No Need To Be Down About Championship Opener
The country's highest profile sporting event gets under way this weekend, not that you'd notice. The competition that, over the course of its five month duration, attracts more spectators, occupies more television hours and generates more bar-room invective than any other sneaks into existence this Sunday when Down and Cavan travel to Casement Park for the preliminary round tie in the Ulster Championship - the opening fire of the Bank of Ireland Senior Football Championship.
A worthy tie, two tradition-soused counties and, as it is Ulster, it will surely be a rambunctious affair. Still, with the football Championship being the centrepiece in the nation's sporting tapestry, as an opener Down v Cavan doesn't come upon us with fanfare and fireworks, but resembles as an occasion rather the cutting of a ribbon on the new parish bingo hall.
Not that this is necessarily a criticism. The GAA in its shiny, designer-suited 21st century guise still retains a heartwarming reluctance to drown their showpieces with much in the way of showbiz flannel and dancing girls. The 2006 Championship will probably pull in more revenue, more spectators and more media coverage than any which preceded it - and that's in a soccer World Cup year too - but come Sunday at Casement Park, a pipe band will lead the players around the field, the announcer will read out the names of the thirty combatants, a hand-shake here and a jostle there and the quest for Sam will begin.
The closest you'll get to fireworks will be through eating ill-advised curried chips at half time.
It might not always be thus, however. Maybe the GAA will rebrand itself as 'Sports Entertainment' and recast the Championship as update on Gladiator (the TV show, not the Roman epic...although there's an idea: Francie Bellew versus a lion in a battle to the death. Poor pussy...): Tyrone will be captained by 'Dragon', hungry for vengeance on his mortal foe 'Snake', leader of Armagh. Motley Crue will be commissioned to compose the pulsating theme tune 'Hungry Like a Bainisteoir', to be played at every drawing of blood (the method by which scores will be kept).
Ok, they might not go that far. But if Sky Sports bankrolled the GAA they would surely demand a more glamourous curtain raiser to boost subscriptions than the stodgy fare of Down and Cavan. With a small dash of knavery and a couple of complicit officials, the Championship draw - lo and behold! - would throw up Dublin v Meath in the Leinster first round, available only to Championship Plus subscribers mind; 82,000 would scramble into Croke Park and we'd be off and running in the most fantabulous Championship ever.
Not that this tie would always have been low-key, though. Maybe in the late 1950s, early '60s Down and Cavan would have been a damn fine way to kick off. Cavan's glory years were still in recent memory, and Down were establishing themselves as Ulster's kingpins, winning three All-Irelands in the decade commonly known as 'swinging'.
The Mournemen have toiled for some years now, but for those of us who came of age in Ulster in the late 1980s and early 1990s those red and black jerseys still carry some menace. In the 1991 Ulster final they strolled to an eight point victory over a Donegal side that a young TSA had travelled to support - one that would themselves emerge from the wilderness in 1992.
That Down side, which won All-Irelands in 1991 (the first Ulster county to do so since their 1968 predecessors) and 1994 possessed a mean athleticism and brawny finesse that inspired the successes of their provincial rivals at the time (as well as Donegal in 1992, Derry won the third of four Ulster Sam Maguires in 1993) and, to me, was the blueprint for the spirit which inhabits Ulster's nationally dominant counties of the current period.
The breakthrough of Down in 1991 was a triumph of belief as much as of footballing excellence. In 1991 few under the age of 30 could remember an Ulster team winning the Sam Maguire and, strange as it seems today in a province reknowned for gnarl, snarl and the darker arts of winning football, the counties of the north were usually soft-bellied semi-final fodder for the majesterial traditional powers of the south.
It was often stated then and since that only Down could have reversed this polarity, and made the current of fear and inadequacy run instead through the patricians of Kerry, Dublin, Meath and the rest. Only Down had the ancient, but dusty and lost, alchemy of victory anywhere within their footballing psyche.
So while there won't be too many party-poppers going off at Casement on Sunday as two counties unlikely to be troubling the trophy-engravers go into battle, some day, some year, sooner rather than later - if history tells us anything - Down will be back. Expect fireworks.
**Next week: Full Previews of the Bank of Ireland All-Ireland Football Championship and the Guinness All-Ireland Hurling Championship**