Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Only Days After All the Newspapers Did It, That Football Championship Preview in Full

Much like the Tour de France's opening prologue stage, last Sunday's All-Ireland Football Championship opener, Down v Cavan, will ultimately mean nothing to the overall classification but got one into the swing of things gently. So this weekend, with one of the 'Big Three' (as it is now apparently obligatory to call them), Armagh, in action, as well the shimmering gates of Croke Park being opened for a double-header in Leinster, the real action begins.

Here, then, is your cut-out and keep, fail-safe, take it to the bank, dead cert, bin all the rest preview of the Bank of Ireland All-Ireland Football Championship......

Starting at the top, cartographically and figuratively. Three of the last four All-Irelands have gone up to the place where they have different money and talk endlessly about "siteeayshuns". Having recently earmarked £600m for development of potential Olympic medal winners for the London 2012 Games, the British government would do well to push for the inclusion of Gaelic football in the Olympics: they are dominating the sport at the moment...

While swatting aside pesky provincial also-rans in the opening rounds, Tyrone and Armagh will peer grimly into the middle distance at the summer's first great day of bloodletting on July 9th. While great nations will compete in Berlin on that day for the World Cup trophy, no conflagration of international forces will be quite as explosive as if these two meet in yet another Ulster Final.

Is it that straighforward? Yes. Armagh are finally looking mortal, after a mediocre league and with the weary limbs of Bellew, McGeeney, McConville and McGrane still propping the side up. But, contrary to accepted wisdom, they have infused youth into the squad, with Ronan Clarke, Aaron Kernan and Ciaran McKeever coming in. Monaghan will trouble them, in the way a small yappy dog might trouble a Doberman, and then they will have a manageable semi-final most probably against Fermanagh, who, if they can recapture the effervescence of Charlie Mulgrew's first term two years ago, will prove a decent barometer of how rich this Orchard harvest is.

Tyrone have the tougher half of the draw, but the loss of Brian McGuigan and Peter Canavan won't be tested until July 9th. Derry are Ulster's dark horses, and in Sean Marty Lockhart, the Bradleys and Enda Muldoon they have some top class players; but those names carry too heavy a burden for the Oak Leaf county. A straightforward semi-final against Donegal or Down - neither of whom appear anywhere near ready to return to the higher echelons - would follow for Tyrone, before that tumultuous second Sunday in July, a contest too unpredictable and close too even bother calling at this juncture.

As sleepy and uncompetitive as the province's hurling Championship is thrilling and closely-fought, the Munster football championship has suffered in recent years through Cork's time in the wilderness. Kerry too have suffered. Who can argue that their gentle perambulation to the All-Ireland final last year, when only a gnarly Limerick provided much bother, cost them when faced with a battle hardened Tyrone in the September denouement. This year they have freshened, with Darren O'Sullivan and Kieran Donaghy coming in, but a return to form for Mike Frank Russell would be a timely help out for the country's greatest player, 'Gooch' Cooper.

The Leesiders need to step up now, and with a good sprinkling of under-21s coming through should mount a more serious challenge, but a middling league suggests for Cork that Kerry should have their usual casual jaunt to the provincial title. Limerick hit their glass ceiling with those Munster final appearances, and along with Clare and a sprightly Tipperary will go early into the purgatorial opening qualifier rounds.

Connacht reminds me a bit of Oasis. Two warring siblings at the front then three sort of anonymous figures in the rear who intermittently pop up in interviews but always end up taking about the main two. This year's draw suggests it will again be Galway and Mayo in the July 16th decider, but as usual Sligo, Roscommon and Leitrim will provide a few feisty, if not particularly pretty afternoon of discomfort as a prelude.

Under Mickey Moran and John Morrison, Mayo made a rip-roaring start to the league, even before the return of Ciaran McDonald. Have an impressive array of forward talent and with the fillip of an All-Ireland u-21 success (the county first victory in 15 finals at all levels!) should go well again this year. However Galway unceremoniously dumped them out of the league, the Tribesmen physically dominating Mayo in a match that sets up the Connacht championship nicely. Its now or never for many of Galway's 1998 and 2001 stalwarts, backed as they are by exciting youngsters like Michael Meehan and Sean Armstrong, but time after time in recent seasons, the lack of hunger from the likes of Donnellan, Joyce and Savage has been only too evident as their county tamely exited championships. But they will have enough to claim another provincial title.

Existing in a happy-clappy, bouncy castle, all-the-fun-of-the-fair world of its own in recent seasons, Leinster has provided most of the annual entertainment of late, hosting a keenly fought, good to watch and equitably distributed championship, but one which has had about as much bearing on the ultimate destination of the Sam Maguire as the Oslo and District Cod Filleting Tournament.

Any change this year? Yes, for Dublin are this season's dark horses. They should have progressed where their Leinster rivals have retreated, stalled or improved insufficiently. Laois are treading water now, despite playing some of the country's most pleasant football through forwards like Ross Munnelly and Donie Brennan. They have not added the steal to suggest that lame quarter-final or qualifier exit to one of the big teams will not be their lot again.

Meath are one of those counties whose name is fast losing its forbidding ring, but they will be eyeing a return to the provincial final given that their on the opposite side of the draw to Laois and Dublin. That side os the draw will be a fascinating dogfight, however. Westmeath, sans Dessia Dolan, can probably be discounted, Wexford will - strike me down! - be overdependent on that-man-Mattie-Forde, and Louth, bless them, well they might give their fans a few value-for-money qualifier wins to enjoy. So Meath or Kildare to fight it out to be Dublin's final victims.

The Dubs gave Tyrone one hell of a game in last year's quarter final and a decent league - the bizarre loss to Monaghan being the only really bad performance - allied to the galvanising force of a full Croke Park on even a half decent Dublin side makes them Leinster strongest flag-bearer in a while.

OK, lets pretend that the back door had never been thrown open. As the draw lies, Munster and Ulster's champions are due to meet in the semi-finals. This means that, more than likely, if Kerry are to reclaim their birthright, they will have to face up to at least one, and very possibly two, of their erstwhile Ulster nemeses. The other one will be cut loose to tear into some poor, unfortunate fellow qualifiers.

Meanwhile Dublin and Galway, Mayo and Laois and then maybe a joker from the Ulster pack - Derry perhaps - will rough and tumble it out to be at the top table and, effectively, earn the right to join, or even replace one of the 'big three'. I think Dublin will edge out Armagh and find themselves back at Croke Park in September.

There Kerry will await, and will be victorious. They have to end this thing sometime, and I don't know if Tyrone can so easily get over Canavan and McGuigan. Many times in tight situations last year, these two seemed to bring a gloss of class, just when needed. Without that contribution, someone will take them down. As well as that, without wanting to sound crass, the McAnallen factor will not be as strong.

I'm not convinced it will be a great Kerry team that will do it, nor that it will be a great year for Gaelic football, but it ought to see a little shift in what, in recent seasons has been a very familiar landscape.


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