Enda McGinley: Provincial tussles look too close to call
I'M sure it's not just those who are challenged to fill these pages week to week who are happy to be able to look ahead to this weekend's football Championship and the first two big ties of the summer, with the Mayo v Galway clash as big as we'll see this side of the Super 8s.
For better or worse, this summer's football Championship is the ‘Super 8 Championship'.Such a dramatic change in format and such high profile games mean that it is the only show in town this year.
For all of the counties in Division One and Two of the League and, I imagine, the Ulster contingent promoted from Division Three, a ticket into the Super 8s is the goal of the summer.
Through the nature of the provincial draws, both Kerry and Dublin are essentially guaranteed their slots, leaving 16 teams realistically fighting for just six places – and that's discounting any teams coming from the long, long grass and claiming a slot.
Many will quite rightly moan about it being an elitist competition, increasing the divide between the ‘haves' and ‘have-nots', but just wait and see the teams fight for a ticket to Gaelic's summer party.
Donegal, Cavan, Mayo and Galway will all harbour real ambition of making it to the new format's quarter-final stage.
The two games are intriguingly set up. Galway have had the march on this high-achieving Mayo side across Championship, League and even the FBD League competitions for a number of years.
This is obviously at odds with how both teams' eventual runs have panned out in the resultant Championships.
Now, for the first time in several years, the Tribesmen have shown themselves, on paper at least, to be the better of the two teams by finishing their Division One League section unbeaten before giving Dublin a very creditable game in the final.
Mayo, meanwhile, pulled off another of their infamous, ‘can't write Mayo off' tricks in escaping relegation thanks to Kevin McLaughlin's 16 steps and last minute point against Donegal.
Factor in the fact that Mayo will be without Lee Keegan and will start without both Cillian O'Connor and Keith Higgins and things appears to stack up against Stephen Rochford's side.
Perhaps crucially, in terms of attacking threat, they will still depend heavily on Andy Moran despite searching for alternatives. Once again it proves that Father Time remains a purely mythical figure out west.
At some stage his impressive performance levels are going to drop and, if it happens, is the like of Conor Loftus ready to step up?
Galway, meanwhile, have been hugely impressive this year, giving further evidence of the steady progress made under Kevin Walsh.
They have, however, singularly failed to demonstrate a big game mentality against big teams. The League appeared to show a strengthening of their mental armoury and some more steel in the stomach, but the GAA truism regarding League and Championship does not exist for no reason.
The problem for them, ironically, is the consequent rising expectations within their team, the county and the country as a whole.
Such expectation brings pressure and gives Mayo significant motivation going into this game. A draw, even after extra-time, is a distinct possibility. If forced to call a winner, well, on a hunch, I'd go for Galway. Now, what do they say about writing off Mayo?
IN Ulster, Cavan and Donegal get to meet head-on having bypassed each other on the way up and down respectively in their Allianz League Division Two and One campaigns.
Declan Bonner came in with ambitions of tweaking the style of Donegal's play, but in the end the League campaign came down to the performances and fitness of their two key men.
Paddy McBrearty was simply electric and was the best forward in the country in many rounds of the League, particularly early on.
His injury curtailed his involvement and likely had a big say in their somewhat unlucky relegation.
Michael Murphy, on the other hand, had a League campaign which was as disappointing as the season's weather. For a man who has literally led his whole county for several years, it can only be considered human to eventually show a degree of rustiness and loss of form that most people will experience several times in a career.
The April break will have served them both well by getting a bit of club football under their belt and getting away from the harsh environs of Division One.
The dilemma for Bonner is does he stick or twist with his new system?
Donegal got lots of plaudits for their attacking play early in the League but they kept losing. A tighter Donegal towards the end of their campaign was definitely more competitive.
Does Bonner play his two talismen inside in the
full-forward line? I, like most other Gaels, certainly hope he does, but then I'll not lose much sleep if Donegal lose.
Cavan, with Tyrone native Mattie McGleenan at their helm, appear to have rekindled some of the momentum that they had built under Terry Hyland three-four years ago.
Previously they failed to kick on. The players have continued to visibly develop, but it is in exactly this type of game – one where they have every right to see themselves having a good chance even though their opponent is a good team – that they have continuously failed to step up to the plate in. The League final defeat to Roscommon was an example.
As players, such a situation eventually simply comes down to mentality and ambition. Like a student taking gap years to put off/get ready for the world of work when really they are just bluffing and avoiding the inevitable.
Cavan have served their time and more. They have proven themselves as footballers with their underage successes and through flashes at senior level, but to win the big ones takes something a bit deeper and more concrete.
Calling this one comes down to which of the above two factors is more likely to occur.
Are Donegal likely to get big performances out of McBrearty and Murphy even if their system will still be a work in progress or are Cavan likely to ‘find themselves' and decide they
are a bona fide top level senior team? I'm looking forward to what should be a really tight contest and, like the match out west, a draw is a strong possibility.
For me, though, Donegal hold the aces to progress in the Ulster Championship and, this year, take a big step towards those prized Super 8 places.