Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Championship - Magnificent, in Spite of its Flaws

Francie Grehan surrounded by Tommy Joyce, Padraic Joyce, Alan Kerins and Ja Fallon. St Jarlath's Park, Tuam, 2001.

One of the quirks of the current football Championship structure is that, even though it takes twenty weeks to run the thing off, fully half the counties in Ireland are zapped over just two weekends.

Eight counties will rattle the dustbin on that weekend when June melts into July, and eight more bid glory a sweet adieu for another year fourteen days later. There are eleven games scheduled for that weekend of June 30th/July 1st – the eight Round 1 Qualifiers on Saturday, and then the second Ulster semi-final and both Leinster semis on Sunday. The Connacht Final is the grace note after the second Qualifier cull in the middle of July.

Having to keep tabs on eleven games in one weekend and nine in another is a Herculean ask of any football analyst. Thank goodness the RTÉ ones generally couldn’t bother their bottoms analysing anything. They and will merrily wing it, just like always. I believe Paddy McPlayer is playing very well for his club – isn’t that right Joe?

Of course, in between those rolling rocks of qualifier slaughter there is only one game. This year’s Munster Final sits in splendid isolation on Sunday July 8th, even though Kerry and Cork are on the one side of the draw this year. Can most ardent of Déise, Treaty or Banner patriots, each more excellent than the last, expect anything other than one-way traffic in that one?

Nobody on any of the provincial councils has a phone number for anyone on any of the other councils, or for Croke Park. Every year they try to get the schedule right, and every year they can’t quite seem to manage it.

It was ever thus. The qualifiers are a joke, the scheduling is bockety, and the national broadcaster makes a very middling effort to give Gaelic football the serious analysis it deserves.

And despite all this, the glory of the Championship itself, for all its flaws, still shines incandescent through the summer. It captivates, infuriates enthralls and enraptures us, summer after summer, year after year.

This time last year the Championship looked like a two-horse race between Cork and Kerry. But the rebels got cold-cocked in the quarter-finals when Mayo forgot their place behind the door and Kevin McMenamon did what so few have been able to do in over one hundred years of All-Ireland finals – deliver Kerry a knock-out blow.

One year on, and Dublin have blazed a trail for the rest. Cork and Kerry remain favourites of course, but where Dublin lead other can follow. Dublin can even follow themselves – they enjoy home advantage all through the Championship, and have the boost that winning the title brings.

Mickey Harte is trying to do what only Seán Boylan has done before in the modern era, and build two different Championship winning teams. Kildare’s knocking on the door is getting louder and louder. Derry remain a mystery and Mayo – well, Mayo are a question for another day.

Sligo and New York fired the first shots of the Championship the week before last, and there are five games this weekend to keep things rolling. Of those five, Galway’s trip to Roscommon and Donegal’s trip to Cavan are the most appealing to people outside the counties involved.

The RTÉ panelists will hold their noses after the games. Somebody will dutifully patronise the players, while emphasising that none of this matter a whizz outside of June 10th in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

Which is exactly the attitude of people who can’t tell Jedward from Beethoven. To see the Championship as only being about the contenders is too see the great Pyramids at Giza and think they’re nice, alright, but wouldn’t they be even nicer with a nice bit of decking out the back?

The very existence of either the Championship or the Pyramids is a miracle in the 21st Century, and something we should make the most of while either or both are still here.

Somebody will win the Championship this year, but that’s not the Championship is about. The Championship is about all these fantastic local rivalries, the myriad border words that are its heart, its soul and its splendor.

Besides, it’s a knockout Championship. Anyone can win the thing if their sails catch the wind and the ball hops right. Reader, think on the Hyde on Sunday and the great summers ahead, and drink deeply of the fine and tawny wine of its glory.