JACK MADDEN: Here comes the sun

By Jack Madden

THE draw – it’s a funny one. The immediate aftermath provides an array of semi-emotive nothingness. The silence says it all really.

In today’s game, it requires even more reflection. Gone are the days of the replay, where American football brings All-Ireland semi-finals to Limerick, and where Mayo prolong their barren spell of agony by manner of postponement.

A point apiece. That’s it. Onto the next one, lads.

For Saturday’s game in Celtic Park, the majority of the smaller-than-usual travelling support tried to restrain themselves from cheering at the full-time whistle. A smaller percentage made their delight clear.

One young fella that looked about 22 even sprinted across the turf and slid on his knees as if Karl O’Connell had just captured Monaghan’s first ever Sam Maguire. Actually, he was definitely 22. I was running alongside him….

That alone showed the expectation levels on the journey over the road. The away day traffic you come to expect from the Ballygawley roundabout to Omagh just wasn’t there. A month ago, Monaghan and Derry were poles apart. If a week is a long time in sport, then 28 days is a lifetime.

The opening round was a weekend for the draws across the board. Armagh can count themselves lucky they missed the memo, while Cork and Louth were tit-for-tat. On Sunday, Derry defeated Monaghan in the Ulster Minor Championship final on penalties. Another draw, and disappointment for the young Farney guns who had beaten Tyrone on penalties themselves.

If we focus on the seniors however, the new format of the Sam Maguire has taken plenty of criticism from writers and supporters alike. There may well be too many games to eliminate too few teams, but if the theme of tight games from this weekend continues, then the more the merrier.

If we really want to level the playing field, then the likes of Westmeath, Sligo, Clare, etc need more games to test themselves at the highest level. Results have suggested they are catching up to some degree.

To those suggesting that the championship hasn’t fully caught fire yet, of course it hasn’t. This time last year we would have been in the midst of the Qualifiers, which wouldn’t set the Zip factory alight, never mind the world.

For many, the game of the year was the Galway-Armagh quarter-final that went to penalties. Even if you were to include that match, the average winning margin at that stage in 2022 was 8.25 points.

Pre-Covid, the ‘Super 8s’ certainly helped to even out results, but like this year, they were a league-style system rather than knockout. The last time we had knockout quarter-finals was 2017, where provincial championships held far more weight than they do now. Again, there was one draw between Mayo and Roscommon, and still the average winning margin was nine points, including the forgettable scoreline of Tyrone 3-17 Armagh 0-8.

Hindsight is really the only measure of truly evaluating what is a brand new system. It is only a year ago since swathes of lower-tier inter-county stars packed in the Tailteann Cup for a summer Stateside.

Some decided to take it seriously, others didn’t. The likes of Sligo are completely unrecognisable in 2023 as a result, having been unfortunate to lose to Cavan in last year’s semi-final. And that’s before we even mention the champions Westmeath.

In the final, substitute Kieran Martin was introduced, and he ran like a man possessed before rifling the ball beyond Cavan captain Raymond Galligan. Martin strikes you as a born winner, but in the GAA winning happens to be heavily impacted on where you are born.

Try and tell him that medal meant nothing, as he climbed up the Hogan Stand and embraced Tom Farrell, father of his friend Eoinie he had lost that very same week. As he bore down on goal, Oisín Kiernan and the ironically-named Luke Fortune were made to look like kids. The Cavan defence was more reminiscent of an understaffed Spanish rodeo. Martin, the bull who would not be tamed.

And then of course there was Luke Loughlin. At the weekend, he kicked two points against Armagh. Two years ago, his vision of the future incorporated little other than an early grave.

“I genuinely got to the stage where I hated everything about myself so when I was drinking and doing drugs, I was becoming someone else but ultimately that person I was becoming was killing me. It was killing everything, my reputation, my family life.”

That RTÉ piece from 14 July, 2022 alone showed the power of sport. The Tailteann Cup’s reputation was safe and secure virtually overnight, if it wasn’t already, with a sea of maroon having something to celebrate for the first time in a long time.

There would have been one man with a special place in his heart for the Lake County casting an eye over every little detail in Croke Park just as he did in 2004, but this time from above. His words of wisdom are now carved into the DNA of any man, woman, or child that pulls on the jersey.

“A grain of rice can tip the scales”.

The summer has only just begun. The games are only going to get bigger. If last weekend showed us anything, we have no idea what lies in store, and maybe that’s perfectly fine. It’s only 13 years ago we ditched the experts in favour of an octopus to predict the World Cup, and even poor Paul is dead now.

The ‘preliminary quarter-finals’ may not have the same sex appeal as the NBA play-offs, or even the ‘Super 8s’, but we can make the necessary tweaks with hindsight. Can we not just enjoy the football first?

The winter will be long enough.

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