Time to release the Championship dogs of war

By the time The Sunday Game music strikes up, seven summers will have ended

Antrim hurling manager Darren Gleeson: Dublin in the Leinster Championship is a fish he will feel he can land. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

Antrim hurling manager Darren Gleeson: Dublin in the Leinster Championship is a fish he will feel he can land. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

 

Well, we got there. A month late and a few million euro short, not to mention that some of the best hurlers and footballers in the country are lame or limping or worse. But never mind all that – or at least push it to the side of the plate for now. Championship 2021 begins this afternoon on the strike of three in Navan as Dublin face off against Antrim. Nature is hurling.

It is footballing too, with Limerick throwing in against Waterford in the Gaelic Grounds around the same time.

That none of the four teams will be troubling the programme printers come All-Ireland time only heightens the stakes. For all four panels today is the day. Time to enjoy yourself. It’s later than you think.

This is especially true of the football, of course, where for the second championship in a row it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it job. By the time The Sunday Game music strikes up on Sunday night, seven summers will have ended.

Sligo had to pull out of last year’s championship due to a Covid outbreak in the panel and Mayo are 1/100 to send them to their maker this afternoon. So that’ll be 70 minutes of championship in two years of football. Thanks for coming, lads. Be sure to tell the grandkids.

Given the work intercounty players put in throughout the plague year, forcing another knock-out championship on them is a mean and miserable thing to do. Even if the reasons behind it have their heart in the right place – you wouldn’t hit me with these club fixtures in my arms, would you? – it’s all still deeply unsatisfying.

Terrible for squad development, awful for games promotion, heinously unfair to the counties in the two most competitive provinces. It will leave a smudged page in the history books.

Mismatches

And yet, here we are now. Entertain us. The opening weekend in football is the usual mishmash of mismatches combined with down-the-bill squabbles.

Aside from Mayo, both Kerry and Donegal will be expected to steer a trouble-free course through their openers against Clare and Down respectively. Clare and Down are invited to take such dismissal personally and to go and shock the world. That would be a lot of fun.

In Navan, Mickey Harte and John Maughan face off, 130 winters on their combined backs. They’ve walked the line in All-Ireland finals, they’ve had days and nights where they shocked the world themselves. They have nothing left to prove to anybody.

But they go at it all the same, pushing Louth and Offaly out onto the stage on a Sunday lunchtime in Navan. Proof that they can’t let go of the game. Or maybe that the game won’t let go of them. Same, same.

There is hurling too, all around the place. In Navan today Dublin have a jittery assignment in trying to hold off Darren Gleeson’s coming Antrim team. The northerners have been off the scene for a long time, and whatever they achieve this summer will still only amount to baby steps. But Dublin in the Leinster Championship is a fish they will feel they can land. Do it and whatever happens next, 2021 will have been a nourishing summer.

Key men

The game of the weekend is tomorrow in Thurles, where Waterford take on Clare. Both sides are down key men through injury – Shane O’Donnell and Aaron Fitzgerald for Clare, Conor Prunty, Jamie Barron and long-term absentee Tadhg De Búrca for Waterford.

But they know each other to their marrow so neither will go knock-kneed whoever lines out. They know too that unlike the footballers beidh lá eile regardless of the result.

And so the Championship summer stretches before us, the great touchstone of Irish generations under way at last. Crowds will be minuscule to begin with but with a fair wind – and a fair government – they should mushroom as we go. Life is here to be lived again.

Let’s get on with it.

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