THE 2020 All-Ireland Football Championship had almost everything, providing us with superb drama, shocks, last-minute winners, and surprise provincial winners, despite being effectively played out in the depths of winter.
Only one thing stopped it being a truly brilliant year for Gaelic football: the presence of Dublin.
The amazing and historic scenes in Ulster and Munster, as Cavan and Tipperary won unlikely provincial crowns, should have made it one of the great seasons. Imagine them fighting it out for Sam Maguire alongside long-suffering Mayo — it would have been wonderful. But alas, the Dublin juggernaut was never going to let sentiment get in the way of their bloodlust for silverware.
Winter might have scuppered the efforts of Napoleon’s Grand Armée of invading Russia in 1812 and the German army’s Operation Barbarossa in 1941, but it couldn’t put a dent in Dublin’s march to a six-in-a-row last December.
That may be unfair on Dublin, or may even come across as a statement born out of jealousy of the boys in blue and their monopoly of the game at present.
Well, it is.
Thirty-one counties — alas we don’t have London and New York in the Connacht championship this year due to Covid restrictions — are all entitled to be jealous at the huge advantages Dublin have over every other county in Ireland when it comes to the GAA. Whether it be player numbers, facilities, lack of travel, availability of experts in sports science and medicine, access to Croke Park, and the big one — cold hard cash, Dublin have everything stacked in their favour, but the main point of it all is that they are making it all count.
They always had the player numbers. They always had Croke Park. It is only when they got extra financing and got the right people in to oversee the development that this money can bankroll that they began to prosper, and now that they have cracked it, they are showing absolutely no sign of letting their stranglehold over the game slip anytime soon.
They can change managers and lose generational players of the calibre of Diarmuid Connolly, Jack McCaffrey and Bernard Brogan, yet the machine keeps churning. Newcomers like Michael Shiel, Sean McMahon, Aaron Byrne, Peadar Ó Cofaigh Byrne, and Tom Lahiff can come in and regenerate the side, to ensure that Father Time has little or no impact on the team. Of all the achievements of this fabulous team, this constant regeneration is perhaps their greatest.
With Brian Fenton, Ciaran Kilkenny, Dean Rock, Con O’Callaghan, and Niall Scully all at the height of their powers, and with another couple dozen players of a similar standard to come into the side in all positions, there are very few counties who can realistically contemplate dethroning them. Perhaps the only hope is that, as there is no back door, that if they had one bad day, they could get caught, yet this is unlikely in the extreme.
At the time of writing, there was doubt over the participation of their talismanic goalkeeper and leader Stephen Cluxton in this year’s championship (he's since stepped away). He had missed the entire league campaign and is likely to miss the early rounds of the Leinster Championship too.
If the Leinster Championship does not excite the Dublin captain enough to play, then how do the Dubs expect everyone else to watch them chase down huge handicaps against their near-neighbours for much longer?
Kildare and Meath are showing some signs of life in Leinster, but neither are likely to trouble Dublin for another year or two.
Mayo have started the Connacht Championship like a house on fire, but we’ve been down this road before. Aidan O’Shea being a flat-track bully against Sligo, where he banged home 2-2, will not be of much relevance when/if James Horan’s side reach Croke Park.
If they emerge out of Connacht, then they will face the Leinster champions in the All-Ireland semi-final, and there are no prizes for predicting who that is going to be.
Cillian O’Connor will miss the entire championship for Mayo, and it is difficult to see how they can prevail without their main attacking threat. The Ballintubber man scored 5-40 in five appearances in last year’s championship, and it is a big ask for the likes of Ryan O’Donoghue and Darren McHale to replace that kind of scoring power. Such a feat would be up there with the Danes winning Euro ’92 without Michael Laudrup.
Mayo will get one test in Connacht, as they are guaranteed to play a Division 1 side in the provincial final, as Galway face Roscommon in the other side of the draw. That should be a good test for the eventual winner.
Ulster will be the usual minefield, with perhaps the only certainty being that Cavan will not retain their title, given their recent relegation to Division 4 in the league, as well as their tough draw.
They face Tyrone first up in Omagh, and should they somehow survive that, they would then face the winners of Donegal and Derry in the semi-final, in what is very clearly the tougher side of the draw.
We can expect the other semi-final to be a meeting of the Division 1 pairing of Armagh and Monaghan, as the province is likely to give us some of the closest, hardest, and most thrilling matches of the season, all crammed into a frantic four-week lunge for the Anglo-Celt Cup.
The recently-completed Division 1 North, which comprised of Donegal, Tyrone, Monaghan, and Armagh, gave us a snapshot in what to expect over the next few weeks, as half of the six games ended in draws, while Tyrone’s five-point win over Armagh proved to be the biggest winning margin of all the ties, as there were a number of incredibly exciting finishes.
They might all end up cannibalising each other in July and be punched out by the time the eventual Ulster champions reach Croke Park to face the Munster kingpins, but they certainly won’t want for match sharpness by then anyway.
And speaking of Munster, after last year’s last-second defeat at the hands of Cork, Kerry will be hoping to regain their provincial crown and outgun the Ulster champions in order to have another crack at halting the Dubs.
The evidence of their Division 1 South campaign would suggest that they are going to be a tougher proposition to score against this year, while with the dynamic duo of David Clifford and Sean O’Shea up front, they are always likely to score heavily.
They batted aside what was, on paper, a dangerous-looking Clare side in the Munster quarter-final, and the reigning champions Tipperary are likely to be but a speed bump to Peter Keane’s motivated side in the semi-final.
Cork showed us last year that they are far from unbeatable, and that they can be rattled —but it will take a serious performance to prevent the Kingdom from reaching Croke Park this year.
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