Ciarán Murphy: All-Ireland outcomes are thrillingly uncertain
There is every chance this wonderful summer has a few more surprises left to throw at us
Clare captain Gary Brennan leads his team out. File photograph: ©INPHO/Donall Farmer
The games are coming thick and fast now. Back in the dim and distant 20th-century, teams were knocked out of the championship at a speed broadly similar to the haste with which Peter Jackson bade farewell to characters in the Lord of the Rings trilogy . . . which is to say, each one granted a final orgy of goodbyes so lengthy that fans could be forgiven for thinking they were taking part in an examination of the limits of the human bladder.
Playing week-on-week back then just never happened – the idea of your local newspaper reporting on your team’s latest game while previewing their next in the same issue was completely unheard of.
As a fan, you were usually given a full week to digest every last crumb of information from your last game, a week or two of peaceful reflection, and then another week of build-up before the next step in the journey. The naming of the team at the start of game-week was just the beginning of the festivities.
Moving at that sedate pace made a four-month, five-game campaign to win an All-Ireland title the sporting equivalent of a driving holiday on the French Riviera - hugely relaxing and enjoyable in the main, with a number of bumper hedonistic stop-offs.
And when the championship consisted of just one or two games every weekend from the start of July onwards, it was easy to monopolise everyone’s attention.
Nowadays, this is the meatiest part of the summer. In May, we pay inordinate attention to Ulster football quarter-finals like, for instance, Monaghan versus Fermanagh, which got the full live TV treatment this year.
In effect, there are at least four games on this coming Saturday alone that are more evenly matched, involve more novel pairings, have more at stake, and that aren’t even going to be featured on TV.
It’s never fun to get knocked out of the championship on a weekend like this.
There are two massive games on Sunday - the Connacht football final, and the Munster hurling final. Two big hurling matches in Thurles on Saturday evening will eat up most of Saturday’s headlines .
Amidst all that, in the race for the football title we will quietly say goodbye to Westmeath or Armagh, Cavan or Tipperary, and Meath or Donegal, who will only be granted two minutes of a reporter talking over disembodied footage on The Sunday Game.
All of those teams are in the qualifiers for a reason, but they’re big teams.
In the last 18 months of league and championship, we’ve seen a lot of all six of them, and even the moderately-interested neutral fan would probably be able to name six or seven players from either team. But three of them will slink off the stage on Saturday.
Perhaps the brief post-match interview will see a manager step down – maybe he’ll wait a few weeks and step down when the media attention will be even quieter. But that will be it. A summer that might have begun with, at the very least, an ambition to reach a provincial final, will be put to the sword with barely a word passed.
That is the nature of the qualifiers, and the speed with which a year can end is dizzying. Picture the scene in Mayo this week.
Trying to pick apart what went on in their match against Derry in Castlebar last Saturday evening would be a college dissertation in itself - one part rigorous data analysis, two parts self-flagellation - but Mayo now find themselves preparing for the scrap of their lives in Ennis against Clare.
Clare themselves rubber-stamped their position as a top 12 team by ruthlessly disposing of Laois in Portlaoise last Saturday. They have a shot at one of the big guns in their home ground on Saturday, a match that could propel them even farther up the hierarchy.
It’s not even the county’s biggest game of the weekend, because on Sunday the hurlers are attempting to win their first Munster title since 1998.
Galway won one provincial championship last weekend, and could win another this Sunday.
Donegal are still obviously not clear of the mental rubble lying around after their demolition at the hands of Tyrone, and yet dazed and confused they must go to Navan on Saturday to try and clear their heads, and, like they did last weekend against Longford, find a way to stay in the big dance.
The story for the rest of the summer is still gloriously unclear for many of the teams in action this weekend, and certainly the Tipperary and Kilkenny hurlers and Mayo and Donegal didn’t expect to be facing do-or-die games this early in the year.
We should be thankful that there’s every chance this wonderful summer has a few more surprises left to throw at us.