Here’s to the football championship, the great clanking rust bucket of the Irish sporting summer

Everyone assumes it’s between Dublin, Derry and Kerry for Sam Maguire but league form seems a dubious guide and plenty of teams will be ready for an assault when the serious stuff starts in June

The championship is almost never what you think it is. On the night of last year’s All-Ireland final, it seemed obvious to everyone that we were watching the end of something. The Dubs had rounded up all the old gunslingers and steer-ropers, gathered everyone around the campfire for one last, lusty singsong and that was going to be that. Sunset time.

James McCarthy supped on a pint of Guinness at the press conference and all but said he was done. Dessie Farrell had come to the end of his term and the chat all summer was that he wouldn’t be staying on for a fifth season, regardless of results. There was even loose talk circulating that Brian Fenton was packing himself and his life into a camper van and heading off around the world.

None of it happened.

As we pick up the thread again nine months on, it’s probably about time that we learned some lessons about our assumptions. Everyone has an idea in their head about what the 2024 football championship is going to bring and how it’s going to play out. Experience tells us very few of us will be crowing in July about how right we were.


In the mellow comedown from last weekend’s league final, nobody is taxing their brain too extensively in the search for contenders. The All-Ireland will, by all accounts, be won by Dublin, Kerry or Derry – and if it isn’t, we must all hope for the public’s discretion in ignoring the tonnage of pre-championship babble that countenanced no other outcome.

Can it really be that simple? Are we looking at an Occam’s Razor champo, wherein the most straightforward outcomes will come to pass? There are plenty of reasons to assume this is the case.

For one, those are the three teams with the best players. That usually gets it done. David Clifford, Con O’Callaghan and Shane McGuigan are the three most deadly forwards in the game. You can make your arguments for others here and there but really, when it comes down to it, who are you squeezing in ahead of them? Shane Walsh? Too inconsistent. Ryan O’Donoghue? Not quite in that league just yet. Conor McManus? Once, maybe, but he’s 37 this year.

If Derry have progressed, it’s not completely ludicrous to imagine the others might have too

For another, they are the teams with the best managers. Or, at least, the teams with managers who have won the most All-Irelands. Jack O’Connor (four), Mickey Harte (three) and Dessie Farrell (two) have nine All-Irelands between them. The rest of the managers in the championship have two, one each for Brian Dooher and Jim McGuinness.

For a third, there doesn’t appear to be a whole pile between them. The three of them have been beating each other in the biggest games over the past few seasons. Dublin beat Kerry in last year’s final. Kerry beat Derry in the semi-final, just as they had beaten Dublin at the same stage in 2022. Derry beat Dublin three times last Sunday, albeit they needed penalties to get up the steps of the Hogan Stand in the end. Chances are, if and when any two of the three meet this year, there’s not going to be much to choose.

Then again, maybe that’s where the cast-iron argument for our trio starts to show a little rust. As in, if we have three outstanding contenders for the All-Ireland, doesn’t that suggest that maybe we don’t actually have any? One team can be a distance clear of the peloton, as the latter half of the 2010s so clearly illustrated. But the idea of three making a break for it and leaving the rest for dead seems less credible.

There are bound to be a few teams in Ulster, for a start, who are looking at Derry and seeing them as a bridge to the other two rather than a dot off in the distance. Armagh matched them hand for hand in the Ulster final last year when all the chips were in the pot and nobody had anything to hide. Neither Tyrone nor Monaghan are what they were at the start of the decade but get either of them on a going day and Derry would have to be at full gallop to beat them. Donegal are only getting started really under McGuinness but there’s no telling where their ceiling lies.

For all the complaints about what the structure doesn’t deliver, we shouldn’t lose sight of what it does

Derry’s league title ripples out, is the point. Go west and you find Galway and Mayo teams who are well able to tell themselves that if they come with all guns firing, they have little enough to fear. Galway beat Derry in an All-Ireland semi-final 20 months ago. Mayo beat Galway in Salthill and Kerry in Killarney last summer. If Derry have progressed in the meantime – and it seems fairly obvious that they have – it’s not completely ludicrous to imagine the others might have too.

The reality is that nobody is going to know until they know. At this remove, there are just so many imponderables. Certainly, anybody getting overly dogmatic on the back of the league probably needs to go for a walk around the block and think again. So many teams were hobbled by so many missing faces for so many games that their relevance to what’s about to happen must be in question.

