaction to the schedules when announced included disappointment that Dublin’s Croke Park finale would be against Louth – rather than someone a bit more box-office – and yet it has turned out to be a promotion playoff, albeit with the Leinster champions 1-14 favourites.
That would leave Division Two between Dublin and Derry, an echo of nine years ago when the same counties contested the Division One final. That season Derry actually beat the then All-Ireland champions in Celtic Park by a comfortable six points but some weeks later Dublin took revenge by 3-19 to 1-10.
Such a radical reversal is unlikely but it would give an interesting read on where the counties stand given the Croke Park factor and Derry’s difficulties in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final – assuming the Dubs don’t become the latest Leinster county to get turned over by Louth.
As champions, Kerry are favourites to retain the title but it is a kind of default favouritism based on their status to an extent, but also the grip they have taken on Munster in recent years, winning nine of the last 10.
At present the team is still welcoming back players. All Star Gavin White returned last weekend looking none the worse for his injury lay-off and Diarmuid O’Connor’s reappearance allayed concerns at centrefield.
Much will be expected of the Cliffords, Footballer of the Year David and All Star Paudie, who have gone around the clock in the past 12 months between winning All-Irelands with county and club and taking little enough down time to rebalance. That will be a challenge.
Jack O’Connor has tended to favour laying the ground for championship by winning the league and although he has appeared to disavow any need to so again this year, an additional match in Croke Park, especially for a team that is still reassembling its best players, is generally welcome given the immediate absence of high-stakes championship fixtures.
“I think it is critical,” he told The Irish Times in 2014, at a time when he was Kerry minor manager. “The bottom line even as late as 2012 when we were beaten by Mayo in the semi-finals, I really felt we could have done with another match.
“You find out more about yourself in those games, what options you have. The longer a county team stays together the better.”
A win in Salthill on Sunday would position Kerry for a possible defence of their league title in a repeat of last year’s final.
First they have to get past Galway, who pushed them all the way in last year’s All-Ireland final. Pádraic Joyce’s team have been hampered by the loss of defenders Kieran Molloy and Liam Silke, a current All Star. Shane Walsh is just back from hibernation and in need of matches.
Galway have been resilient during the campaign, losing just once and they don’t have a championship fixture for the best part of a month, against Mayo or Roscommon.
With all of the psychodrama surrounding the league final and its proximity to championship, would Galway prefer to keep their powder dry or lay down a marker with their neighbours in advance of a possible Connacht semi-final?
Mayo, for their part, have handled the campaign in a very straightforward manner, never faltering at the prospect of a league final just a week before their championship begins against another Division One team, Roscommon.
Along with Derry, the only unbeaten side in the league to date, Kevin McStay’s team have built momentum both in terms of development – including a persuasive deployment of Aidan O’Shea – and results to reach the final with a week to spare.
How they approach this Sunday will have a bearing on the relegation battle, as visitors Monaghan need a win to have any chance of survival.
In recent weeks, the 2021 champions Tyrone have revived with wins over Kerry and Monaghan to give themselves an outside chance of reaching the final. First they must defeat Armagh, opponents who beat them in both league and championship last year, so motivation won’t be an issue in Omagh next Sunday.
Overall, the league might not be top of anyone’s agenda but with championship hurtling down the tracks, how counties are playing at this stage of the competition has never been more important.