Monday, May 13, 2013

Football Championship Preview 2013

As the counties stand like greyhounds in the slips on the eve of another All-Ireland Championship, the 2011 Champions find themselves in an unusual position. It’s not that their being favourites to lift Sam is all that unusual, of course, but it is odd that this time there is no inflation in Dublin’s price. And what is positively eerie isn’t the absence of inflation but that it would be impossible for anyone but the most ardent of anti-metropolitans to begrudge them.

We have seen hyped Dublin teams in the past but for whatever reason – and it’s almost certain a combination of reasons, some planned, some happy happenstance – the current Dublin team are on the verge of forging a dynasty. They have quality in every line, radiating from captain Cluxton in goal all the way up to the full-forward line where Dublin have as many options as a Kardashian has shoes.

Opponents of Dublin’s chances talk of peaking too soon or being spoilt for choice or complacency or hype but it’s all clutching at straws. It’s hard to see anyone keeping the ball kicked out to Dublin in Leinster and after that it’s the luck of the draw whether they have sacrificial lamb for dinner on the August Bank Holiday weekend or they meet someone who can give them a game of it.

Who that someone might be is hard to pin down. The odds for the Championship make the past four All-Ireland Champions the favourites for this year, but it’s 10/1 on Mayo or Tyrone after that and then it’s an astonishing 20/1 the field.

If those prices are reflective of the counties’ relative standings, this could be one of the most unequal Championships in over a generation. What’s more, there are big question marks hanging over the other three top contenders, starting with the Champions.

Clare’s genius, Jamesie O’Connor is quoted in Denis Walsh’s excellent Hurling: The Revolution Years as saying that things fell apart from Clare because what it takes for a particular team to win its first All-Ireland is not at all like what it takes to win their second. Donegal are discovering that now. Like Loughnane’s Clare, Donegal were not so much men as a force of nature last year – will they be able to harness that again? The Bitegate business is a distraction that they didn’t need, and the other thing they didn’t need was to start their Championship against Tyrone. There are no easy games in Ulster, but some games are harder than others. If Donegal win, the adventure begins again, but it’s unlikely the Qualifiers would suit them.

There are many easy games in Munster, of course, and the same two teams will be present in the last eight, irrespective of which of them wins the Munster Championship. After that though, it gets a bit murky.

Neither county will ever suffer from a talent shortfall, but both Cork and Kerry have old panels, nearing the end of their days. Cork must be aware that their talent level of the past five or seven years deserved more than the one title they won, while Kerry are Kerry. The Kingdom are never satisfied, never to be written off, and always in the mix. Kerry are disregarded at your absolute peril and, if there is such a thing as a “soft” All-Ireland, it’s generally Kerry that wins it. It’s what they do.

Tyrone, Kerry’s bêtes noirs of the 21st Century, are looking good in Ulster. Seán Boylan is the only manager of the modern era to have won All-Irelands with two different teams. It would be fitting, and a feat begrudged by nobody, were that good man Mickey Harte to equal Boylan’s achievement. That said, anybody with a scintilla of romance or a feel for the history of the game will have noted Cavan’s stirrings at the Under-21 level and dreams of the day when Breifne rises again. Cavan take their bow this weekend against Armagh; best of luck to them.

In the lonesome west, Roscommon are ideally positioned. All westerners dream of relaxing in the long grass, the better to mount an ambush as the hay ripens into June and July. That’s where Roscommon are now, silently waiting on the winners of this weekend’s game in Salthill.

The penny is dropping for the nation that it’s been a long time since Galway were good. A man who studies football closely remarked to your correspondent a few weeks ago that Mayo would stroll Connacht, on the basis that Galway haven’t brought their Under-21s through. “But bejabbers,” says I, “what if this is the year?”

The danger is always lurking. If Galway do beat Mayo it means that Galway are back, and there is suddenly another contender to keep the ball kicked out to Dublin. Whether that will be enough to stop what looks like a skyblue and navy procession through the summer of 2013 is something we’ll have to wait and see.

As for Mayo – we’ll take a closer look at their chances later this week.