There is always a temptation to believe that we live in historic times. This is different, however – there is good reason to see the 2017 GAA football championship as being both potentially and actually era-defining.
It is of course historic that Dublin are on the verge of a third successive All-Ireland title for the first time in 94 seasons but equally with the changes voted in at this year’s congress, next year will see the GAA adopt its most ambitious championship reform since the qualifiers were introduced 16 years ago.
If we accept that as precedent, the likelihood is that the hurling championship will also change in the not too distant future and therefore this summer is going to be the last organised along present structures.
Dublin’s triple bid is the headline business on the field. Only one county has been this position in the last 25 years – Kerry in 2008 – so that in itself is unusual, but the sense of anticipation created by Dublin’s defeat in the league final has intensified interest in this year’s championship.
Of course no-one wants to get carried away by April’s league final but history and tradition teach us that once Kerry are given the slightest encouragement, and particularly with a young team, there may be consequences to follow.
Both of the leading counties decided that they would have to approach things differently this year. Dublin delayed their return at the start of the season and in their absence a development team won the O’Byrne cup, whereas Kerry knew that the departure of the last members of the great team of the last decade necessitated the introduction of youthful replacements, who ultimately have reinvigorated the team’s attitude.
Genie out of bottle
The governing considerations at this stage of the summer are whether Dublin’s forwards – most of whom have been fully engaged on what is now an eight-year odyssey – still have the snap to spearhead an All-Ireland campaign and if not, can the raw talent emerging behind them step up to the mark and whether Kerry’s league win has uncorked the genie that throughout history has by and large comfortably maintained superiority over their city rivals.
Of the other counties competing at the very top level, there are questions. Mayo's via dolorosa continued last year and although they have presented relentlessly as contenders – defeated in a replay by the eventual champions in the last three years – it's hard to sustain that type of challenge without bringing something different to the table.
Tyrone started the league well and should have ended Dublin's unbeaten run a few matches before it became a record
In this year’s league there were no great signs of a restructured threat and although the same was true of last year, it doesn’t get any easier without the nurture of success heading into a seventh season of the great crusade.
The two leading Ulster counties are Tyrone and Donegal, with Monaghan tucked in behind but if Conor McManus continues to struggle for fitness they won't keep pace. After the league it looks like advantage Donegal. Rory Gallagher has some very talented under-21s on his panel and the potential of Jason McGee, Ciarán Thompson and others looked very encouraging for a manager replacing another tranche of retirees.
Tyrone started the league well and should have ended Dublin's unbeaten run a few matches before it became a record. Connor McAliskey was lost to the cruciate curse and an already wheezing attack continued to find the going difficult. Only Cavan scored less in Division One and for those who feel that Mickey Harte is stifling the natural talent of the forwards with a claustrophobic defensive set-up, maybe he is simply adjusting to reality.
Lack of bite
Overshadowing the championship is the lack of competitive bite in the provinces. Ulster is traditionally abrasive and Mayo are now under threat in Connacht, but Leinster and Munster don’t look any more open to discussion than they were last year.
Kerry’s domination – chasing a seventh successive title – comes at a time when Cork are coming at history from an entirely different angle. Their expected Munster semi-final against Tipperary would come 12 months after a first loss in the fixture since 1944. Should they lose again, it would be the first time in 77 years that Cork have lost in successive championships to anyone apart from Kerry.
Galway are potentially one of those but need to confirm their superiority over Mayo
Credit should be given to Liam Kearns and Tipperary's development work in football and their incremental success in achieving promotion after last year's history-making trip to the All-Ireland semi-finals. It doesn't benefit the game, however, to welcome a newcomer if one of the traditional counties spirals into decline at the same time.
With the quarter-final round-robin format just a year away, who are the likely candidates for last-eight places? This is going to be a very important championship in identifying the depth of the contenders. Recent All-Ireland quarter-finals have been increasingly uncompetitive and the game needs eight credible counties going into August.
If it is difficult to identify any plausible threat to the established order maybe the interesting task this summer will be to spot what teams are positioning themselves for the future. Galway are potentially one of those but need to confirm their superiority over Mayo.
Ulster provides others: Tyrone have taken one step forward and one step back in recent years and now must defeat one of the top three to achieve real momentum whereas Donegal have also been unable to impact on the game’s elite since their famous win over Dublin three years ago.
For administrative reasons 2017 will be the end of an era but if revolution on the playing fields looks unlikely, the first shots may still be fired.