Monday, May 09, 2005

Football Championship 2005 - Arms and the 'Magh

In the United States of America, they've long been aware that they're no! Business like show! Business, like no! Business I know. As such, the NFL season opens with a fanfare, featuring the Super Bowl Champion's first game against an equally high profile team, played on Thurdsday, four days before the other fifteen games of Week 1 are played. This year, the baseball season started with a series between the New York Yankees and the World Champion Boston Red Sox, which is just exactly what the fans wanted after a remarkable end to the season last September and October.

In Ireland, the Gaelic Football Championship opened with Louth ("An Lú," which translates as "The Least," I'm afraid) gettting their ears boxed by Offaly before three boys and a man in Navan's Pairc Tailteann, the only game in this year's Leinster Championship not scheduled for Croker. And when you consider that the boys would open up Croker for a dog and pony show at this stage, that makes for a very low-key opening indeed.

Still, it's the only Championship we've got and, as the summer lengthens and the interest grows, the cresendo will be reached, as the ersatz appeal and rhinestone glamour of the English Premiership is swept away by the glory of Gaelic football in a high Irish summer.

That noted military man Kevin McStay was telling Michael Lyster last night (and how cruel of Lyster and Tommy Lyons not to tell Caoimhín that ties are back after the open-collar casual apporach of last year - picking on the small guy, as usual) that Armagh are too short in talent and too long in tooth to go all the way this year. Hmm - An Spailpín has his doubts. Not least as Joe Kernan has been seeding his 2002 All-Ireland winning team with young guns, thus having grizzled veterans on the bench to bring in when the going gets tough. Armagh have the most feared full-forward line in the country right now and certainly the scariest full back - were it not for the fact that they have to journey through the living Hell of the Ulster Championship they would surely be short odds indeed for Sam.

Armagh haven't been getting sufficient credit for their football, but it was very clear in their League semi-final and final that they play considerably less basketball than Tyrone, the other main contender in Ulster, that they waste very few passes and they're pretty handy at what they do.

Kerry will have a serene progress in Munster. They will meet few teams as obliging as Mayo with their unusual "after you, vicar" approach to Gaelic football in last year's All-Ireland final, but until they do meet a team that wires it up to them it's reasonable to presume that the Kingdom will be wearing its crown at the usual jaunty angle. Hard to see Cork doing it, as the Rebels seem to be lacking a little scoring right now.

Leinster seems pretty moribund, apart from remarkable evidence in the Division Two final that Meath have started to mirror the film career of Robert de Niro. De Niro, as you may remember, appeared in many strum and drang pictures at the start of his career, like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, that were quite harrowing to watch, just as watching Kevin Foley, Gerry Harnan and Mick Lyons imposing themselves on the soft, white flesh of Dublin footballers in the eighties was strictly over-eighteens viewing. Now, De Niro's off cracking jokes with Barbra Streisand and Ben Stiller, and Meath are punching balls into their own net to cost them national titles, just for laffs. Changed times, indeed.

There are likely to be more like An Spailpín who backed Wexford at healthy odds to win Leinster who were quite concerned by the scutching the yellow-bellies got from Armagh in the League Final, but the chances of Wexford running into a team in Leinster remotely as good as Armagh are slim. Laois are probably still the pick of them, but if the Messiah manager is to have an effect he has to do it sooner rather than later, and Micko is in Laois three years now. Do not expected to have to sit through another of those riduculous documentaries about Páidí in Westmeath - I do not expect them to raise many flags.

If you want to read about Dublin, buy the Irish Times.

Over in Connacht, the emergence of a second generation of Terrible Twins took another step when Galway won the Under-21 title thanks to Seán Armstrong and Michael Meehan. On the debit side for the heron-chokers, Joe Bergin is not filling Kevin Walsh's man-sized boots, and while Armstrong and Meehan are doing damage upfront there's nobody back in front of Galway's goals to mind the house, which must be a source of acute distress to Peter Ford. Galway to have their hearts broken is what the tealeaves are predicting here.

Speaking of broken-hearted Westerners, it was interesting that all the reporters who started their league match reports with "Mayo went another step of the way towards putting their All-Ireland final defeat behind him with a fine win over [insert county here] at [insert venue here] yesterday," did not start their reports of Mayo's loss to Armagh in the League with "Mayo Back at the Mayor's Residence, Loserville," or "Harney calls for more proctologists as Mayo persist in entering Football Championship." Moved by pity, you know.

Mayo people take their football far too seriously and get a little carried away, but their is a real sense of despair building in the county as the first game of the Championship at Dr Hyde Park looms. The stench of Bradygate still rankles, and while John Maughan might be a Dublin media darling, he's less popular among his own. It's hard not to feel for him of course, but the problems that were ruthlessly exposed by Kerry in the All-Ireland final remain bright and glaring, and even the Sheepstealing Sanhedrin have spotted at way by which Mayo can be got at. They look at Mayo's small little corner backs and they think: prey. In fact, it's not hard to visualise some monster from Ross smashing some poor little Mayo corner back like a rag doll and then bringing the remains to the ref while pleadling like Lennie in John Steinbeck's Of Mice of Men: "I only met to pet him, honest I did. I didn't mean to break him."

The Rosseroos themselves are poor mouthing of course, and God knows they have evidence, but An Spailpín is getting terribly, terribly nervous about his sweet County Mayo's trip to the Hyde on June 19th. Mayo should win, but An Spailpín will be investing in Diageo shares just in case. With all the porter those primose and blues will sink if they triumph, it could make An Spailpín's fortune.