Ordinarily, you wouldn’t be getting too excited about a weekend of league semi-finals.
There have been years when teams would do a heavy block of training – I’m talking barbaric stuff, crying for momma by the end of it type of thing – and management would nearly have to be reminded that they have to throw out a 15 for a league semi-final at the end of it. Nobody’s year ever depended on what happened in a league semi-final.
Off the top of your head, would you be able to say which years had them and which didn’t? Not a hope. Some years it was straight into a final, some years there might even be quarter-finals to negotiate somewhere along the way.
You’d play them in early April and it could be the third week of June before you had a championship match to worry about. There was no link whatsoever between them and the real stuff.
It’s a different story this year. Go down through the divisions – between league semi-finals and relegation play-offs, there isn’t a game that doesn’t matter on some level this weekend. Even if the finals aren’t going to be played, you’re still talking about serious games for just about everybody. The GAA might have fallen on this format by accident but in fairness it has left everyone with something to play for.
Even more crucially, there’s no time lag worth talking about between now and championship. It leaves no real room for shadow boxing or experimenting. The time for learning on the job is gone now, realistically.
Half the teams playing this weekend have only two games left in their year – this one and the first round of the championship. If you’re not going full pelt over the next fortnight or three weeks, it’s seven or eight months before you get another shot at it.
It’s a mistake to think of this weekend as just the last round of league games. I get the sense that people are so conditioned to thinking of the league as a completely separate thing from the championship that they feel as if there’s loads of time yet to get things sorted.
You’d hear people talking about the Kerry defence and going: “Well, they’ll have to work on that for the summer.” And you’re thinking, “Look outside – summer’s here!”
I don’t think anyone’s in a position right now to try out somebody new or to give some of the older fellas an afternoon in out of the sun. Even though it feels like the season only started five minutes ago, there has to be a level of urgency in everything teams do at this stage.
If you have a good idea for your kick-out strategy, you’d want to have it fairly well stress-tested by now. If you have half a notion of switching your midfielder to full-forward and you haven’t tried it already, it’s probably too late to be able to analyse the full effect of it. In other years, a league semi-final would be a grand place to try something. If it worked, great. If it didn’t, well nobody died.
You can’t do that this weekend. These games are, to all intents and purposes, championship games. Everyone got their taste last winter of what a knock-out championship is like. It focused everyone’s minds. If you go into the last weekend of June or the first weekend of July without all your bases covered, it’s all over before you’ve got your feet under you.
Summer football is a different sport to winter football. It takes different attributes. The ball moves faster, it sticks better, it goes further. You have to make different adjustments to when and how you kick the ball. You have to get to the point of being able to make those decisions automatically. The faster you think, the harder you are to stop.
There's no such thing as a bad win over Dublin, no matter how it comes about
I used to do a kicking drill in the summer in Killarney where I would come onto the ball and shoot from just past the 45. I wanted to be like a golfer taking out a particular club from the bag and knowing exactly how far it would travel with a full strike. I didn't want to be taking a bit off it or forcing it – I wanted to hit that spot on the pitch and know that all it would take was a clean kick and I should score.
But when it came around to the winter time, I stopped doing it. That wasn’t my game in the winter months. On soft pitches, in wind and rain, Kerry had enough scorers inside who needed me to get them the ball to win league games. I would have only been annoying myself – and them – trying to kick points like that in February. The time to perfect those kicks was June to September.
Last year's championship was played in league conditions. Even Croke Park, as beautiful as that pitch is, behaves in a different way in the winter than it does in summer. It cut up more than usual, it was slippier than it's ever been. The fog came rolling in one night, the rain came down sideways another. Everything about it was the opposite of championship.
And now it has all flipped on its head again. You have a league weekend coming up that has a championship feel. This is summer football. There’s no low-scoring slugging matches. No games decided by who gets the gale behind them in the first half and builds up a score. If you’re good enough now to catch the eye, you’ll probably be good enough when it all kicks off in a fortnight’s time. If you’re not, you won’t be.
There’s no room for excuses from here on out. Plenty of lads have picked up injuries as a result of the short amount of preparation time but to some extent, that’s the cost of doing business this year.
You could maybe ease yourself back in over the first week or two but the there’s no room for 75-per-cent efforts now. Nobody is going to get a whole pile fitter from here on out. What you are now, you are for the summer.
The upshot of it all will be some serious games this weekend, even if they might not have been that big a deal in other years. Dublin against Donegal in Cavan on Saturday night is an obvious one. Donegal have had plenty of years where they found themselves in the knock-out stages of the league by default and have barely broken a sweat when they got there. I can't see that being the case here.
For one thing, Donegal have looked very committed throughout the league. Playing without Michael Murphy has done them no harm at all – they're going to have to get used to it some day so why not start now?
His influence on them is still massive – you can see him leading the way during the water breaks, driving home the points they had been making to each other in training, cajoling fellas and talking them through what’s needed. You can see what he still means to them. Nobody is wandering off or picking at his boots while Murphy is talking.
But more to the point, Donegal will want to use Dublin as a benchmark for what they've done so far this year. They've had three games against the best teams in Ulster but all those teams know what to expect from each other at this stage. There are no shocks or surprises between Donegal, Tyrone, Monaghan and Armagh.
A game against the Dubs is different. It’s a chance to see what’s going on out in the rest of the world. But it’s also a chance to take a scalp. There’s no such thing as a bad win over Dublin, no matter how it comes about. But especially if they managed to pull it off this close to championship. You couldn’t send away for a better launchpad for the Ulster championship.
The one thing Donegal can be sure of is that Dublin will send out the artillery against them.
Stephen Cluxton has been slow to come back this year but read through the teamsheets from the first three games and you can see how seriously they're taking it. Look who has started every game – Brian Fenton, James McCarthy, Ciarán Kilkenny, Con O'Callaghan, Niall Scully, Davy Byrne, Cormac Costello.
The likes of Kerry, Galway, Tyrone and Monaghan have to make their mark this time around, otherwise that's two years of football gone in the blink of an eye
Depending on whether Dean Rock comes back in for Costello, that’s the meat of the Dublin team. The winning and losing of the All-Ireland will come down to that core group. None of them are taking a day off here and there, nobody is phoning it in. Con has probably been the player of the league, Fenton and Kilkenny never take a minute off, McCarthy is the same animal he’s been for a decade, Scully is the engine that never turns off.
That list of players who have gone for it in every game tells you that Dublin aren’t taking this league anyway lightly. They see it as an extension of the championship this year, a chance to build themselves up to taking a run at a seventh All-Ireland in a row. And if that’s the way they’re doing it, nobody else can afford to go any less hard at it.
Because time has never moved quicker in the football championship than in the past nine months. Teams that got knocked out of last year’s championship at the first attempt are under huge pressure here. The likes of Kerry, Galway, Tyrone and Monaghan have to make their mark this time around, otherwise that’s two years of football gone in the blink of an eye.
No back-door run, no second chance. You either do it in the next month or you stand there having to explain what you did with two years of management.
It’s not fair, given everything that has happened. But it’s the way it is. And it starts this weekend.