On top of which, all the answers are a distance away for now. Everyone is still getting used to the new championship structure, so much so that the guardrails haven’t been established yet. If we think of the championship as the Evolution Of Man picture, it’s difficult to know exactly what point we’re at.

Past the stooped, knuckle-dragging days of one-game-and-you’re-gone, obviously. Past the mutton-chopped, billy-club-on-the-shoulder era of the qualifiers too. These days, we like to think we’re standing up straight, walking with purpose, striding into the future. And yet just about everyone agrees that we’re not quite there yet.

What is clear is that for the top counties, the serious stuff doesn’t properly arise until the last round of the All-Ireland series group stages on the weekend of June 15th/16th. If there was one lesson from the first year of the new structure, it’s you can tread water away until then. As long as the provincial runners-up are in the Sam Maguire, it’s going to be harder for the top 12 or so teams to leave the competition than to stay in it.

But when that final group game comes, you best be ready.

Galway were the most obvious casualties of getting caught on the hop at that juncture in 2023. They went into their match against Armagh in Carrick-on-Shannon as Connacht champions with two wins from two on the board. But their season went up in a puff of smoke – from leading on 68 minutes to losing by a point to a Rory Grugan free. Seven days later they were gone, beaten at home by Mayo.

That seems to be the key to surviving the new format – identifying the true starting line and going on the B of the Bang when the pistol shot rings out. Monaghan’s recovery from being hammered by Derry in Ulster to being level with Dublin with 10 minutes to go in the All-Ireland semi-final was predicated on staying alive in the chaos up to that point. An injury-time leveller against Derry in the group stage, an injury-time winner against Kildare, an injury-time leveller and then penalties against Armagh.

It was breathless, excruciating, championship stuff. For all the complaints about what the structure doesn’t deliver, we shouldn’t lose sight of what it does. Yes, the provincials are outdated but the 2023 Ulster final was a completely thrilling day’s sport, utterly devoid of any argument for deleting it from the Irish sporting landscape.

Yes, it feels silly to spend 24 group matches to get rid of just four teams but that final round was pure, uncut drama. Yes, it seems a bit mad to create a championship of 99 games just to find that Dublin and Kerry are the two best teams in the country but David Clifford v Mick Fitzsimons in late July was something to behold.

Underneath the big show, the Tailteann Cup is maturing into a serious competition. A proper, substantial fixture in the calendar. In two iterations so far, it has delivered eight different teams to the semi-final stage in Croke Park. Every player and manager you talk to down the divisions views it as a key part of their development. It could probably do with a Division Four team making a run at it, just to show it’s not entirely the preserve of Division Two teams slumming it for a year. Keep an eye on Wexford this time around. Maybe.

It’s all maybes. Everywhere you look. Maybe Dublin are flawed champions or maybe they nearly won the league without pressing a third of their championship team into regular service. Maybe Kerry are a one-man team or maybe they’ve nailed down a midfield in Diarmuid and Joe O’Connor and will build out from there. Maybe it’s Derry’s year or maybe they won a league where everyone else had the middle of June circled and were working backwards. Maybe, maybe.

A few idle wishes, as the whole jamboree cranks up for another year. That teams stocked with brilliant forwards – looking at you, Armagh and Roscommon – go out and show them off to best and bravest effect. That any manager who moans about a referee be immediately asked if he himself got anything wrong on the day. That Cork end a lost decade and continue their upward curve.

Most of all – and this isn’t so much an idle wish as a desperate personal request – that somebody in Croke Park changes the lamentable, maudlin balladry that follows every full-time whistle. They didn’t even play The Hills of Donegal last Sunday after the Division Two final, opting instead for Mary of Dungloe. Jesus wept.

Onwards, then. To the football championship. The great, clanking rust bucket of the Irish sporting summer is about to wheeze into life for another four-month chug up and down the country. Find all the fault you like, the road will rise to meet it.

It will come to a stadium near you at some point along the way and for all the groaning and grouching we do about it, on that day it will still feel like something innate and alive and real is landing into town. Something that is ours, something that matters. It will end in Croke Park on the biggest day of the sporting year and the whole country will settle in to bear witness.

We kid ourselves that we know the shape and make of what’s about to happen. But the championship is an old hand at making fools of bumptious knaves and it’s seen our type before.

It will surprise us all yet.