Whether you love it or loathe it, the GAA Championship season is upon us. London, Sligo, New York and Leitrim get the show up and running in London and New York respectively this Sunday. Gaelic supporters will find it hard to understand that there are certain people out there who may not exactly loathe it but couldn’t care less. My wife is one such person. She knows that I’ll be hard to shift from the sofa on a Sunday afternoon but that’s nothing new. Basically, I cannot wait.
The main question remains; who can beat Dublin? If we consider recent league form, then no team can. But don’t despair, there’s hope. Not much, but a little.
Two of the ‘big-hitters’ of Gaelic football, Mayo and Galway will face off on Sunday week in the quarter final of the Connacht Championship while two of the less fancied teams, Donegal and Cavan will lock horns that same day in Ballybofey.
In recent years, those of us who are avid fans of Gaelic football have sympathised with the players and supporters of Mayo because they came so close to winning the All-Ireland Championship on different occasions in recent years.
In 2011, they were hammered by Kerry by nine points in the All-Ireland semi-final. This was the beginning of better things to come though. In 2012, they lost the All-Ireland decider to Donegal. Dublin beat them by a single point in the All-Ireland final the following year, 2013. After a semi-final replay defeat to Kerry in 2014, their manager James Horan stepped down. In came joint managers, Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly. Again, Mayo lost an Ireland semi-final replay to Dublin. That year, 2015 proved a difficult one though. Disharmony reigned within the camp. Player power ensured the resignations of both Holmes and Connelly.
Up steps Stephen Rochford, the current manager. He, too, has been unable to deliver the Sam Maguire Cup to Mayo. In 2016, Mayo were beaten by Dublin in the All-Ireland final after a replay, again by a single point. This was a devastating defeat for them and the whole country felt sorry for them. After digging themselves out of the pits of despair, they resurrected and reached yet another All-Ireland final last year, 2017. It was another ‘groundhog’ day. A one-point defeat to their nemesis Dublin sent the men away from Croke Park badly wounded.
I haven’t seen Mayo playing in the flesh this season as I was out of the country when they visited Ballybofey over Easter to relegate Donegal to Division 2 of the National League. In Connacht, their ‘kingpin’ status of that province has been taken over by neighbours Galway. I believe that the Tribesmen have the upper hand in their encounter on May 13th. Galway’s form has been very impressive and they will have their own aspirations of making a huge impact on this year’s championship. They are currently the second-best team in the country, having lost only recently to Dublin in the National League final.
We all know (well definitely not my wife) that the league and championship are two different competitions; the championship being the more and most important. The tempo rises many notches. The game becomes faster and more intense. The championship is the competition that every county wants to win. The truth is that there are only a handful of genuine contenders and a further truth is that these teams will play second fiddle to Dublin. The majority of teams, though, will only dream of winning the All-Ireland title.
The beauty of sport and indeed Gaelic football is that we need dreamers who believe that they can achieve the big prize. We love to see the underdog prevail. The current strength of the Dublin team can be a discouraging factor for many. However, we must aspire to be like Dublin or any successful team or individual from whom we can learn and improve. Dublin are setting the standard and we must try to reach that same level. As the championship kicks off, every team the length and breadth of Ireland will have hopes and dreams. They may be realistic enough to know that they will not win the Sam Maguire but they will have desires to perhaps win their first-round game, have a good run in the qualifiers, reach a provincial final, win a provincial final, get into the ‘Super 8’ stage and go well there. The main protagonists though will be Dublin, Galway, Kerry, Mayo, Tyrone, Donegal, Monaghan and even Cork, Tipperary and Roscommon. There are ten teams here for eight positions.
I love this time of year and especially when the championship enters the business stages. We will have heroes and villains, and winners and losers. There will be the feisty and the timid, the proud and the humble. Managers will pit wits against each while friend becomes foe.
For Donegal, the first shot of anger will be fired at 4pm on Sunday 13th May. I believe this will be the start of a new journey for Donegal. The league has passed but won’t be forgotten because our new guns will have learned so much. A long summer of football awaits.
Let the games begin!