Malachy Clerkin: Big guns start preseason quest to topple champions Tyrone

Changes to the calendar and feelings of injustice have seen stars let loose in January

So it’s over. Not entirely, obviously. But for now at least, the pandemic feels like one of the All-Ireland finals where the Dubs are three points up with 10 minutes left on the clock. They’re not strictly speaking out the gap but everyone feels like they know the outcome. This thing is done. We move on.

The world is different now, in oh so many ways. All you had to do was run your finger through the various line-ups in the pre-season GAA matches over the weekend to realise just what sort of cabin fever the past two years have wrought. Between the McKenna, O’Byrne and McGrath Cup finals, 16 All Stars were playing on Saturday. If you counted up just the players with All-Ireland medals, you’d still get to 13. And that’s without the current All-Ireland champions even being involved.

This is mid-January. This is pre-season football. This is the famously unloved runt of the GAA calendar, so scorned and derided that it was for the chop a mere 12 weeks ago, before the guillotine got jammed halfway down. An extra 15 Yes votes on Motion 19 at Special Congress in October and these would be ex-competitions now, reduced to fossil records of the way we used to do things, strictly only of interest to those perverted souls who hunt down niche GAA arcania. Dark web stuff.

Dublin, Kerry and Mayo all begin the year full sure that Tyrone are in possession of an All-Ireland medal that should have been theirs

But no, they survived. Not alone that but they’ve been taken more seriously this January by the teams at the top than has been the case in living memory. In Jim Gavin’s time, you were far more likely to come across a frontline Dub in Cancun at this time of year than you were in Carlow. The Kerry teams that Jack O’Connor managed to All-Irelands in the 2000s would have laughed him out of the room at the mention of McGrath Cup duty.

And yet, if you were huddled up in the stands in Killarney, Carlow or Omagh on Saturday afternoon and evening, you could get to see Ciarán Kilkenny, Brian Fenton, John Small, Michael Murphy, Ryan McHugh, David Clifford, Seán O'Shea, Rory Beggan and more all out there chasing it. In mid-January. It's not so long since you'd have struggled to scare up that sort of cast for a round of Division One league games. It's borderline indecent.

So what gives? Part of it is teams feeling they have straighten up and fly right after Tyrone whisked Sam Maguire up across the border for the winter. Only one team wins the All-Ireland each year but that never means that 31 others feel like they left it behind them. Most years, you’re talking about one or two counties - at most - who spend the months after the All-Ireland picking away at the scab of it. Occasionally during the six-in-a-row, that number probably dipped to zero.

It’s different this time. Dublin, Kerry and Mayo all begin the year full sure that Tyrone are in possession of an All-Ireland medal that should have been theirs. Donegal and Monaghan both know they should have finished Tyrone’s year when they had them. The football landscape became hopeless for a time during Dublin’s reign but now, for the first time in close to a decade, you have huge chunks of the populace facing into a year where they at least feel they can set about righting wrongs.

That sets a level of expectation around the place. Crankiness too. There was a wave of bloodletting in Kerry over the appointment of Jack O’Connor. Dessie Farrell has, in all likelihood, used up his allowance in Dublin after just a single down year. The Mayo winter was stormier than after any All-Ireland defeat since the 2000s. In Donegal and Monaghan, supporters are tapping their watches, fretting about life after Michael Murphy and Conor McManus and charging Declan Bonner and Banty McEnaney with doing right by them while they’re still on the go.

The galaxy of stars who turned out over the weekend was an unintended consequence of the split-season. It's just something we'll have to get used to

This stuff is all in the ether, the tangible intangibles that inform and mould the decisions of these county managers just now. In that context, you might not quite forgive them their paranoia but you can at least see the reason for it. Clifford came off the bench for Kerry on Saturday even (a) though they had a double-figure lead, (b) he had scored 2-7 for UL four days earlier and (c) he is David Clifford. But then again, (d) he is the only Kerry player in history to have three All Stars without an All-Ireland medal to go alongside it and so he and they are going to do everything they can to rectify the situation.

The consideration that trumps all else, of course, is the fact that we are closer to the big dance now than in any January in the association’s history. The championship starts in 12 weeks. The All-Ireland final is going to be played a shade under two months earlier than was the case as recently as 2017. It would have been considered weird in 2017 if the big teams weren’t rolling out some of their heavy artillery in mid-March so maybe it’s not such an anomaly now after all.

Still feels odd though. All a bit rushed, all a bit dreamed-up-on-the-fly. Michael Murphy was imperious for Donegal when he came on for the second half on Saturday evening, gradually reeling Monaghan in almost single-handedly. It was very nearly one of the truly great Murphy displays and virtually nobody saw it.

In the old calendar, he’d have done it in front of a big crowd with the league coming to the boil and a big TV audience. When some of us warn that the GAA will lose out on exposure by squeezing the intercounty season in a vice, this is what we mean. We can see the reason for doing it but we can’t help feeling something real and true is being lost.

The galaxy of stars who turned out over the weekend was an unintended consequence of the split-season. It’s just something we’ll have to get used to. If the pandemic has given us nothing else, it has at least left us practiced in that particular art.