AT the end of the All-Ireland finals in 2020, there was no explosion of noise, no crescendo of happy chaos, just the players, management and backroom teams shrieks and shouts of elation piercing the evening sky.
There was still a significant difference in tone and mood between the aftermaths of the hurling and football finals, which was understandable; Dublin are used to hoovering up All-Irelands; Limerick aren’t.
It would be wrong to say that Dublin weren’t as happy, or as overjoyed as Limerick; James McCarthy was visibly emotional when interviewed by Dave McIntyre for Sky Sports moments after the final whistle.
Yet that Dublin emotion is naturally more hidden and concealed than the outward explosion expressed by Limerick – because deep inner satisfaction has long replaced delirium on this Dublin team’s emotional scale.
Dublin have produced far better performances than they did in the final, but they still have a cruising speed that ensures the machine eventually wears the opposition down. Mayo did so much right for three quarters but they couldn’t sustain that manic pace and energy required, and they didn’t have enough quality up front to force the machine to a halt. In the end, Dublin just ran them off the road.
Dublin firmly own the football road now. Watching them stroll to another title was soul-destroying for every other county, but it was just another dose of cold reality administered by a team intent on a level of domination never seen before in the GAA.
Their dominance is threatening the very fabric of the championship, and the atmosphere and expectation around it. A number of teams can get close to Dublin but taking that next step and beating them is still going to take a quantum leap.
Apart from Mayo, no other side got within a whisker of Dublin in 2020; outside of the All-Ireland final, Dublin won their other four games by an aggregate margin of 69 points. Yet, similar to how Leinster would routinely be every year if Dublin weren’t involved, the 2020 championship was a highly entertaining one outside of Dublin’s dominance.
The point that former Donegal footballer Eamon McGee made in his newspaper column in early October about the new normal for inter-county players was borne out in some cases. Despite the lockdown, and the club championships, McGee wrote how most players had still been “in the inter-county frame of mind” for most of the year.
McGee felt that that amateur players simply can’t give that attention for 12 months. “Will this be a psychological problem for some players when they hit the pressure situations that are coming over the next few weeks?” asked McGee.
“Knockout football will always spring a surprise or two. That’s not an assumption, that’s an actual guarantee and we will see a few strange results.”
A knockout football championship was always going to ramp up the pressure on amateur players, but, it also reignited that old do-or-die element of death or glory. And with no second chance, many teams just went bald-headed for glory.
A winter championship made it feel like more of a level playing field, especially when county teams didn’t have the same amount of collective training, coaching time or tactical planning they normally would have leading into the championship. That context also left more room for emotion to help compensate for any perceived deficit in class, skill and experience.
The top teams were still fancied to progress, but there was always the potential for the dynamic to radically change as confidence and momentum grew amongst teams emerging from the pack.
Outside of Leinster, the drama and shock-factor was everywhere. Kerry fell to Cork, who in turn were beaten by Tipperary.
Cavan negotiated their way through a minefield in Ulster, winning four games in 22 days. Mayo may have reached All-Ireland finals in 2016 and 2017, and were semi-finalists last year, but their epic one-point Connacht final win against Galway secured a first provincial title since 2015.
Munster has long been the most maligned province in the country but it was on a par with Ulster for high-wire drama.
A raft of teams in Ulster will have huge regret, especially Monaghan, Down and Donegal, who narrowly lost to Cavan. Tyrone will also harbour disappointment after losing to Donegal by two points.
Yet four teams in Munster will also look back on the 2020 campaign with a huge degree of pain. Cork and Kerry will for obvious reasons but Clare’s three-point defeat to Tipp was all the more harrowing considering what subsequently unfolded, and particularly given Clare’s recent good record against Limerick and Cork.
Limerick led Tipp deep into injury time of normal time of their Munster semi-final until an incredible Conor Sweeney point from a sideline brought the match to extra-time, which Tipp won by one point.
The drama though, instantly evaporated after the provincial championships. Dublin beat Cavan by 15 points. Mayo whacked Tipp by 13 points. Then Dublin ruthlessly extinguished Mayo’s hopes again.
Dublin ended their campaign by not conceding a goal through the entire championship. That’s another impressive record to add to their haul. Yet by this stage, the counting has long stopped. And the over-bearing and looming question now is when, and where, will the counting stop?