Rage can be directed at important things again - the 2022 intercounty season

40,000 rumoured to be heading to Croke Park to see what stage the Dubs are at

“The nature of  things means that Dessie Farrell is most likely on a bit of a warning now. His third year in charge could feel a lot like it’s his first.” Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

“The nature of things means that Dessie Farrell is most likely on a bit of a warning now. His third year in charge could feel a lot like it’s his first.” Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

Fill the tank to the brim. Gather up the woollies. Wrap the sandwiches and stop for the sweets. After two years of having Covid on the brain, of thinking within boundaries, of trying to plan without bumping on the health regulations of the day, this weekend you can let it all hang loose. The 2022 intercounty season is underway. The games are back and there’s nothing to stop you going to them.

Weekends come and weekends go but this one is worth marking. All across the country, from Owenbeg to Salthill to Dungarvan, people will get up and go to matches in greater numbers than at any stage since February 2020. By the time the last stragglers leave Omagh on Sunday evening, it’s likely that somewhere north of 120,000 people will have taken in a game somewhere. Old rituals reawakened, old lives reclaimed.

There’s loose talk of over 40,000 heading to Croke Park on Saturday night for Dublin v Armagh. There’s even loose talk of an ambush. Markievicz Park could have its biggest league crowd in decades when Mayo and Donegal come visiting on Sunday. There won’t be room to change your mind in Newbridge when Kildare meet Kerry. Sorry Jack.

No limits on crowd numbers. No social distancing. Nobody wondering about vaccine passes. Wear a mask if you like, don’t if you don’t. Pay through the gates, roar your head off, delight in the fact that your rage can be directed at the important things in life once again.

Like having five wingbacks and not a hatchet man defender among them. Or having a goalie who thinks he’s a cross between David Clifford and Con O’Callaghan. Or, if you’re 30 other counties, just not having David Clifford or Con O’Callaghan at all. Embrace your own, area-appropriate miseries. Welcome your frustration as you would a pined-for friend. Back again, eh? You bastard.

The crowds return to a league where everything has changed and nothing has changed. The best four teams in football are the same now as they were in the spring before the world went mad. Dublin, Kerry, Mayo, Tyrone. The order chops, the rankings change but there remains real need to go looking past that quartet when it comes to dishing out trophies.

You have to go back to 2012 for the last time anyone beyond the big four won a national title. Oddly enough, it happened twice that year, with Donegal’s All-Ireland following Cork’s National League. Feels a long time ago now.

No matter. There is at least a whiff of change in the air, even if it’s only the welcome baby step of Dublin not still being All-Ireland champions. The adrenaline injection provided by Tyrone’s 2021 triumph has made the whole of football sit upright and widen its eyes. Dublin weren’t right at any stage last summer, which is exactly what is supposed to happen at some point in a dominant team’s life cycle. No offence to the city folk but plenty of us were starting to fret that it never would.

So what now? The nature of these things means that Dessie Farrell is most likely on a bit of a warning now. His third year in charge could feel a lot like it’s his first. For all the talk of retirements and a changing of the Dublin guard, only three of the team who started Jim Gavin’s last game have left the stage. Granted, those three are Stephen Cluxton, Jack McCaffrey and Paul Mannion but the fact remains that Farrell still has ammunition at his disposal that other counties can only dream of.

His old Na Fianna clubmate Kieran McGeeney comes calling to HQ tonight, bringing an Armagh team – and crowd – that will fancy an upset. Armagh’s graph has been pointing upwards for a few seasons. On last year’s evidence, Dublin’s has been going the other way. Maybe there’s still an unbridgeable gap between their respective starting points and maybe not. You’ll happily pay the price of admission to find out.

The beauty of the league is that there are storylines at every compass point. Division Two comes freighted with the prospect of falling into the Tailteann Cup if you don’t get your ducks in a row early. Galway and Meath both begin the year with sights set on Division One if there’s anything other than a draw in Salthill tomorrow, one of them will feel the first jingle-jangle of a possible relegation scrap.

Even down in Division Four, there’s juice in the fixtures. It’s only a quirk of geography that has stopped Cavan and Leitrim being the greatest of rivals down the years. They’re brothers from other mothers, kindred spirits separated by a sliver of a provincial boundary. No crowd anywhere in the land will relish the day more than the one gathered in Carrick-on-Shannon.

It’s a day of days for them and for everyone. It’s a cloudburst. It’s a jailbreak. It’s time to get out.

What else would you be at?

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