Football’s All-Ireland series starts this weekend – why is nobody excited?

Big teams playing each other on a weekly basis, the most open competition in a generation, but the new format brings a collective shrug

Here we go, then. Finally, after decades of fiddling and fussing and tricking about, the All-Ireland Football Championship is a coherent, symmetrical, easily explicable thing. It begins this weekend with everyone involved toeing the same start line and everyone having the same distance to run. The country’s biggest sport will decide its champions over the next 10 weekends and nobody will have a hard-luck story. There will be no soft All-Ireland.

For the first time ever, there’s no thumb on the scale. Dublin and Kerry mostly yawned their way through their provincial duties, just as they have done for the majority of the history of the sport. But, they have a minimum six matches to play from here on out, just like everyone else. The season starts now.

So, then, why all the long faces? An alien – or a rugby fan – picking through the various threads of chat around the new competition this week would be forgiven for thinking the Gaelic football had done a terrible thing to itself. There’s damn little enthusiasm for the new format and definitely no sense of being at the dawn of an exciting new era.

This is objectively an odd state of affairs. For years and years, football people have watched the best teams play winter epics in the muck and rain of the league and dreamed of a system whereby this could be transposed to the championship. Now, Mayo are playing Kerry in Killarney and Tyrone are heading to Salthill to play Galway all in the space of a few hours on a Saturday. And, yet, there’s little more than a collective shrug around the place.


The generally offered complaint is that there is too much fat blubbering about in the new system. After the initial 24 groups games, only four teams will leave the competition. Somehow, this has passed into consensus as a fundamental flaw, as though it can’t possibly be justified.

Funny how nobody ever says the same thing about the format of the hurling championship. Yet, their group stage – aka the Munster and Leinster Championships – is made up of 27 games, after which five teams leave the competition. Is that really so different? The basic maths of it amount to more or less the same thing when it comes right down to it.

Ah, but the jeopardy. The jeopardy is the secret sauce, isn’t it? The provincial championships in hurling are freighted with jeopardy in a way this new All-Ireland football thingy just isn’t. All the good teams are going to be alive after these 24 games, regardless of what happens. Whereas in hurling, you’re chopping down contenders at the knees right from the get-go.

Are you though? As Ciarán Murphy outlined is these pages a few weeks back, the notion that the hurling round-robin stage has been felling mighty oaks since its introduction in 2018 just doesn’t hold water. With the sole exception of Galway in 2019, no team that has been knocked out by the hurling group games were ever serious contenders for Liam MacCarthy. Any pretensions they had didn’t survive contact with reality.

Yes, there will be more also-rans left among the 12 still standing at the end of football’s group stage than is the case with the equivalent six in hurling. Isn’t that just a function of football being a more popular sport, though? One that is played in a wider spread of counties and, therefore, deserves a competition that reflects its reach?

This is, by common consent, the most open All-Ireland for a generation. You can make arguments for anything up to seven teams winning it out before you drift into the realm of complete fantasy. It’s not so long ago that you couldn’t credibly have made a case for more than one. The closing of the gap to Dublin has felt like a small miracle over the past five seasons. There was definitely nobody suggesting it was imminent back in 2018.

And, now, we have all those teams settling down to play out a group stage where the jockeying for position will be more ferocious than people think. Take Group Two. Realistically, Galway, Tyrone and Armagh are going to qualify at Westmeath’s expense. Nobody is seriously suggesting otherwise.

The difference between finishing first and second, however, is not a small thing. Neither is the difference between second and third. In a competition where it’s already going to be taxing to play six games in 10 weeks, the last thing you want is a seventh. And, if you must extend to an extra weekend, it’s going to feel vital that you are at least playing on home soil for it.

All of which means that when Galway face off against Armagh on the final weekend, it’s hard to imagine anyone going at half speed. No team will crave a week off more than Armagh, who have come from the preliminary round in Ulster, all the way to a penalty shoot-out defeat in the final. Neither of them will want to chance coming third, knowing that a trip to Castlebar or Clones or the Hyde or wherever else is potentially on the slate.

That sort of intrigue is in the bloodstream of all the groups. And right from the beginning, too. Clare host Donegal in the first game, Saturday afternoon in Ennis. If the knock on the system is that it only gets rid of four teams in its initial phase, well this is one of the that will almost certainly get rid of one of them. Colm Collins has been dying for a system that frees his team from the tyranny of Munster championship. Here it is.

You’d want to be a fairly niche football fan, however, to have come across hide or hair of that game this week. It sounds the starting pistol to the biggest change to the All-Ireland football Championship across its history and it’s neither being televised nor streamed live. Nobody is asking for it to be, either.

Instead, Gaelic football plods along, talking itself down as ever. What a bunch of weirdos we are.