Cham­pi­onship 2018 foot­ball pre­view

The Su­per 8s are go­ing to make for a hec­tic and strange sum­mer, where the main theme will be whether any team can stop Dublin

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Keith Dug­gan

There is no turn­ing back now. The grass has been cut, the pitches lined, the ref­er­ees have their bags packed and cards in or­der, and start­ing Satur­day, when Car­low and Louth spark it up in Port­laoise, the games will come thick and fast.

The All-Ire­land Se­nior Foot­ball Cham­pi­onship used to mimic the en­ergy pat­terns of a li­on­ess on the plains, with fu­ri­ous bursts of ac­tiv­ity and hunt­ing fol­lowed by long pe­ri­ods of noth­ing much hap­pen­ing at all.

It was a slow-burn­ing, lazy kind of rhythm by which Ire­land mea­sured its sum­mers for decades, and it all led up to the en­shrined date, the third Sun­day of Septem­ber, when two coun­ties, usu­ally Kerry and some­body else, went to war for the Sam Maguire. Af­ter that came au­tumn.

But 2018 will be dif­fer­ent, with all pro­vin­cial fi­nals done and dusted be­fore June is out. The newly-minted Su­per 8s se­ries is sched­uled to start on the week­end of July 14th-15th, coin­cid­ing with Fifa’s World Cup fi­nal in Mos­cow.

The new hurl­ing cham­pi­ons will be­gin their cel­e­bra­tions on Sun­day, Au­gust 19th, while the foot­ball cham­pi­onship will have its big day on Septem­ber 2nd.

It is go­ing to be hec­tic and strange, and is go­ing to make for a quiet Septem­ber.

No-man’s land

By this Sun­day evening, four coun­ties, in­clud­ing All-Ire­land cal­i­bre sides, will find them­selves in the no-man’s land of the qual­i­fier se­ries.

A GAA tourist could start their week­end in Port­laoise, mo­tor down to Wex­ford to catch their 6.30pm throw in against Laois, and then shoot for Castle­bar or Bally­bofey on Sun­day af­ter­noon for ei­ther of the cru­cial dust-ups in those ju­ris­dic­tions.

This rad­i­cal in­no­va­tion to the cham­pi­onship sched­ule, which will re­main in place for at least three sea­sons (but more likely for­ever), co­in­cides with the emer­gence of a fright­en­ingly deep, ath­letic and am­bi­tious Dublin team. The sweep­ing cham­pi­onship changes and Dublin’s own­er­ship of the All-Ire­land cham­pi­onship for the last three sea­sons makes it feel as if the old ways and tra­di­tions of the cham­pi­onship and the or­gan­i­sa­tion it­self has been ush­ered into a new era.

The most im­me­di­ate im­pact will be seen – or, more per­ti­nently, not seen – in the com­ing weeks with the vast re­duc­tion in the num­ber of pro­vin­cial games shown live on tele­vi­sion. In an age when the GAA is en­joy­ing keen bidding com­pe­ti­tions for broad­cast rights, it will mark a re­turn to the dark ages for big pro­vin­cial ri­val­ries, with the fierce Mon­aghan-Ty­rone ri­valry among the games un­avail­able to a na­tional au­di­ence.

The main theme of this year’s cham­pi­onship is whether any team can stop Dublin. This week’s an­nounce­ment that the Dublin has agreed spon­sor­ship terms worth ¤5 mil­lion over the next five years was a timely re­minder of the en­vi­able po­si­tion that the city teams now oc­cupy.

It means that they op­er­ate in a dif­fer­ent realm than the vast ma­jor­ity of coun­ties, and makes it eas­ier to en­vis­age a si­t­u­a­tion where other teams sim­ply can’t live with Dublin’s fi­nan­cial re­sources and pop­u­la­tion.

From the end of the Kevin Hef­fer­nan era in 1983 to 2011, Dublin landed just one All-Ire­land cham­pi­onship, that parched win by Jim Gavin and com­pany in the hot sum­mer of 1995. But Dublin also won 13 Le­in­ster cham­pi­onships in that pe­riod; they were never all that far away from the All-Ire­land con­ver­sa­tion.

Once Dublin be­gan to fully ex­ploit its po­ten­tial, the county was al­ways go­ing to move to the fore­front of the com­pe­ti­tion. It re­mains to be seen whether this is the be­gin­ning of a dy­nasty that will de­mor­alise all other coun­ties in what is an am­a­teur com­pe­ti­tion or whether this is merely the bot­tled light­ning of an ex­cep­tional team.

In­no­va­tive tal­ents

The ab­sence of Diar­muid Con­nolly and the in­jury to Bernard Bro­gan de­prives the squad of two of its most in­no­va­tive at­tack­ing tal­ents. Yet in pre­vi­ous sea­sons Dublin have made light of the ab­sence of vir­tu­oso tal­ents so eas­ily that it was easy to for­get they were miss­ing. Yet for all their habit of crush­ing teams in the early stages of the com­pe­ti­tion, their All-Ire­land ti­tles have been nail-bit­ing, hard won and ab­so­lutely grip­ping.

Had they lost the All-Ire­land fi­nals of 2011 and 2015 to Kerry, and had they lost those grip­ping fi­nales against Mayo by a point, then the con­ver­sa­tion would be dif­fer­ent this week­end. But they won; five of the last seven All-Ire­land ti­tles and they are favourites again this time.

Dublin’s per­pet­ual ap­petite for fur­ther hon­ours has in­ten­si­fied the pres­sure on other lead­ing teams Kerry, Ty­rone, Mayo, and has be­come the mea­sure for emerg­ing sides like Gal­way, Roscom­mon and Tip­per­ary.

Mon­aghan and Done­gal are among the con­tenders who see them­selves as be­long­ing to the brave new world of the Su­per 8s. Some coun­ties are go­ing to get squeezed be­fore then. It won’t be Dublin. It will take a mon­u­men­tal per­for­mance to un­seat the All-Ire­land cham­pi­ons.

Who among you all has the stuff?

PHO­TO­GRAPH: JAMES CROM­BIE/INPHO

Dublin cel­e­brate with Sam Maguire af­ter vic­tory in last year’s fi­nal – can any­one stop them claim­ing a four in a row?

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