By Aonghus O Maicin
Had you spent the last few months off the grid, getting back in touch with nature or even just avoiding the so-called predictability of the GAA summer, you must have been hit with some shock to the senses upon your return this week.
You may even have questioned the length of time you were away. What year is it? Where am I? Is this a fantasy?
Has my dalliance with nature robbed me of basic comprehension of the modern world?
What happened to the Kerry-Dublin All-Ireland final, the great team of yesterday coming up against the great team of tomorrow, the ancient rivalry about to enter its most exciting chapter yet?
The script had been written. The stage had long been set for only two protagonists, the canvas laid out for only Dublin and Kerry to paint.
It’s been the longest build-up to an All-Ireland final in living memory, perhaps the most eagerly-anticipated, the prologue between the two counties in Thurles generating more coverage than most provincial finals could muster.
The showdown in May was viewed as the trailer ahead of the blockbuster at the end of the summer. They sized each other up, respectfully played out a draw and agreed to meet again in the rising heat of Croke Park.
After the game, Marty Morrissey, on commentary duty for RTÉ at Semple Stadium, pondered the nature of the conversations between Peter Keane and Mick Galvin on the sideline below him.
“They are probably saying we’ll hopefully see each other again in the summer,” he said, knowing an All-Ireland final was the only place they could feasibly meet again.
In his column in the Irish Independent the following morning, Dick Clerkin didn’t shy away from suggesting that the two patriarchs had made the championship all but a “two-horse race”.
“The chasing pack, each in their own individual way, fall short in too many areas to pose a threat to a Dublin-Kerry showdown in August,” he suggested.
“Two horses are better than one however!” But the Monaghan pundit cannot be accused of bold predictions given his sentiments were shared by much of the country. Even those in the Kingdom struggled to contain their excitement as the county, for the first time in years, would in time claim the tag of championship favourites from Dublin.
In his Irish Times column the following Wednesday, Darragh Ó Sé pointed towards the brewing optimism in the homeland, so often renowned for keeping their hype in check, even if he remained a little reluctant to share that same confidence.
He wrote: “I’ve lost count of the amount of people I’ve come across since Sunday who’ve started conversations with something along the lines of, ‘We’re not far off them, are we?’”
Few were willing to put their head above the parapet and claim to have a championship worth running off at all. On that same weekend, Tyrone had fought out for victory over their neighbours, Armagh, while down in the depths of Division Two Mayo came out of Mullingar with a win over Westmeath.
Neither game merited much mention outside the respective match reports however. But you cannot really blame the media for that either.
The Fourth Estate merely serves the appetite of its readership and there wasn’t a great deal of hunger for content outside the Battle of Thurles.
But, in a similar vein, did the showdown between Kerry and Dublin merit the hoopla being generated by the wider public?
It certainly hasn’t done either side any favours. The apple cart hasn’t just been overthrown, it’s been hijacked and vandalised. Its burnt-out shell left in the middle of the road, the insignia of Tyrone and Mayo graffitied on its side as a warning to all who dare dismiss them again.
You’d be forgiven for believing the championship is a predictable entity, the last decade perhaps leading to such an outlook. But by its very nature, the championship always throws up a set of unknowns and upsets that has kept the country captivated for over a century.
There will be dominant periods when it gives the look of a summer procession for a team like Kerry and Dublin, but those processions have always been bookended by shocks, the moments which inevitably stand the test of time.
You think of the great teams like the five-in-a-row-seeking Kerry side of the 1980s and the indelible memory is of Seamus Darby swinging his fist at the air in delight.
The enduring memory of the great Kilkenny team of the 2000s, it could be argued, is the manic celebration of their greatest rivals as the empire fell. So perhaps there wasn’t truly a great deal of surprise in Mayo and Tyrone overcoming the old powers to reach an All-Ireland decider. Maybe the championship was merely restoring the traditional order of upsets and drama.
But from hereon in, there can be no upset. The summer has already had its fill, leaving room only for an excess of drama.
Unlike the expected tussle between Kerry and Dublin, there are a plethora of unknowns to this year’s All-Ireland final which adds a level of intrigue to proceedings which couldn’t be generated by the latest renewal in the Dublin-Kerry rivalry.
The All-Ireland finalists haven’t met in the championship since the All-Ireland quarter-final of 2016, but five years is a long time in football.
There has been a lot of turnover in both squads, and the unearthing of new talent has been immense. There were only five survivors from the Tyrone side that started against Mayo in 2016 in from the start against Kerry.
Likewise, only five players from Mayo’s starting line-up that day started against Dublin.
All-Ireland finals rarely throw up such unfamiliarity. Mayo’s relegation to Division Two in 2020 means it will have been eleven months since both sides faced one another.
It was the Red Hand County’s one-point win in Castlebar that sentenced Mayo to a relegation, but that was before Mayo finally turned the tide on their horrendous early 2020 form and started a run that would see them secure promotion and participation in back-to-back All-Ireland finals.
As it stands, they’re the only county in the country to have gone through the year unbeaten, a feat that hasn’t been achieved by a county heading into an All-Ireland final since Dublin in 2016.
Both sides relish the opportunity to upset the odds and slay a giant, but the giants have already been reduced to championship footnotes. There are no more scalps to take.
All that is left is a game with so many unknowns it warrants months of dissection. And all we have are days.
The true essence of the championship is finally back.