GAA Championship 2021: Summer’s Here
The Republic of Ireland hasn’t rolled-out Covid vaccines as quickly as the United Kingdom. Thus the hoped-for return of the major Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) sports, Gaelic Football and Hurling, in time for a ‘normal’ league and championship schedule didn’t materialise.
However, sufficient progress was made to enable the staging of truncated National Football and Hurling Leagues, the sports’ secondary inter-county competitions. And, starting today, if you are reading this in time, June 26th, ‘Championship’ is back, baby.
Covid regulations wiped out collective training programmes of those inter-county teams who obeyed them – far from all of them. And this severely impacted upon the match fitness of true amateurs in proper jobs or full-time further education. Hence the leagues being very akin to pre-season tournaments, with the football competition also divided through the divisions into four-team north and south sections, to half the fixture list. So, all teams will be less prepared for championship.
Regardless, the football championship should be Dublin’s, seeking their seventh All-Ireland title in-a-row, or Kerry’s, the 2014 champions and the only other football champions since 2012. It looked that way last year, of course. But time constraints forced football back to its pre-2001 straight knockout format. And Kerry’s shock, goal-with-the-last-kick loss to next-door neighbours Cork ‘ruined’ everything, as the GAA had changed the semi-final draw to facilitate a Dublin/Kerry final. Oopsie.
Despite the limited pre-season, both were still the league’s stand-out sides (less surprising for Dublin, the highest-profile training regulation breachers). They drew a mini-thriller in May, held in neutral Tipperary as Dublin were punished for their rule breaches by ceding home advantages. And they dismissed all-comers to set up a League final meeting last Sunday. However, the GAA decided that teams starting their championships this weekend didn’t have to play last weekend, because of the limited pre-seasons. And with Kerry playing tomorrow, they and Dublin will share the trophy.
Football’s championship still starts as it has since Cuchulainn was a boy (one for Irish mythologists, there), with the championships of Ireland’s four provinces: Leinster, Munster, Connacht and Ulster. This is despite their disparate number of counties (twelve, six, five and nine respectively). The first three look pretty predictable, with Dublin and Kerry unbackable favourites and Mayo warm ones. The one predictable thing about Ulster’s championship is that it won’t be pretty.
It looked that way last year, of course. And Leinster and Connacht memorised the form book. Cork threw Munster’s out of the window, and instantly regretted it when a specifically inspired Tipperary shocked them in the provincial final. And Ulster’s form book landed alongside Munster’s when Cavan produced as long a string of comeback wins as a nine-team knockout championship can unravel and shocked defending champions Donegal in the final. This after Donegal had beaten Tyrone in a battle of Ulster’s “big two,” which the championship’s open draw made a preliminary round tie.
However, the quirkiest aspect of the league was Cavan AND Tipp’s relegations into its bottom (fourth) tier. Cavan have surprisingly plummeted from top-to-bottom divisions in consecutive years. Tipp’s drop was less surprising. Apart from their Munster final win, the inspiration for which I detailed extensively when it happened, they had a very division three championship. So, when the league returns to its full format, next year (please God) Cavan and Tipp’s opposition will include London. Yes, London. England.
Armagh’s league performances also caught the eye. They won promotion from division two last year and bucked a recent trend of promotees going straight back down. Cavan actually did that twice. And my team, Roscommon, who Armagh impressively and convincingly beat in a division one relegation play-off, have now been promoted and relegated three times in seven seasons.
Armagh were in an exceptionally tight, all-Ulster Division One North and would have been league semi-finalists had they not let a late lead slip in their final match, a draw with Donegal. There was barely a sheet of tracing paper between those two, Monaghan and Tyrone. And Monaghan also avoided the drop, although they only won their relegation play-off against Roscommon’s Connacht neighbours Galway with the last kick of extra-time. So, Ulster could go to at least five of its nine counties (including Cavan, after last year).
Dublin have hammered Leinster all-comers for years. Topically, their last Leinster defeat was on the June 2010 afternoon when Germany knocked England out of soccer’s World Cup. Dublin won’t lose again. And, FWIW, I don’t think England will either. Kerry should beat Clare, live on Sky Sports Arena at 7pm this evening (insert your own “they’ll win if they’re only playing one woman” joke here). And they should beat Tipp on 10th July to set up a Munster final with Cork, Limerick or Waterford. All three of those counties have stronger hurling teams (see below). But Limerick and, especially, Waterford, have MUCH stronger hurling teams.
Connacht’s “big two” have been a “big three” since 2016, with Roscommon joining Mayo and Galway, much to my liver’s distress. But Roscommon’s form (above) nosedived in lockdown and they are outsiders at home to Galway in the Connacht semi-final. Mayo are in the softer half of the draw, with all due respect to Sligo and Leitrim (they face Sligo live on Sky Sports Arena at 5pm this evening). And the All-Ireland finalists from last year…and 2017…and 2016…and 2013…and 2012…well…you see my point. Galway haven’t been finalists since 2001, Roscommon since 1980. Connacht is Mayo’s to lose.
