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The premature decline of football’s Big(ish) Six

Minus Dublin, football’s six-or-so biggest competitors all have massive question marks as we approach the Super 8 stage of the football championship.

While Dublin play out the least anticipated final of anything since Jeremy Hunt’s face-off with Boris Johnson, a number of intercounty teams are vying to emerge as their closest challengers. And, much to the chagrin of those hoping to see Dublin’s dominance halted, they are failing quite readily.

There would have been strong consensus among GAA fans at the start of the 2019 championship that after the Dubs, there is a group of six (G6) teams from which you would expect a valid challenger to emerge. In no particular order, that’s Tyrone, Monaghan, Galway, Donegal, Kerry and Mayo.

In an unexpected plot twist, the G6 has faded before our eyes in the last few weeks. It reminds me a small bit of that picture of Marty McFly’s family fading in Back To The Future, as their very existence appears to be in jeopardy. Galway’s defeat to Roscommon on Sunday has brought the number of teams that have been dumped to the qualifiers from this group, to four. Only Kerry and Donegal, who have upcoming provincial finals, that are far from a formality, look as though they might reach the Super 8s in a straightforward manner.

The question is: are the teams in that next batch – Roscommon, Cavan, Meath et al – getting closer to our newly-monikered G6 (I’m sticking with this, folks), or is the gap Dublin have opened for themselves increasing further?

The latter option is a scary thought.

Tyrone, Mayo and Monaghan are in dangerous territory and must win three games to reach the last eight. Mickey Harte’s Red Hands are adept at doing just that – they are built specifically to defeat teams they should defeat. Mayo tend to leave a little more to chance – they have a strong history of becoming embroiled in qualifier brawls, no matter the quality levels of their opposition. While Monaghan are built for the rough and tumble of Ulster football – they breezed past three Division Four teams last year, but the semi-bigger fish that lurk in 2019 may not bring out their famed siege mentality.

And then there’s poor old Galway – the newly-dethroned Connacht champions. They already sit in Round Four and have the shortest route back to the last eight of any of their peers, but their chances of going far in the All-Ireland series are diminishing by the week. Their style of play has garnered strong criticism from all fronts, coming to a head during Sunday’s Connacht Final implosion against Roscommon. When coupled with their limp exit in 2018 (comprehensive defeats to both Monaghan and Dublin) there now seems little point in them persisting with overtly negative tactics that at best, contradict Galway football’s DNA, and at worst, regularly anonymise talented players like Shane Walsh and Ian Burke.

Their defensive arc – that reached peak rigidity against Kerry last summer – has become a perforated shadow of its former self. Their attack lacks direction and focus. Their gameplan for 2019 needs ripped up.

I wouldn’t usually advocate such an egregious shift in philosophy midway through the championship, but that display on Sunday wasn’t merely a second half collapse. It was a cry for help.

If they don’t make significant changes then it wouldn’t matter if Kevin Walsh jumped in a Delorean (if you think I’m dropping the Back To The Future analogy, then you’re sorely mistaken!), set the dial to 1955 and brought back the ‘Terrible Twins’ (for the youngsters in the audience: Sean Purcell and Frank Stockwell); stopping for a mid-prime Pádraig Joyce and Michael Donnellan along the way. They’re cooked.

It leaves our two heroes – Kerry and Donegal – still standing strong and the change in Super 8s mechanics in 2019 will help them significantly should they win provincial crowns this weekend.

Here’s the story…

Last year, the four provincial winners played each other in the opening Super 8s group game at Croke Park, but this year – after great (extremely legitimate) wailing and gnashing of teeth – the provincial winners will each open the Super 8s series with home games, against one of the four qualifiers.

Why might that be important? Well… last year none of the four teams that lost on the opening weekend of the round-robin made it to the All Ireland semi-finals. In such a tight group (as the two groups of four are likely to be; especially if you’re paired with Dublin) getting that first win on the board is crucial. A defeat puts the pressure on immediately and significantly narrows the margin for error. In last year’s inaugural running of the new All Ireland quarter-final format, it was deemed that the provincial winners were actually at a disadvantage. This season, the schedule is tilted slightly better in their favour.

Provincial titles for both Kerry and Donegal will also put them in the opposite group to Dublin – giving them further breathing space to gain momentum. If they both make the last eight unscathed they are due to meet in the second round of Super 8s games in Croke Park. That particular fixture looks critical, even at this juncture, but things might just open up for its winner.

Our group of six may be suffering a decline, but in a similar mould to that picture of the McFly kids (spoiler upcoming), I expect one or possibly two of our four faders to have appeared again in full by the time the last eight teams are finalised (I would guess Mayo and Tyrone, if they avoid contact). Although, having to face into an early away fixture, and the potential of a grouping with Dublin, means the odds are not in their favour.

Kerry and Donegal’s respective status as second and third favourites for Sam Maguire is valid for now, but Dublin’s true challenger (if one exists) has yet to set itself apart.

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