When Conor McManus cut loose on Tyrone in Healy Park back in mid-May, there were perhaps few who would have predicted that they’d come back around to each other in an All-Ireland semi-final.
It was 84 days before Mickey Harte’s side would have their revenge, and nothing about either of them suggested they were feeling the avalanche of games that came their way in between.
With the introduction of the Super 8s, this was the heaviest toll put on inter-county football. Tyrone had eight games in ten weeks to reach the final.
Yet there was little about the summer that you’d class as unpredictable. You’d an odd shock like Eoin Donnelly’s best Barry Owens impression downing Monaghan, Carlow beating Kildare, and the latter recovering to beat Mayo.
The absence of what was then Stephen Rochford’s side from the last eight was the one glaring omission, but otherwise the last eight were the ones we expected, and even then there were significant gaps from top to bottom.
Any form of second chance has long been exposed as a net for the strong rather than a pull-up bar for the weak.
The GAA has tinkered with the system in the hope of producing more good games at the business end, but they’ve discovered the same as the club game has – that no matter what format you put it in, the cream rises.
Antrim hurling has, for the first time have introduced a group stage this year. Two qualify from four, but it will still be Dunloy, Cushendall or Loughgiel that ends up winning it.
They’re following suit with Down, who brought a similar system in last year to give Ballycran, Ballygalget and Portaferry that bit more hurling to ready them for Ulster. Also here, it doesn’t change the outcome.
Cavan football has one of the maddest systems in Ireland, where the top 12 teams are drawn into random fixtures after each round. Thus anyone can play anyone, provided they haven’t already met, and the top eight sides go through.
But you look at their list of quarter-finalists and there isn’t much in the way of surprise.
Armagh went for a group stage with a difference. Instead of the top two going through, it’s just one plus the winners of four playoffs between the second and third-placed teams. Yet provided Armagh Harps and Dromintee make it through, it won’t have affected anything.
On it goes.
For most county boards, it’s a money-making venture. The more games, the more income.
But for all of those systems, is anybody getting any more value out of it? The more convoluted it is, the harder for an underdog to emerge.
Then you look at Tyrone. There’s hardly a club championship left in Ireland that remains straight knockout, with the exception of that of their nearest and dearest across the Sperrins, and yet nothing can touch it.
Now granted, there wasn’t much to get the blood pumping in Derry last weekend. Although, that’s much more of a style issue than a format one.
There is only one place to go for dog-eat-dog. It’s been 22 years since any team retained the title, and prior to 2014 winners Omagh taking it back again last year, there had been seven different winners in the previous seven years.
Last year’s bolt from the blue was Pomeroy.
Only up from intermediate, they ended up within two minutes of a final, only to get caught by an Errigal Ciaran suckerpunch.
Twelve months on, there’s nothing to say Galbally won’t beat the Plunketts this weekend. Or that Donaghmore, a coming young side, won’t scalp a Trillick side whose pace has eased up since a blistering start.
In addition you couldn’t pick a winner from Moy and Edendork, while Clonoe haven’t enjoyed a great year and will not make Ardboe shake in their boots.
There is barely a game that you could call with any real degree of confidence.
Next weekend you’ve got a derby between Errigal and Carrickmore. Derrylaughan have surprised everyone with their resilience since promotion last year and they’ll believe they can take Killyclogher. Also Aghyaran will feel the same about Omagh, and Coalisland’s recent championship record will give them hope of leaving behind a poor league campaign against Dromore.
There is barely a game that you could call with any real degree of confidence. History shows us that any confidence is often mis-placed, that is unless your trust is in expecting the unexpected.
They’d make more money than the rest put together if they went to a group stage, but there are more important things than dollar bills.
The strength of their championship is its unpredictability. The strength of their county team is the club scene. The strength of it all is its rawness.
All the rest have tried to unearth a secret, trying to make their club championships more competitive. Tyrone have moved forward by standing still.
Knockout is king. Always will be.
And if you’ve any sense, you’ll back the draw.
This weekend’s GAA club championship fixtures
Group 1: Sarsfields v Cushendall (Saturday, 5.15pm)
Group 2: St John’s v O’Donovan Rossa (Sunday, 3.30pm)
Sarsfields v Silverbridge (Friday, 6.45pm)
Killeavy v Pearse Óg (Friday, 8.30pm)
Armagh Harps v Granemore (Saturday, 7pm)
Dromintee v Madden (Sunday, 2pm)
Banagher v Lavey (Saturday, 5.30pm)
Slaughtneil v Kevin Lynch’s (Sunday, 3pm)
Loughinisland v Warrenpoint (Saturday, 2.30pm)
Portaferry v Ballygalget (Sunday, 3pm)
Castleblayney v Magheracloone (Friday, 8.15pm)
Truagh v Ballybay (Saturday, 7.30pm)
Donaghmore v Trillick (Friday, 8.30pm)
Moy v Edendork (Saturday, 3pm)
Galbally v Pomeroy (Saturday, 3pm)
Clonoe v Ardboe (Sunday, 3pm)
by Cahair O’Kane