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Declan Bogue: Strap yourself in for a Super show as GAA comes to the people

Close eye: Tyrone ace Colm Cavanagh with James McCarthy of Dublin
Close eye: Tyrone ace Colm Cavanagh with James McCarthy of Dublin
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

A simple thought: has the attraction of playing and watching games in Croke Park, apart from All-Ireland semi-finals and finals, evaporated?

We say that only because there is a great deal of excitement around the opening round of Super8s games this weekend, with provincial champions now rightly getting to play their first game at home.

Last year, the first round was played in Croke Park. All of the games were deflating.

Back in 2002, when Croke Park was a shiny and new thing, I attended a quarter-final double-header where Armagh drew with Sligo and Kerry demolished Galway. There were 59,252 in the crowd that day.

But on the Sunday of the first round of Super8s last year, with Kerry, Galway, Monaghan and Kildare in action, only 30,740 came along.

There is nothing as dispiriting as a half-empty Croke Park.

This year, it is all different. You should expect the excitement to be high in the week leading into the first round of the Super8s, but with the games taking place in Roscommon's Hyde Park, Pairc MacCumhaill in Ballybofey and the majestic Fitzgerald Stadium in Killarney, then there is a sense of taking the games to the people.

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For the Super8s to be successful, it has to create memories. After a slow start last year, things got going in week two.

Top of the bill was Tyrone against Dublin in Omagh. Coming with a fresh controversy when the sidelines of Healy Park were moved in to narrow the pitch - Dublin goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton duly found touch from four kickouts - it was a brilliant day in the history of the town.

In Main Street, an artificial street with pubs and restaurants just off the main thoroughfare, the Dublin supporters took over from mid-afternoon. Before long, it was covered in people listening to music, eating, drinking, flicking beach balls into the air, basically having an absolute blast.

A week later, Tyrone and Donegal played in a packed Ballybofey in a winner-takes-all affair. It was heated, sweaty, nervy and desperate stuff.

It was football with the safety net gone between two sets of players that have no regard for each other. It was truly one of the great days to be at a football match.

Monaghan folks will richly recall the night before. They had to go down and get something out of their trip to Galway in Pearse Stadium by the Atlantic. They did so, leaving the final group game between Kerry and Kildare a dead-rubber and confirming the end of Eamonn Fitzmaurice's reign. When Monaghan won by double scores, their fans took over the pitch with a western sun shining warmly upon them.

The drab opening week gave way to a sometimes spectacular series. That's why it was so important for the GAA at large - by that we mean those employed in leadership positions who have taken a hammering of late for their performance at the launch of the Super8s last Tuesday in Scotstown - to get what The Donald calls 'a win' for the Association.

Apart from the very biggest days, nothing in Croke Park has the potential to be as special as days in the far-flung provinces.

We got a flavour of that a few weeks ago. In Newry, for the visit of Mayo - only the second time they had played Championship football north of the border - the travelling faithful had taken over the bar and every spare inch of space from the moment the fresh carvery dinner was served in The Canal Court.

Look at the games coming this weekend. Kerry host Mayo, a side they have twice lost to this year already and who knocked them out in 2017, with question marks over their ability to match up physically.

Roscommon have been sitting pretty with another Connacht Championship, but have a battle-hardened Tyrone coming their way. After the Red Hands beat them by 18 points last year, their former manager Kevin McStay reflected that the Rossies needed to work on their defence and strength and conditioning - two areas that his successor Anthony Cunningham has managed brilliantly.

With huge pride and progress at stake, the games are primed to provide us with something special over the month of July.

The stage is set. Off we go!

Belfast Telegraph

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