Ciarán Murphy: Football championship trumping hurling in every way

While there has been bad games in both, the football carries more significant storylines

Cork’s William Egan tackles Lee Chin of Wexford during round two of the All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship qualifiers. Photo: Donall Farmer/Inpho

Cork’s William Egan tackles Lee Chin of Wexford during round two of the All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship qualifiers. Photo: Donall Farmer/Inpho

 

There comes a time during every major soccer tournament, usually at around the last 16 stage, when the initial thrill of three games a day has passed and you realise that this may not, after all, be the all-singing, all-dancing festival of football you had rather foolishly come to expect. Ten days’ worth of empty pizza boxes and beer bottles cannot hide the fact that you have eschewed family and relationships and work for rather substandard fare.

But in the absence of true entertainment, what you’re looking for are stories: new faces, new names, new heroes.

Euro 2016 may not have had too many good games, but it had Iceland, it had Wales, it had Irish lads singing lullabies on trains, it had Ronaldo’s injury in the final – and subsequent transformation into Bob Paisley. These were stories that grabbed people’s attention, and it can mask a multitude. The Gaelic football season so far has quite a few very good games, a couple of very high-profile bad games, but it has also has storylines.

The wins last week of Clare and Tipperary may not mean the most competitive games this weekend, or the biggest crowd in Croke Park, but they are huge stories in their own right. It helps that they play in a style that’s easy to like, but they’re not the classic underdog story either. Underdogs usually unite their fanbase and feed off the energy that their status provides them.

Liam Kearns’s and Colm Collins’ biggest challenge in their jobs hasn’t come from Kerry and Cork – it’s come from within. They’ve had to fight against a system inside their own borders that is institutionally biased to their disadvantage.

The thought that there would be GAA people in Fermanagh that would rather their footballers didn’t progress to the quarter-finals last year is unthinkable. Can the same be said in Tipperary and Clare?

Second Captains

That war being waged against enemies both foreign and domestic has drawn people to them. The defiance with which both managers have talked about the challenges they’ve faced in trying to get a team believing in itself, and a county believing in that team, is inspiring.

The casual fan is being introduced to Gary Brennan (an overnight sensation after eight years of consistent brilliance) and Mikey Quinlivan, Gordon Kelly and Conor Sweeney – brilliant footballers who are only now getting the chance to showcase their ability on a national level.

And therein lies the major problem with the hurling championship this year. There haven’t been any good games, but there haven’t been any stories either. Who is the breakout star of the championship so far? John McGrath? Jonjo Farrell? Anyone who’s been watching TG4 over the last couple of winters knew those two lads pretty well by the time this summer came around.

When Wexford beating the worst Cork team in recent memory is the biggest upset of the summer, you know you’ve got problems.

Waterford’s style of play is two years old, but is still the major topic of conversation from this summer’s action. Galway didn’t even have the decency to spice up their precise method of losing to Kilkenny in the Leinster final, instead going with the tried and trusted method of a barnstorming first half followed by a rather more sobering second half.

As a Galway-born son of a Waterford man, it does me no favours to say it – but a loss for one or even both of our eventual winners on Sunday would have done the championship no harm at all.

Clare haven’t played in Croke Park since the All-Ireland final replay in 2013 (Imagine telling Podge Collins that thrilling Saturday evening three years ago that the next time he’d play in Croker would be in 2016 . . . and it’d be with the footballers.), but a chance for Davy to go toe-to-toe with Cody as Clare manager would’ve been something we haven’t seen before in championship hurling – a belated start to the rivalry we all thought would come to define this decade back in the winter of 2013.

What we’re left with instead is a repeat of last year’s semi-finals, with Waterford’s confidence still very shaky after that Munster final mismatch. Kilkenny are not renowned for giving a sucker an even break, and I fear for Derek McGrath’s team.

And then it’s up to Galway or Tipperary to try and reverse a series of devastating, damaging All-Ireland final losses to Kilkenny . . . and we know how that story usually ends.

I’m a positive guy, and even after the dullest of soccer tournaments, I hold out hope that a classic final will paper over the cracks – almost exclusively a forlorn hope, it must be said. For all Galway’s endeavour last weekend, I still think Tipperary and Kilkenny are capable of giving us the finale a season like this scarcely deserves.

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