The rescheduling of the competition with its earlier start in the calendar at a time that sees many other sports coming to their climax seems to have reduced the sporting public’s emotional investment.
Hopefully that will change soon.
Last week, after finishing training with our club minor team (St Pat’s of Donabate), I asked a few of the lads on the way out whether they were going to the game on Sunday?
The first response was: “What do you mean? The game is on Saturday”. Crossed wires! The young lad was referring to Leinster rugby’s game in the Aviva.
“The Dublin-Meath game on Sunday in Croker is what I am talking about,” I replied.
“Oh,” came the response, “I did not know that game was on. Yeah, we must try to get tickets.”
It’s only one anecdote but it sums up the football championship to date. You would barely know it is in full swing as we head toward the four provincial finals.
The change to the calendar has left the early stages of the championship suffocated by the conclusion of the Premier League, the Champions League and Champions Cup activity.
Maybe it is probably best that our games were not in the shop window. With the exception of the Mayo-Galway clash and the competitive Ulster Championship, there has been little to really ‘get your teeth into’.
So with the midpoint in sight let’s look at the front-runners in the race for the Sam Maguire.
The Kingdom are the team with the strongest depth in their panel and with the greatest weight of expectation bearing down on them that this talented group needs to deliver the big one.
With an easy route to the All-Ireland quarter-finals, there are concerns about whether they will be properly road-tested if they meet an Ulster side with momentum from the qualifiers.
It was interesting in their clash against Cork that manager Jack O’Connor held some experienced players in reserve like David Moran, Paul Geaney and Paul Murphy in order to make a positive impact off the bench – and they did.
Do any of the main contenders have the same depth to make a match-winning impact off the bench? It was one of the key factors in Dublin winning the six-in-a-row and for me the reason why Kerry are in pole position to deliver Sam and end their eight-year ‘famine’.
Dessie Farrell’s men were not rated as All-Ireland contenders by many when they were relegated from the top flight of this year’s league but there have been winds of change recently.
Neither Wexford nor Meath asked any questions of Dublin but they were ruthless in getting the job done to advance to their Leinster final against Kildare.
The league hangover where the body language and decision-making under pressure was very poor at times appear to be behind them.
Some of the key players looked refreshed and the return of Con O’Callaghan has injected a different dynamic into their forward line.
The belief and winning culture within the group mean they will fear no one and there is a sense the pressure is off the group. Another All-Ireland success would be perceived as a major bonus, and one ‘against the head’.
The big question lies ahead: how will they react if brought down the stretch?
Dublin can no longer replace like for like in terms of substitutions and that along with the lack of defensive options are the big concerns.
A bad league final defeat to Kerry was followed by their loss to Galway and all of a sudden their stock has fallen. However, they are still very dangerous opponents and while they have not reached the top of the mountain they have great resilience as a group and if they get momentum in the qualifiers they could still have a big say this summer.
James Horan’s side have been cursed with injuries all season to key players which is a major worry.
Also, Galway were well set up for Mayo’s running game and they were too predictable in their approach with the Tribesmen winning the tactical battle in Castlebar. They will need to mix up their game-plan and have a stronger backbone to their defence when against the top forward lines.
Sam may be beyond them but they are still a team that can beat anyone on their day. Dangerous opponents for anyone.
Rory Gallagher’s emerging side have been the team of the championship to date.
It was clear after last year’s championship and the league that Derry were a coming force. Gallagher has a full ‘buy-in’ from his panel and is getting the maximum from his group.
They have a very solid defensive structure which is inspired by three brilliant players – Chrissy McKaigue, Brendan Rogers and Gareth McGinless – and they have married it with an offensive plan that can pull apart the opposition defence.
Goals have been crucial for the Oak Leaf men and they have been excellent in closing out victories from leading positions.
However, there have been small signs that fatigue in their high-energy game can become a factor in the concluding quarter.
Their template is well signposted now and the key for opposing teams is not to let them dictate the terms of the game; opposition teams need to establish a lead and force Derry to amend their game-plan.
Have they that flexibility? A team that no one wants to meet and a cracking Ulster final is on the horizon against Donegal.
The team that is hardest to decipher at the moment. Declan Bonner’s outfit have cruised into the Ulster final and you get a sense that they are still not playing to their full ability.
They are a hugely talented group with great pace and can be very accurate in front of goal on their day.
However, they can be guilty of being a little one-dimensional in their attacking approach and posting Michael Murphy at the edge of the square may give them a different dynamic.
Their defence, in my view, can be
too nice and they currently lack the steel and intensity they had in recent years.
They looked open and were exposed by Cavan’s kicking game which could have made life far more difficult in their provincial semi-final.
The reigning All-Ireland champions are the team with the biggest question marks hanging over them. Was the Derry game a blip or something deeper?
Tyrone were flat, lacked energy and did not look like a team that had the hunger to go back to war.
However, they are another team that you cannot write off, but they need to find their best form very soon.
BEST OF THE REST . . .
You can never rule out Monaghan, but they should have been better prepared for Derry.
Galway were tactically astute against Mayo but need to show consistency and bring it to the next level now.
Roscommon are dark horses, waiting in the long grass and have great ability up front.
Armagh endured a very poor performance against Donegal and are better than what they showed.
Kildare were ruthless in their shot-to-score ratio against Louth but bar a great spell in the first half against Westmeath were more ordinary.
Maybe they were holding back something for the Dubs next week!