Belfast Telegraph

Monday 21 April 2014

Early stages left us with empty feeling

Unlike in Ulster, the other provinces are finding it hard to fill stands, as Dublin's game with Westmeath showed

When the Allianz Football League was in full swing – and providing a decent level of entertainment let it be said – we were constantly being served reminders that what we were witnessing would not be a patch on the All-Ireland Championship series.

And so the vast majority of us were quite happy to enjoy the dishes that were being put before us in the February-March-April period and exercise patience as we awaited the arrival of the Championship, the undoubted jewel in the GAA crown.

But the truth of the matter is the Championship, an embodiment of the four provincial competitions, has offered flat beer rather than the anticipated haute cuisine fare to date.

The Munster football championship, indeed, has been tarnished by one-sided games that have done absolutely nothing for the image of the sport in the province with the image of the GAA, by extension, suffering.

Kerry's runaway win over Tipperary (2-18 to 0-8) was followed by a trouncing of Waterford (4-21 to 1-4) and hey presto they are through to the final.

And Cork's demolition of Limerick (3-17 to 0-8) in front of vast empty swathes of terracing at the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick was the ultimate non-event.

Things have not been a whole lot better in Connacht where the drubbing Galway received at the hands of neighbours Mayo (4-16 to 0-11) all but sealed the destination of the title.

London provided a spark of excitement and intrigue by overcoming Sligo and it is a measure of the absence of glamour, passion and pageantry that we are forced to dwell on this result as a high point in the western campaign.

And when Dublin dismantled Westmeath on Saturday night at Croke Park by 1-22 to 0-9 they did so in a muted atmosphere.

Jim Gavin's side rarely emerged from second gear in leaving the gallant but technically inferior midland side on the seat of their pants.

Only in Ulster has the championship series delivered in terms of quality, crowd appeal and individual performances.

When Armagh and Cavan set the ball rolling, Martin Dunne and Eugene Keating stole the show, the former with his spectacular nine points and the latter via his creative energy.

Then when Donegal hosted Tyrone, we were treated to a gripping encounter in front of a sell-out crowd at Ballybofey that provided the whole country with a miscellany of talking points for the following week.

Are Donegal now viable contenders for back-to-back All-Ireland titles? Will Michael Murphy, Colm McFadden and Patrick McBrearty now be remembered as a truly great full-forward line? Can Tyrone do what they did in 2005 and win 'Sam' via the back door route?

All are fascinating elements of a competition that far outweighs that on offer in the other provinces in terms of skill, intensity and, pertinently, value for money.

If we thought that we had been regally entertained by the throbbing Donegal v Tyrone encounter, then Down and Derry provided a spectacle that was garnished by sublime scoring, herculean individual feats, wonderfully executed goals and eye-catching contributions from some new kids on the block including Derry forward Benny Heron and Down's Niall Madine.

It is a measure of the quality of last Sunday's game that it bears comparison with the classic encounter served up by the same two sides in 1994 – and the tie cannot be paid a higher compliment than that.

And in contrast to the meagre attendances which have been de rigueur at Munster matches, there were 10,500 enthralled spectators at Celtic Park with the red and white bedecked home fans savouring every moment of the first-half action and the red and black army revelling in a stunning second-half renaissance by their team that yielded 2-5 and triggered discussion that the destination of the Ulster title might not be such a foregone conclusion after all.

The Ulster menu would appear to offer even more tantalising fare with next Sunday's Antrim v Monaghan semi-final an opportunity for the Saffrons to put their dismal league form behind them and come good in the provincial series for the first time since 2009 when they were beaten by Tyrone in the final.

Then we will have a Donegal v Down semi-final that will be a re-match of last year's decider which was won by Jim McGuinness's side by 2-18 to 0-13. But since then James McCartan and his men have charted a course through Division One which, although it terminated in relegation, has clearly helped to hone the side.

With Daniel Hughes and Aidan Carr perhaps in line for game time against the All-Ireland champions, all bets might be off for the moment at least.

While the Ulster Championship is bubbling up to what could prove a thrilling climax, the appeal of the Dublin v Kildare semi-final will certainly help to dispel some of the disappointment endured because of the one-sided nature of the Dublin v Westmeath tie in Leinster.

But there would appear to be little redemption on offer in Munster and Connacht.

Sure, Cork and Kerry will clash in the Munster decider but couldn't this game have taken place weeks ago without the teams having to go through the academic exercise of confronting teams who were clearly out of their depth?

And won't Mayo glide to the Connacht title at their will because of the paucity of opposition that they will face?

The Ulster Championship is still way out in front as a meaningful, vibrant competition and further evidence of this will be provided over the course of the next month.

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