Sam Maguire: Drama, tension, excitment - there’s nothing like the championship
Gaelic football and hurling are perhaps unique in all of the world indigenous sports for the very structure of competition.
At first glance, you could compare it to the eastern-western conferences of some of the American sports, drawing parallels with the system that the Championship utilises; broadly speaking the champions from each province meeting in the final stages of competition.
While the backdoor system has rendered that argument redundant, the point we make is that from January, footballers and hurlers can play up to a maximum of 14 games — as in the case of Tyrone's footballers over winter and spring — yet only be warming up for the Championship.
There is no route possible in the All-Ireland series to play 14 games. The most circuitous route taken by a team to win Sam Maguire is 10; and that coincidentally was Tyrone in 2005, who had to play replays against Armagh and Dublin throughout that marathon campaign.
Therefore, everything that has gone on up until now fades into the background of thinking. Should a team perform well in the Championship, what they achieved in the league will not matter a fig to their followers. It could be considered lopsided thinking, but the GAA is nothing if not a traditional beast, and as the old saying goes; ‘league is league and Championship is Championship.'
There is a wonderful symmetry between the evenings growing longer and the climate teasing us with the promise of the odd splash of sunshine, with the pitches getting harder, club action beginning and the Ulster Championship looming.
Many is the cliché that has been distorted and abused in capturing the essence of what Irish summers are comprised of for the GAA fan, but sunburnt Ulster finals, epic tussles of hurling in Thurles narrated by a car radio, and moments of high drama where the sensations in a stadium oscillate between dread, foreboding and anticipation is an exotic, racing beat that draws us along from every May to the last couple of weekends of September.
The Championship, like many major sporting competitions the world over, will not start with a bang. Instead, it will be ushered in gently and given time to breathe, take shape and come alive.
On May 19, the Ulster Championship gets underway when Armagh travel to face a dangerous-looking Cavan in Breffni Park. Two years ago, Donegal hosted Antrim on a rotten damp Ballybofey day. The visitors came with a defensive mindset and mirrored their hosts. It was a terrible game of football, but unfortunately it was the only major fixture on that day.
There's only so much lipstick you can put on a pig, so when the pundits and columnists were finished belly-aching, it seemed as though there was no future in the Ulster Championship, it had become so ugly.
Naturally, life went on. Donegal were in the early stages of creating something that would land them an All-Ireland title 16 months later. Yes, the match was not entertainment, but the mistake some paid analysts make is to believe that Gaelic football has anything to do with the ‘entertainment' industry.
Whatever transpires in Breffni Park on May 19, the players and management teams of Armagh and Cavan will not receive the same microscopic study. It is not even the biggest game of the day, with last year's All-Ireland finalists Mayo getting their campaign off with a visit to old enemies Galway at Salthill's Pearse Stadium, while in Leinster, a promising Westmeath take on minnows Carlow.
If we have one hope for those early rounds, it is that they are not demeaned by the critics. Gaelic football and hurling are wonderfully-skillful games.
With the implementation of more consistent officiating and a few caveats added to the rulebook, they can become even greater. What a shame it would be if we let the same old tired faces who seem genuinely bored and cheesed off with everything about the GAA, suck the life out of the contests ahead.
Yet, we say this in the full knowledge that as soon as a ball is kicked, there will be proclamations that the Championship will not truly get underway until that game between Donegal and Tyrone on May 26.
We know the date. If we were ever unsure of it, almost every interview conducted with someone from the Donegal camp has reminded us of it. From when the draw paired these two up, the discussion in Ulster has been around the reigning All-Ireland champions against the former kingpins.
While it is the distilled version of the Ulster Championship, there are dozens of other subplots yet to unfold over the summer.
How will Jim Gavin cope with the hype machine that is Dublin, especially in the wake of the biting controversy and a possible meeting with Donegal down the line?
Will James Horan be able to take Mayo to their long-awaited All-Ireland?
Have the slippages shown in the early stages of the league for Kerry become irreversible, or is there a sting from a dying wasp in store?
Do this Cork side have what it takes to deliver more than just one All-Ireland, or are they destined to forever frustrate?
We have all that to occupy us before we even get round to pondering how Mickey Harte can finally crack the Rubik's cube of Jim McGuinness' Catenaccio, or if indeed it is impenetrable?
This is the summer. This is the GAA. Soak up it up and live it.