Monday, July 22, 2013

The Championship: Still Crazy After All These Years

Drop the Provincial Championships, they said. Be grand, they said. Not fair on the lower division teams, they said. We’ll do away with history and tradition and pride and this ineffable thing called “glory,” all for something we saw on the telly. Be grand, they said.

One of the many gifts of the Championship that it is both the same and completely different, year after year. Every Championship starts with some unhappy counties getting their ears boxed in late May or early June, and the why-oh-why columns in the papers. Then the summer progresses and the hay is brought home and that year’s Championship takes on its shape until you suddenly realise that heatwaves and holidays are all well and good, but in Ireland, it’s the Championship that makes the summer.

There are twelve teams left in the 2013 Championship now, a Championship that we were told was pretty much exclusive to the teams in Division 1 of the League. Of those twelve teams, six are from Division 1, two from Division 2, three from Division 3 and the team that came dead last in Division 4 is still sitting in the light.

The three Division 3 teams are the most interesting. It’s unlikely that either Cavan, Meath or Monaghan will win their first All-Ireland in fifty-one years, fourteen years or ever, but they could stop some big dog from winning it, and that’s a pretty sweet feeling too.

If anything, Monaghan are the most disadvantaged, because while they beat Donegal yesterday in Clones, Monaghan did not destroy them. The curse of the back door is that the underdog’s win is cheapened by the favourite’s second chance. If Donegal can get by Laois – and it’s by no means a given – their momentum is back, while Monaghan may psychologically settle for their first Anglo-Celt Cup in twenty-five years. Human nature is like that.

One thing that is certain, however, is that the aura of invincibility is now gone from the Champions. Donegal may regroup - Jimmy McGuinness may be able to talk them into seeing this as all part of a Great Plan, but the rest of the country will have noted the weaknesses for later exploitation. Back-to-back All-Irelands have only been won twice in twenty-seven years, and there’s a reason for that. Once it gets to the elimination games, the Championship is a high-wire act lined with landmines. Not only is one slip fatal, but you can do nothing wrong and stil get blown to hell. It’s a lot like Life in that respect.

Next weekend sees four games of lip-smacking appeal. Cavan will be overwhelming favourites against London but they must guard against complacency. Mayo were able to beat London with their D game, but Mayo’s D game is better than Cavan’s. Everyone in Cavan thinks they’re going back to Croke Park. That way misery lies, and the London fairytale gets one more chapter.

Donegal will play Laois, where the great puzzle is if Donegal can get over the shock in six days to play a team who are a little like Monaghan – old soldiers who have been in the trenches for a long time, looking for one last day out.

Meath play Tyrone in an intriguing game. Meath’s glory days are a decade and more ago, but the way the wired it up to Dublin in the Leinster final, playing to their tradition and not giving a damn, woke up echoes of Meath teams past. Tyrone remain a mystery. God only knows what’ll happen in this one.

And then, Galway play Cork. The first thing to note is that this is a fixture nightmare. The Cork hurlers are scheduled to play Kilkenny and the Galway hurlers will play Clare in Thurles on the same day that Galway and Cork are scheduled to meet in football, a double-header with Meath and Tyrone.

Could there be a triple-header in Thurles? Could Semple stadium hold it? Could you move the two hurling games and the Cork and Galway football to Croker, and Meath and Tyrone for a novel day out in Thurles? Could Meath and Tyrone be played in Clones? Questions, questions, that the GAA will have to sort out quickly.

As for the game itself, it’s a chin-scratcher. The sound of rent garments was general in Galway city and county after Mayo hammered the heron-chokers in Salthill back in May. Huffing and puffing against Tipperary and Waterford did little to dispel that impression.

And then Galway go out and paste Armagh, and are now strengthened by the addition of Conor Counihan to their cause. That’s a terribly cruel thing to write but Counihan’s team selection seems mysterious in the extreme, and there’s a case to be made that if Cork had got their selection right they would have hammered Kerry in Killarney.

No less astute an observer than Dara Ó Cinnéide remarked in the Examiner before St Patrick’s Day that, while the country concentrated on Dublin and Donegal, Cork were ideally placed to come up on the rail and surprise them when they weren’t looking. That’s still the case, but only if Cork pick the right team. If they do, Galway come to the end of the line, but will have a lot to build on for next year. If not, Galway march on and Connacht will have two representatives alive come Bank Holiday Monday.

And what of the provincial champions, watching next weekend’s tussles and wondering what will be in store when they next pull on their boots? Monaghan in the North, still savouring the sweet taste of victory. Mayo in the west, playing at their peak but always aware that for them, the Championship only lasts seventy minutes on the third Sunday in September. In the east, a Dublin team that are like a young man on his first provisional driving license – fantastic with the foot down on the open road, not so hot when he has to put it in reverse and park the thing. And down south, Kerry. Always Kerry. Watching, waiting, and making plans. They’re in the mix too.