The flowers in the photo above are, I gather, known as Michaelmas daisies (Aster amellus), and they bloom every September at the bottom of our garden. I always consider it a good year for us football-wise if we’re still in it when they start to flower but this year they’re already beginning to wane and our championship season has yet to end.
Yesterday was the Autumnal Equinox, with the earth’s northern hemisphere now tilting away from the sun’s rays as we head once more towards the cold and dark. Summer’s over – the sharp drop in temperatures over the past week confirms this – but we’re still in the championship.
This summer campaign started for us way back in May. This means that, when we play Dublin in the replay in eight days from now – the first day in October – our championship season will have a footprint that touches six months of the year. London in May, Galway in June, Fermanagh, Kildare and Westmeath in July, Tyrone and Tipperary in August, Dublin in September and again in October.
By the time we finish up tomorrow week – we will, won’t we? It can hardly go to a third match, can it? – we’ll have played nine matches in this year’s championship. This makes it not only by far the longest championship campaign we’ve ever been involved in, it also comes close to being one of the longest football championship runs of all time.
Only two other campaigns better our run this year in terms of the number of outings. The first was Meath in 1991, which is noteworthy as it occurred well before the back-door format was introduced. The second was Tyrone in 2005.
Meath’s epic 1991 campaign, which ended in defeat to Down in that year’s final, lasted ten games in an era when the straight knockout format still applied. It took the Royals eight – eight!– games to get out of Leinster that year, with four preliminary round matches needed before subduing Dublin and then two to get by Wicklow in the quarters. Nobody was complaining back then about the Leinster championship being a non-event.
In 2005 Tyrone also played ten games, drawing with Cavan and Armagh in Ulster, having to dip into the qualifiers following a controversial Ulster final replay loss to the Orchard County, then taking two games to beat Dublin at the All-Ireland quarter-final stage. Unlike Meath, the Red Hands’ long run was well worth it, as they lifted Sam at the finish.
By contrast, the back-door triumphs recorded by Galway (2001) and Kerry (2008) were completed in eight games. Cork went one better in 2010, managing to annex Sam by the qualifier route in just seven outings.
To further underline just how long this campaign has been for us, our run to the 2012 All-Ireland final involved just five games (including the decider itself). In the 2013 championship we played a total of six times.
As far as I can see, seven is the most matches we’ve ever had to play in the championship before now. This occurred in both 2004 and 2006 and in neither year did it involve a trip through the qualifiers. Instead, both campaigns comprised three games in Connacht and then four thereafter, with the semi-final having to be replayed in 2004 and the quarter two years later.
What really marks this one out for us is how late it’s finishing up. The 2000 replay was, though, even later as it didn’t take place until 7th October that year. Our 1996 rematch with Meath, by contrast, was played on 29th September, due to the fact that the drawn game was played on 15th September.
This year won’t, though, be the first time that we’ve played a championship game so late in the year. One hundred years ago, the county made its first ever All-Ireland final appearance and in that prophetic year the decider wasn’t played until 17th December, with the Connacht final not being contested until the start of October that year. 3,000 souls were huddled into Croke Park on All-Ireland final day two weeks before Christmas 1916 to see Wexford complete back-to-back championship title wins, as they got the better of us on a scoreline of 3-4 to 1-2.
A century on, we’ll be looking for a happier ending to this long, long championship campaign. It’s been a hell of a ride thus far, now all we need is for it to finish on the highest of highs for us.
PS: I checked lots of those historical points outlined above on Wikipedia. I know many people turn up their noses at it but I think it’s a wonderful resource and is a hell of a lot more accurate than people give it credit for. Today’s the day they’re making their annual appeal for donations. You could do a lot worse than to slip them a few quid.
Have you got your replay ticket sorted yet? If not, don’t forget that there are ten tickets up for grabs in Monday night’s draw for the Mayo GAA Players Welfare Lotto. Play the Lotto here.