And on the 147th day, football rose again. Well, sort of. While clubs north of the Border have wasted no time in getting games going over the past week, the intercounty giant will stretch and yawn and see if its legs still hold him from this afternoon onwards. It starts with Mayo v Down at two o’clock and hurtles all the way to the last Sunday in August. Buckle up.
If the first week of the hurling league is anything to go by, we will have our usual fill of strange results and even stranger reactions. Mind you, it will have to go some way to match the fallout from the new advantage shenanigans, wherein a rule change brought in with hurling predominantly in mind has somehow been blamed on the big ball game. Some folk evidently know as much about football as they do the sleeping habits of the Ayatollah.
No matter. When we last checked in, football was in much the same place it had been throughout the previous half decade. The Dubs were still the game’s north star, with everyone else mostly blinded by the light and a few sides gamely trying to catch a hold of it. Fundamentally, it’s difficult to see much change on the horizon.
We did, of course, say the same last year and look what happened. A league that ended with Kerry lifting surely the least-heralded national title in the county's long history. A championship that found Cavan and Tipperary rising to undreamt-of heights in the provinces. Yes, it all ended with Stephen Cluxton on the steps of the Hogan Stand as usual. But it was quite the carpet ride to get there.
Hindsight is going to be the go-to expert on most issues this year, confident verdicts offered only in retrospect
There’s no real telling what shape or make the 2021 football league will take on for itself. Splitting the divisions into localised mini-leagues will add an air of unreality to the whole enterprise – the Ulster teams in particular are going to see way too much of each other over the coming months. There’ll be bluffs and double-bluffs everywhere you look, so much so that it won’t be unknown for the occasional bluffer to lose track of who is supposed to be getting bluffed in the first place.
Division One North looks especially unforgiving, with Tyrone, Donegal, Armagh and Monaghan set to lock each other in a claw grip for a month before really putting the squeeze on come the Ulster Championship. The most interesting of the four – possibly the most interesting of the 31, full stop – ought to be Tyrone. New management, multiple attacking options, no Mickey Harte for cranky voices to blame their failings on anymore – what's not to like?
The format in the top three divisions hands each team four games, including the initial three and then either a semi-final or a relegation playoff. It’s going to be pretty exacting stuff. A usually reliable league team such as Monaghan, who hold the third-longest tenure in Division One behind Dublin and Kerry, could find themselves on rockier ground than they’re used to when it comes to staying up. But we say that most years too.
Monaghan and Dublin won’t play any home games, of course. Nor will Cork or Down, all four teams having been caught transgressing the Covid training ban. Whether it will make much of a difference, given the ongoing lack of spectators, is another day’s work. Hindsight is going to be the go-to expert on most issues this year, confident verdicts offered only in retrospect.
It’s going to be that sort of league. With only just weeks to go before championship throws in, counties can’t really afford to spend too much time lollygagging through the early games. All the more so with it being a cursed one-and-done championship for the second year in a row.
A team like Galway, who motored through the pre-Covid rounds of the league in 2020 only to find themselves taking a shelling from Mayo upon the resumption, can't afford to get suckered again. Or for, say, a team like Derry who find themselves on the snakepit side of the Ulster draw – Division Three North will surely be regarded by Rory Gallagher as a ticket to getting something out of 2021.
Through it all, we should spare a thought for London, exiled in every sense of the word. Kept out of the league due to Covid travel rules and with no accommodation for them in the championship for the second year in a row. Assuming they’re allowed back in for spring 2022, they’ll have gone almost two years without a match. It will be a long road back for them, however it shakes out.
In the meantime, for everyone else, it begins. Throw the ball in and get the games on. Another small Lego brick of life clicked back into place.