The All-Ireland semi-finals will therefore be Dublin/Mayo and Kerry/f**k knows. And, as well as their overall league form, Kerry will fancy “stopping the seven” because of two words. David. Clifford. The 22-year-old forward has been among Ireland’s best since his Kerry debut in 2018. And his league form was Messi/Ronaldo-esque. Against Dublin, he landed some wondrous right-footed scores. He’s left-footed. And his stunning hat-trick (a rarer feat than in soccer) in his previous game included a third goal so cheeky it would have had Cristiano Ronaldo thinking “don’t take the p**s.”
Perceived wisdom is that Clifford is years from his peak. If so, he will become about the greatest-ever Gaelic Footballer (no pressure, son). Yet he is no one-man team. Without him, Kerry would still be a fine side. He was but one cog in the Kerry machine which dismantled Ulster title contenders Tyrone in the league semi-final (when Tyrone conceded goals as fast as England’s cricketers were losing wickets against New Zealand). WITH him, on form, Dublin’s seven-in-a-row is under threat. See for yourselves, Saturday night. And remember the name. David Clifford.
The hurling championship, as per, will be more competitive than the football. Especially as it isn’t quite a straight knock-out affair, with all beaten teams in the two provincial championships, Munster and Leinster, having a “back-door” route to All-Ireland quarter-finals against the two beaten provincial finalists (Ulster and Connacht have only one hurling stronghold; respectively Antrim, who have made occasional All-Ireland forays and were 1989 finalists, and Galway, All-Ireland hardy perennials who won their seventh All-Ireland in 2017. Both currently enter the Leinster championship).
Last year’s unbeaten league and championship winners Limerick lost two and drew one of their first three league games, while Galway, Cork, Tipperary and Kilkenny all impressed at various times to varying degrees, with Galway and Kilkenny topping the two supposedly equally strong five-team “Division Ones.” The hurling league was less of a current form guide than the football, however, as relegation was only nominally an issue for the championship contenders.
Three ‘weaker’ counties always looked destined for relegation battles. Westmeath were the whipping boys in an otherwise insanely tight, high-quality “Division 1, Group A.” While unfancied Antrim’s terrific home form in the demonstrably weaker Group B lifted them above such ignominy. Laois were no-one’s whipping boys but still lost every game and will meet Westmeath in a long-predicted relegation play-off in August.
Antrim gained promotion to the Leinster championship by winning last year’s second-tier competition, the Joe McDonagh Cup (the 11-team All-Ireland championship is held for the Liam McCarthy Cup…and the football for the Sam Maguire Cup…the GAA like a name, literally, on the trophy). Their chances of being competitive in Leinster were dismissed by controversialist pundit on state TV channel RTE, Donal Og Cusack, based on their (s)crappy display in a (s)crappy Joe McDonagh final.
Based solely on that final, he had a point. But Antrim are better than that. And when they opened their league campaign with a shock home win over 2018 All-Ireland semi-finalists, Clare (a county with which Cusack himself was a coach as recently as 2017), there was delight in the hurling world far beyond Antrim’s surprisingly beautifully back-dropped West Belfast ground.
They will open the entire championship at 3pm this afternoon with a game on neutral ground against Dublin, to whom they lost away in a tight-ish league match. The winners will meet Galway in the semis, while Laois and Wexford vie today for the ‘privilege’ of meeting the reigning Leinster champions Kilkenny, managed for the TWENTY-THIRD season by the Alex Ferguson-esque Brian Cody, in the other semi. Should Galway and Kilkenny meet in it, the Leinster final will double as the National League final.
Munster’s quintet could all be champions, although Clare and Waterford are probably the right two quarter-finalists. The winners face Tipperary, while the other semi is between Limerick, who won the last two Munster titles, and Cork, who won the previous two. Limerick thumped an experimental Cork side to register their first win in this year’s league. But a better form guide might be their epic 2018 meetings, a draw in the Munster championship group stage, and Limerick’s extra-time All-Ireland semi-final triumph.
In a flip on recent history, hurling is shipping heavy criticism for becoming boring, while football is generally accepted as emerging from a decade-long defensive shadow. As ever, the truth is more nuanced. But the hurling criticism seems largely founded on it being “hurling’s turn,” especially when the game is simultaneously criticised for not having enough goals and being too high scoring. No pleasing some people.
Except those which are live on Sky Sports, every championship match is set to be shown live on the GAA GO streaming website. The current annual subscription is a cut-price €49. And with a catch-up facility including swathes of League games, that is about 50 cents-a-game. But this price isn’t radically “cut” from 2019, the most recent ‘normal’ GAA year. So, excuse the advert, but at those prices…come ON!
Hopefully, this will be the last truncated championship, although some fans of both codes prefer this truncation to the ‘normal’ more fixture-congested, TV broadcast money-friendly formats which immediately pre-dated the pandemic. But, whatever the circumstances, an involved ten weeks await. And there’s no better place to get a skewed, slightly cynical English/second-generation Irish perspective on those weeks than right here on 200%.