Joe Kernan: Now we have a true golden era for Sam Maguire
When Kerry won seven All Ireland football titles between 1978 and 1986 they were rightly hailed as the true masters of gaelic football.
The Kingdom amassed four titles on the trot embracing the period from 1978 until 1981 and then ‘loaned’ the Sam Maguire Cup to Offaly (1982) and Dublin (1983) before resuming their dominance of the All Ireland series by claiming a hat-trick of titles from 1984 until 1986.
Kerry fans of a certain generation still bask in the glories of that era while the players who achieved folk-hero status are still revered as sporting gods even beyond their own county frontier.
But while Kerry have since then enhanced their collection of All Ireland titles — they are still well ahead of the field with 36 to their credit — they have been unable to replicate their sustained spells of protracted authority that garnished the 1970s and 80s.
And the chances of the Kingdom or indeed any other side collecting a string of All Ireland titles in succession in the future have receded considerably.
That’s because there has been a palpable levelling out in standards over the course of the past few seasons with many county teams now in a position to challenge more strongly for honours.
The adoption of more sophisticated training methods, greater emphasis on conditioning, stronger focus on statistics, more sustained input from players irrespective of their actual position on the park and in many cases better management strategy means that the gap has been closed between the haves and the have-nots.
I know that cynics will point to the fact that Kerry (4) and Tyrone (3) have dominated the All Ireland series since 2000 but the evidence on offer during the past two years in particular that more teams are in a better position to challenge for major honours is even more compelling.
While Cork have been mentioned as favourites to lift ‘Sam’ even before a ball was kicked in the All Ireland series this year, I would be loathe to invest heavily on their chances of securing their first All Ireland football crown since 1990.
And this is not being disrespectful to Cork. Rather, it is taking cognisance of the fact that teams such as Kerry, Dublin, Meath, Tyrone, Monaghan and dare I say it Galway might just be able to wield some influence in where ‘Sam’ might eventually end up.
The fact that the All Ireland Championship has become a more open, unpredictable competition is an extremely healthy sign.
Let us remember that when Kerry were virtually claiming ownership of football’s biggest prize during what is referred to as their ‘golden era’ they were perhaps playing no more than five championship matches per year before going through the formality of lifting their accolade — and you can take it as read that the outcome of at least two of those games were foregone conclusions before the ball was thrown in.
This is all in sharp contrast to today’s hugely competitive arena and indeed to the journeys which some teams have had to negotiate in recent years to reach the summit. Tyrone played ten games before finally getting their hands on Sam in 2005 while Armagh engaged in a rather similar-style marathon in 2003 and still left Croke Park empty-handed.
When I watched Mayo lose to Sligo last Saturday in the Connacht championship quarter-final, I knew that they had set themselves the task of winning seven more matches before they might end an All Ireland famine that dates back to 1951 — difficult or what!
In contrast, Monaghan have suddenly thrust themselves into the frame as viable Ulster champions and a good outside bet to become All Ireland champions following their clinical destruction of Armagh last Sunday.
Their manager Seamus McEnaney has been my No.2 since I took over as Ulster manager and a more enthusiastic devotee of football you would not find. His players did last Sunday what he does all the time — they wore their hearts on their sleeves.
Who would be prepared to bet against them in the Ulster semi-final irrespective of who they will be meeting?
And keep a close eye on Dublin and Meath in an All Ireland context.