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twists and turns Championship surprises are expected to be in short supply but crowd-pleasers are a certainty

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Con O'Callaghan has been in scintillating form in the Dublin attack this year. Photo: Sportsfile

Con O'Callaghan has been in scintillating form in the Dublin attack this year. Photo: Sportsfile

Con O'Callaghan has been in scintillating form in the Dublin attack this year. Photo: Sportsfile

AN overview of the All-Ireland Football and Hurling Championships is probably best started at the end and worked backwards.

An All-Ireland Football final between Dublin and Kerry on Sunday August 29 and an All-Ireland Hurling decider seven days earlier between Limerick and Galway? As straightforward as that? Is there any need to join the dots, trace the journeys?

It’s not that simple, of course, but ultimately these are the most likely pairings, unless one or other of the hurling protagonists get blown off course in their provinces. Dublin and Kerry are far less likely to face such turbulence in football.

In between, there’ll be some diversions and roadblocks, twists and turns and a hope that some of the magic of last year’s provincial Football Championship wins for Tipperary and Cavan on the same afternoon can rub off on this Championship too.

And there’ll be crowds, however small but so welcome nonetheless, creating an atmosphere that was so badly missed last year and throughout much of the league campaign that has just ended.

Never again will people take their presence on a terrace or in a stand for granted. And however less pressurised an empty stadium may be, players and management won’t take that presence for granted either.

It has started slowly with 200 in county grounds (provided they have over 5,000 capacity), building up to 500 in July and, though it has yet to be signed off, a big lift through August for the conclusion of the All-Ireland Championships is anticipated. In between, there will be pilot events accommodating much bigger crowds and that, hopefully, will become the norm.

Sadly, the vast majority of supporters won’t get to see their teams play ‘in person’ this summer, just as they didn’t last autumn and winter.

Blink and you’ll miss the Football Championship, certainly in the early stages when the attrition rate – without a back door – will be high.

The loss of that second chance, for a second successive year, renders the Championship a little pointless for a majority of teams for whom the league’s ‘moving weekend’ just gone was much more significant and relevant. There’s an inevitability about the defeats that some will suffer.

Seven teams will exit after the first weekend with another seven and then five over the following weekends, bringing to 12 the number of football teams that will remain by the evening of Sunday, July 17.

If the league is a useful gauge, then the ambition of more teams to express themselves is increasing. But that has come at a price for some counties. You only have to look at the fate suffered by Galway and Tyrone against Kerry and Westmeath in their relegation play-off with Cork. Jack Cooney’s side scored 25 points but conceded 3-22 to lose, 50 scores in a 70-minute plus game!

The decision to stick with straightforward provincial Championships largely dictates that Dublin and Kerry will meet at the conclusion. Yes, it didn’t happen last year when it was projected to but what are the chances of Kerry slipping up in successive years? Really?

David Clifford and Séan O’Shea both look more powerful and mobile, Diarmuid O’Connor has grown to be a steady midfield hand and while complete trust can’t be placed in their defence, after shipping four goals to Dublin in Thurles, it’s better than it was.

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Dublin’s Leinster ‘rivals’ are, if anything, drifting further away and the champions can plan to peak for the middle of August in the knowledge that the skies, until then, are cloud free.

Even if they have to replace Stephen Cluxton or Dean Rock struggles for fitness, Evan Comerford and Cormac Costello will slot in, just as Robbie McDaid and Paddy Small have for Jack McCaffrey and Paul Mannion. And the wheels just keep turning.

In Connacht, Roscommon’s league form would suggest that they have begun to slip off the pace somewhat.

Mayo are champions, courtesy of their Connacht final win over Galway last November, but if current rules around cynical play applied, they might not be, bearing in mind that late tackle on Seán Kelly would now result in a penalty as it denied a clear goal-scoring chance.

Of greatest concern now to Mayo is Cillian O’Connor’s injury and the impact that might have.

When Galway dust themselves down from the bitter disappointment of losing to Monaghan and, consequently, their top-flight status, they’ll realise that they are in quite decent shape and have some of the most talented players around.

Matthew Tierney has made a quick adaption, Rob Finnerty continues to grow, Cathal Sweeney is a prospect.

Mayo ran in four new players during last year’s Championship and reached an All-Ireland final. That’s a template for Galway to follow.

The standard in Ulster has come into question, not just because current champions Cavan have dropped to Division 4 of the league (Tipperary joined them in the basement) but the apparent distance Dublin and Kerry put between themselves and Tyrone and Donegal in the recent league semi-finals.

A true reflection of either Tyrone or Donegal it may not have been, but still, the notion that they present the ‘stronger’ side of the Ulster draw is not borne out by current form as Armagh and Monaghan showed an ability to compete hard in Division 1 North.

Tyrone’s new management ticket, Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher, are still finding their feet, Donegal have lost three games in successive Championships that have cost them a place in an All-Ireland semi-final but still look best equipped to advance.

Hurling’s high scoring rate has been a discussion point, not just in this league past but over the last couple of seasons. The end product is not to everyone’s taste but one thing that can’t be denied is that the level of skill and power in the game has never been greater.

The back-to-back element of the Liam MacCarthy Cup may not be a primary focus for this group of Limerick players but it is for everyone else. Stripping out the exception of Kilkenny, only Cork (2005-2006) in the last 30 years have successfully defended an All-Ireland title.

Limerick came close in 2019, much closer than many realise, and have built a level of consistency into their game, notwithstanding their start to their Division 1A League campaign, that will make them hard to pass.

That said, they meet a Cork side that has troubled them in their last two Munster Championship meetings and has addressed an apparent goal shyness by rattling in 18 in five league games. By comparison, Limerick scored four.

On the other side in Munster, Tipperary await the winners of Waterford and Clare with enough doubt sowed into their minds after a final day league defeat to Waterford, who are a little bit open at the back with Tadhg de Búrca’s absence but have added dimensions to their attack with Shane Bennett’s return and Dessie Hutchinson’s quick adaption.

Liam Sheedy gave game time to 32 players, seeking answers through the league as to whether he should twist or stick on the question of personnel. Of the potential new recruits, Brian McGrath, Paddy Cadell and Willie Connors got most game time but the temptation to stick for now may be greater for the management.

In Leinster, Wexford haven’t managed to recover anything like their 2019 form and look to be in the slipstream of both Kilkenny and Galway, who are on course for another Leinster final meeting.

Galway look to have pushed on from 2020 with improvement throughout the field, especially in attack where Brian Concannon and Conor Whelan are forging a really strong alliance, while Cathal Mannion’s loss in the All-Ireland semi-final against Limerick last year has been highlighted more by his current form.

Whatever any other team throws at them, they look equipped to deal with. However, Limerick ask different questions of their opponents that twice in the last three years Galway haven’t been able to answer fully.

At least beaten teams in the hurling championship have a second chance and while recovery will have to be swift, given the compression of the calendar, it gives most something more to play for than their football counterparts, something appreciated and, no doubt, exploited by some of the early losers in Munster especially.

For now, Dublin and Limerick have the inside lanes and know which opponent is most likely to be breathing down their necks as they take that final bend.

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