This must have been the strangest weekend in the history of the All-Ireland football championship.
On Sunday evening, I was in Dublin with my son Mark-Anthony and we stopped to watch the French fans celebrating the World Cup final win on O’Connell Street. They were euphoric and raucous and there was a good crowd in Croatian jerseys there as well. It was wonderful and it seemed like a fitting end to the Super 8s – whatever we had been hoping for or expecting just didn’t materialise. Instead of this being the GAA’s gala weekend for Gaelic football, Dublin city responded to events in Moscow.
It was as if nobody quite got what the Super 8s are supposed to be: not the teams, not the supporters, not the media. Nobody. I came away feeling that the whole thing was weird. The atmosphere was subdued. The crowd was small on both days. The quality of football was generally poor with moments of energy and passages of high-quality play.
But I remember noting in the Kerry-Galway game that it sparked into life in the 47th (!) minute. The excitement wasn’t there. It was as if everyone was hedging their bets. It was like an all-star cast that lacked direction. Nobody knew what they were supposed to do. And it made for an underwhelming and listless kind of experience.
I watched The Sunday Game and the Kilkenny-Limerick hurling quarter final came on. And it was like being transported to a different world. The game was fast, it was intense, it was laden with drama, it felt slightly wild and electrifying: everything that we hope for from this word "championship". And Gaelic football can produce those qualities too, at its best.
But this new format created something in the psyche of all eight teams that inhibited that. Look at the scoreline Roscommon conceded. How do you ship 4-24? That was the inaugural Super 8s game. Nobody is going to tell me that if a team is hell-bent and focused on a game that they are going to cough up that kind of a score. It was a staggering scoreline.
Championship football is about putting everything on the line and squeezing every last ounce out of your game. It’s a kind of productive desperation that can make players and teams play slightly beyond their limits. That was absent in the game. This has nothing to do with coaching or tactics. It is 100 percent about mentality and application.
I believe Roscommon went in to give it everything and with full heart and honesty ... you could see that in the early passages of the game. They were there to win, they believed in themselves and they started fairly brightly. But Tyrone ground them down and imposed their pattern of play and it became obvious after a while that they had Roscommon’s number.
Once that happened, Tyrone had them where they wanted psychologically. Now, in a knock-out championship game that would have presented Roscommon with a stark scenario: either we claw our way back up this hill or we are gone. It is over.
But on Saturday, those Roscommon guys couldn't help but know they had a game to come in Hyde Park. That second chance was not a concern in Thurles. It was all about the next second, the next play and doing everything possible just to survive. That is why it was so raw.
At some stage against Tyrone, the realisation occurred in Roscommon minds: well, we have to beat Donegal next week now. Better be sure I am ready for that. And the management may have had the same consideration. At a certain point, you conclude that the game is beyond reach and that it isn't worth chasing. And then the intensity levels and concentrations and even the interest drops. And Tyrone were able to stroll in for that barrage of late scores. And it is very hard to prevent that from happening.
Then you have the Galway-Kerry game on Sunday and with 30,000 people in the stadium on a dull day, the game got off to such a slow-burning start that the crowd fell quiet and we could hear every ball being called for. This can’t have been what was envisaged when this concept was first dreamed up. Kerry-Galway All-Ireland games have a rich history and tradition. There is something seriously wrong if the Super 8s concept is responsible for diluting it to the extent that we saw on Sunday.
Why was there such a lack of intensity? It felt like complacency had afflicted both sides. It was like one of those league semi-finals when neither side is certain if they want to be in the final.
Three points each after half an hour and no particular urgency; two teams just waiting to see how things played out. The terrible injury to Paul Conroy meant a long break in the half and just added to the heavy feeling around the stadium. Paul is a good lad and has given so much to the Galway cause that this was a very rough way to end what had been a terrific season. I wish him well.
But there was a void there; the game was waiting to be seized and Galway eventually capitalised. You could sense a shift in the stadium among the Galway crowd not because the maroon team was doing anything special but with the realisation that Kerry probably weren’t going to make a push, that it was there for Galway.
The question went from how would this host of young Kerry stars would do to the realisation that they now had absolute reliance on David Clifford. He, accidentally, became the go-to man. They needed him to even notionally stay in the contest. And Galway became emboldened and the substitutes had a big impact – Peter Cooke stepped in for Conroy and Patrick Sweeney got the crucial goal.
So Kevin Walsh has been chipping away all the time and they are seeing the marginal gains required. Beating Kerry ticks a box. It is something no Galway team has done in half a century. Are they All-Ireland contenders? In fact, are any of the other seven teams capable of posing a serious challenge to Dublin?
On last weekend’s evidence, the brutal truth is that I didn’t see anyone. I feel Galway have become a hard team to beat and they are adding to their repertoire and confidence levels week by week. They were in control against Kerry for long periods. But I didn’t see enough to convince me they could compete against Dublin in a do-or-die game.
In fact, the collective evidence of the weekend made me feel that retaining the title is more on than ever for Dublin now. Because they aren’t going to meet Mayo this year, the one side who have been bloody-minded enough to put it up to them.
I didn't sense that cussedness in any of the other teams on show this weekend. Kildare fed off the oxygen of Newbridge-or-Nowhere but they couldn't do it off their own oxygen in Croke Park against Monaghan. Tyrone look best-placed to challenge Dublin but until they exorcise last summer's heavy beating, it is difficult to argue on their behalf with conviction.
In fact, the weekend even raised questions about where – and what – Dublin are right now. It was ironic to hear the Donegal supporters booing the Dublin team for their lack of ambition with the ball. It was as if they weren’t interested in scoring for the last 10 minutes. I couldn’t understand what they were at.
The other glaring development in their game is that they are more heavily defensive than ever before. There were times when Dublin had all 15 men behind the ball. There is a myth at large that Tyrone and, to a lesser extent, Galway are the last remaining proponents of the defensive game. That witch-hunt needs to stop.
Dublin are just as defensively oriented when it suits them and Kerry also dropped back in huge numbers during the Galway game. The idea that Dublin are some still some kind of advert for flamboyant attacking – for total football – is a delusion that too many are willing to uphold.
There is a lot of propaganda in the game now and unfair and unbalanced opinion about who is doing what. If defensive systems are going to described as “negative” tactics, then it needs to be acknowledged that Dublin and Kerry are as well-equipped and as willing to employ them as any other team out there.
All we can say about this weekend is that we certainly didn’t get what we had been expecting or hoping for. There was no festival of football. There is a possibility now that the All-Ireland semi-final places will be settled next weekend, leaving the third round essentially meaningless. So in essence, the Super 8s would be reduced to one meaningful round of games – mirroring the quarter-final series but without the immediate thrill and voltage.
It seems clear that the public is circumspect about the new format. Let’s say Dublin reach the All-Ireland final. Well, one of the other seven teams will be there. That means five games to play. That’s a huge expense for any supporter. Little wonder that many will pick and choose their games. This weekend felt like a series of league games for which championship ticket prices were applied.
On a wet Sunday, with the World Cup final on television, many loyal GAA supporters obviously decided to give it a miss. So, apart from anything else, the Super 8s may not be the cash cow that was imagined.
The urgency and interest will be heightened next weekend and the true potential of the new format lies in bringing big championship games on the road.
The GAA felt that the football championship needed this new dynamic.
But right now it feels as if it has to prove itself. It feels as if the idea will be on trial next weekend. Supporters feed off the energy on the field and the Super 8s needs a few special games now if its potential is to be realised.