Keith Duggan: Jury's out on grand Super 8 experiment
Hard to know if new competition will invigorate championship or kill it stone dead
Galway’s Patrick Sweeney fires home his side’s goal against Kerry at Croke Park. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
The GAA fraternity will have to learn to think of the Super 8s as a play in three acts – with nothing much decided in the first.
At the end of the inaugural Super 8s round in Croke Park, Galway recorded their first championship win over Kerry in 53 years, Tyrone had a tonne of fun in piling up 4-24 and Dublin, the All-Ireland champions, just keep on keeping on. But winners and losers left with a sense that the real drama lies ahead.
There may have been moments when the people who dreamed up the new idea were elated by its potential and other times when they knew just how Dr Frankenstein felt just after the monster came to life. After the opening weekend, it was possible to argue that the Super 8s system will invigorate the football championship and equally possible to believe that it may kill it stone dead.
It all depends on what happens next. The new system has had the most startling impact on Kerry, with all roads leading to Clones next weekend. Eamonn Fitzmaurice wasn’t sure why his team had failed to fire against Galway but he didn’t believe that the three-game system had influenced their approach,
“No. I don’t think so. Certainly not the way we were approaching it. It was very much: this is championship. You can’t approach it on a league basis and look at it on scoring permutations. So no; a safety net going up to Clones fighting for your life is a questionable safety net.”
And it is true that this was billed as the All-Ireland championship and it looked like the championship. But for long periods on both days, it felt like the league. When the house is full, Croke Park is a brilliant venue but on weekends like this it is about as raucous as a mid-afternoon meeting of the local knitting club.
In fact, those clacking needles would have added to the atmosphere. Dublin put Donegal to the sword in a businesslike way in front of 55,000 people on Saturday night while on Sunday afternoon, the cream of Kerry and Galway did little to hurt the viewing figures of the World Cup final in Moscow.
Both counties boast some of the most exciting attacking talents in the contemporary game but found themselves bamboozled by a wet, misty afternoon and the odd atmosphere of lethargy in the stadium.
It was as if both sides were gripped by a fear of losing this opening game of the series rather than being liberated by the thought of just going to win it. Some 30,000 supporters sat in the drizzle under wan floodlights, waiting for the game to spark.
As it was, the day was overshadowed by a grim-looking injury to Paul Conroy, who was stretchered off the field with a double leg break after clattering into Seán O’Shea as both men slid along the greasy surface. Conroy’s courage has been a factor of this championship and this is the second significant injury he has suffered in the campaign.
At least his efforts weren’t in vain and over the last 20 minutes Galway, enjoyed surging belief and energy levels, led by the artful Ian Burke and Shane Walsh in the front line. Walsh’s startling turn of speed set up Patrick Sweeney for the breakaway goal that gave Galway their first championship win here since they celebrated the All-Ireland final back in 2001.
It finished 1-13 to 1-10, with David Clifford’s late, scrambled goal leaving Kerry close on the scoreboard only.
“It was cagey enough,” Kevin Walsh said of a listless opening half which produced just three scores per side after half an hour. “But I was happy with the second half and how they pushed on.”
The Galway manager made light of the historic aspect of the win, breaking a hoodoo going back to 1965. That’s understandable; Kerry may have been beaten, but they are not out. Elsewhere, Monaghan enjoyed a 0-15 to 1-10 win over Kildare in a physically gruelling match that sets them up for a unique meeting with Kerry next Sunday afternoon.
“We are still in the championship,” said Fitzmaurice with optimism. “We have a tough game up in Clones. We are fighting for our lives. But if this was the old system and we brought this level of performance then we were out. We have another chance.”
And that was exactly it.
Nothing was decided here. Word reached Croke Park of smoke and history rising over Thurles as Limerick savoured their first hurling championship victory over Kilkenny in almost half a century. That’s the stuff of the All-Ireland, clean elation and heartbreak. The opening weekend of football’s new era could not give that to the public.
At least not yet.