Kevin Egan noted some years ago that teams don’t come from nowhere to win football All-Irelands anymore. Campaigns like those of the three successive Ulster winners of the early nineties don’t happen in modern football.
The last team to come from nowhere to win Sam was Galway in 1998, three years before the Qualifiers were introduced. Since then, nobody has won an All-Ireland without serving their apprenticeship first, and many apprentices have come and gone in those years with less to show for it than they might have had in earlier, more innocent times.
Paddy Power’s odds on this year’s Championship show a clear striation between haves and have nots. Kerry and Dublin, winners of four of the last five titles, sit looking down on the rest like Olympian gods. Past performance gives (slim) hope for the next three counties – Mayo, Donegal and Cork – while everybody else just seems to be making up the numbers.
Of the longshots, it’s interesting to see Galway are more favoured than Monaghan or Roscommon – something that will have them hopping from one foot to the other with fury from Boyle to Ballymoe – but that’s the enduring power of a Brand, as the morketing people like to say.
The quarter-finals are the killing fields of the minnows’ dreams. The breakthrough team either meets its Waterloo at the quarter-final, like Monaghan in 2013, or has nothing left in the tank by the semi-final, like Mayo in 2011. The most a team in those circumstances can hope for is a scalp, as Mayo claimed Cork’s in 2011. If the team doesn’t then improve in the following year or two, back to the pack it sinks, while someone else takes a turn.
There is nobody in Leinster who can keep it kicked out to Dublin, sadly. It’s been said that Dublin should not be blamed for being so far ahead of the provincial pack, and so they shouldn’t. But counties with football traditions like Kildare, Meath and Offaly should burn with shame at the shambles they find themselves currently in.
In the other three provinces, there are teams on the rise. Roscommon, obviously. Tipperary, maybe. Armagh, maybe. Monaghan are teetering on that point where they must advance or slide back. Of those four, three have a shout of travelling through the front door while Tipperary claiming Munster would not only a be a shock but it might be the end of them. The Qualifiers are not a fair system.
Nobody will care much for playing Tipperary in the Qualifiers, but whom Tipp meet in the quarters – if they get that far – will determine how much longer they can play football. Tipperary v Roscommon would be a perfect tie for both counties’ supporters, but not, perhaps, so good for either team’s development. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves – best for them to take it one match at a time.
Of the five contenders, Cork get the easiest ride for disappointing so often. This is a mixed blessing. It’s nice for the footballers not to get abused on the street as can happen in other counties, but it’s also sad because the footballers know in their hearts that they’re not getting abused out of politeness, but out of indifference. That’s a disgrace for so fine a football county.
Donegal and Mayo are both in periods of transition management, where someone has had to take over from an iconic leader. Donegal choose continuity. Mayo did not. How their seasons will pan out may end up being reflections of those choices. There are those who see Donegal as being on the wrong side of the hill but at least they’ve been to the top – not something Mayo can say, sadly. More about Mayo’s perennial dilemma anon.
As for the Olympians, it’s a 50/50 matchup. If I were to pick one, I’d pick Kerry. They have the richer tradition, which counts, and I’m not sure if this stuff about an un-ending stream of talent on a Dublin conveyor belt is quite true. Dublin have always had a rich pick of players, through good times and bad. What’s happening right now is that Dublin are blessed to have players who are exceptionally talented in the modern game, most notably Stephen Cluxton and Michael Darragh MacAuley, and a player who’d stroll onto any team in any era, Diarmuid Connolly. It’ll be some conveyor belt that will replace those boys.