Forget Utopia ... settle for reality
WHAT do we want from our All-Ireland championships? It seems a timely moment to ponder such philosophical matters, after a drawn hurling final sent from the heavens and on the cusp of a most unexpected football showpiece.
In a perfect world, we'd settle for a summer of recurring quality and the occasional massive shock, all culminating in a final for the ages. We don't look for much, do we?
This isn't Utopia, though, it's somewhere between Urlingford and Upperchurch ... and besides, too much of a good thing can dull the appetite.
Nine days ago, we witnessed a hurling final that literally took the breath away. We can't say it was the greatest All-Ireland ever but it was the best hurling final we have witnessed, in the flesh, over the past two decades. And let's not forget: the recent competition has been pretty savage.
Does this make 2014 the best hurling championship ever? Eh, we're being a tad premature given the unresolved mystery of the replay to come ... but we still suspect that last summer was better.
Here's the thing, though: what made 2013 truly special (apart from the spectacular All-Ireland climax) was the fact that the next ambush, it seemed, was only ever 70 minutes away.
Thus, we had Tipp shocked by Limerick and Kilkenny by Dublin and Galway by Dublin and Cork by Limerick and Kilkenny by Cork and Galway by Clare ... on and on it went. We had the seismic collision of Kilkenny and Tipp in Nowlan Park; two qualifiers on the same double-header (Clare/Wexford and Kilkenny/Waterford) going to extra-time; one exceedingly good semi-final (Cork/Dublin) and one not-so-good (Clare/Limerick).
Yet, when the drama was over and everyone was left to reflect on a new era of hurling glasnost, it was intriguing to hear some dissenting voices who would argue that 2013's sky-high excitement masked a lack of stellar quality, with the increased competition caused by a levelling down in standards. Quite a few of those were Noreside voices. The inference was clear: Kilkenny in their four-in-a-row pomp would top the best of last summer. Hard to dispute, in truth.
To this observer's eye, the earlier stages of this year's hurling championship were so-so with the exception of Wexford's stirring 'back door' run; the Thurles quarter-finals were a double-header exercise in tedium ... but summer finally caught fire in an August monsoon.
Kilkenny/Limerick had an epic quality, partly because of the heroism displayed by both sides in such horrific conditions, but also because it encapsulated Kilkenny (as their once-supreme powers gradually wane) refusing to slip quietly into the night.
The same bloody-mindedness was evident last Sunday week: when has a team managed by Brian Cody (pictured) ever leaked 29 scores? Yet they fought back from six down to a position where they should have closed out the game.
For the rest of this week, our rapt attention turns to the football. Again, our overall impression is that much of the championship has been underwhelming: the provincial fare was almost as poor as it was predictable, the qualifiers were prosaic (with the nerve-jangling exception of Monaghan/Kildare), while the quarter-finals were only partially rescued by Cork's late comeback (in vain) against Mayo and by Armagh pushing Donegal to the brink.
But ... once we reached the semi-final watershed with the four best teams still standing, the football has been little short of sensational, with three matches that rank up there with the best we have seen this millennium.
Despondent Dubs may disagree, much like Kilkenny men cavilled about 2013 ... but if next Sunday produces an epic end, 2014 will go down as a great football championship. And what happened in May, June and July? Already a fading memory.