This weekend, the football championship reaches the halfway point. For the first time in recent weeks it takes centre stage from hurling – even if that feels like a talent show winner following Cirque du Soleil.
Week after week, media and public have vibrated with approval at the Munster hurling championship and its succession of fire-eating performers sequentially outdoing each other while football has plodded along playing the harmonica.
It wouldn’t have taken Nostradamus to predict the most open championship in 25 years. After a long period of rigid hierarchies, the field has been merging partly because of – inter alia – Dublin’s decline, Kerry’s emergence (finally) and the disruptive effects of the pandemic.
Signs have been detectable in the provincial champions, who since 2011 have supplied all of the All-Ireland winners.
In 2020 the return of pure knockout, necessitated by Covid, helped to produce two surprising provincial champions, Tipperary and Cavan, neither of whom was in Division One. And last year, for the first time in normal circumstances since 2010, two of the provincial champions were again from outside of Division One.
Again, this year two of the provincial winners, Derry and Dublin, spent the spring in Division Two. Was this a factor in some underwhelming performances? As Art McRory responded when asked had playing with a bloody bandage around his head “affected” Brian Dooher’s performance in the 1996 All-Ireland semi-final: “Well, it didn’t make him any better.”
Dublin manager Dessie Farrell acknowledged the problem for his team facing Roscommon, a first competitive outing against a Division One team since last July’s All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry.
“We’ve had two decent performances all year, if we’re being frank about it. Maybe three. Operating in Division Two doesn’t tell you an awful lot. The Leinster championship is very much a mixed bag, and today and more games like today will tell us where we’re really at, and make the bookies’ job a bit easier.”
It ended in Dublin’s first dropped point in three All-Ireland round-robin campaigns.
As recounted by Maurice Brosnan in the Irish Examiner, they endured the ignominy of Roscommon holding the ball for nearly six minutes and 77 passes before concluding with a point from Ciaráin Murtagh – the sort of stuff they used to inflict on other teams during the Jim Gavin era.
The truth is that Dublin haven’t been consistently impressive for a couple of seasons. This championship, they’ve alternated big wins against outclassed opposition with laborious displays against other teams. Waiting for them to find form or catch fire is looking increasingly like a leap of faith rather than simply the virtue of patience.
Maybe they are affected by the low stakes in the matches to date, but even with the boost of a much-strengthened team, Dublin are running out of time to rediscover consistent form and find a sustainable top gear.
Derry’s recent performances perhaps reflect the loss of manager Rory Gallagher and the disruption caused. They went from powering past Monaghan in the Ulster semi-final to a diffident display in Clones against Armagh, from which they escaped thanks to the excellence of Shane McGuigan and a superior penalty routine.
Then last week, at home they took on Monaghan again and were outplayed for long periods, even though they rallied and it was their opponents who had to conjure an equaliser.
Kerry, as has been well covered, stumbled to defeat against Mayo in Killarney and, of this year’s provincial winners, only Galway landed a clean punch – and that was facilitated by Tyrone losing Frank Burns to a red card at an early stage.
Nothing defines “open championship” more concisely than inconsistency, and the top teams – not just Dublin and Derry with their suboptimal preparation in Division Two – have mostly struggled to string together successive displays of quality football.
Kerry were lauded for their steely destruction of Clare in the Munster final but were unable to cope with a well-rested and reinvigorated Mayo two weeks later. Mayo themselves had won the league and lost to Roscommon in Connacht within eight days.
Galway huffed and puffed a little but have at least won all of their championship outings – the only team of the 16 in Sam Maguire that can claim that even at this early stage.
The big difference between this championship and the All-Ireland round robins of four and five years ago is the lack of competitive tension. Teams have to strain hard to get eliminated. There’ll be no last-day dramatics like Donegal-Tyrone or Mayo-Donegal or Galway-Monaghan.
So far the matches have probably been more competitive than expected but with only four teams disappearing this side of the knockout phase, the most urgent prompt for teams is to try to top the group and guarantee a fortnightly run-in to the All-Ireland.
The Munster hurling championship has in the midst of its panic-attack competitiveness hinted at one ominous possibility: that Limerick are slowly reassembling their A game and may be on track to realise all of the forebodings they inspired when romping to the league title.
Can the Sam Maguire round robin fulfil the same restorative function for Kerry or some team, or will it take the commencement of the knockouts?
Twenty years ago, the All-Ireland qualifiers had that born-again effect on Galway (2001), Tyrone (2005 and 2008) and Kerry (2006 and 2009), who had lost their way in the provinces but unearthed the critical fix that relaunched their season.
It’s testament to the intrigue of the football championship that for all the stridency of the bookies’ prices, no one can be quite sure what team are going to find the decisive bounce.