The GAA’s decision to cease inter-county activity before the beginning of August has created an Irish sporting summer like no other.
ou don’t need to be a GAA nut to feel like the rhythm of the calendar has been knocked out of sync, with a void created in the national sporting discourse across the next month.
It’s the ideal window for individuals who crave more oxygen for their exploits to step forward into the light of the door which has been opened for them.
The Premier League news cycle, which can be both alluring and frustratingly repetitive in equal measure, is about to take hold.
But if ever there was a year for Irish clubs to do something in Europe, then 2022 is it.
Sligo Rovers and St Patrick’s Athletic have a strong chance of completing Conference League upsets against Motherwell and Mura respectively on Thursday night if they can replicate first leg displays and add an even more clinical layer to their efforts.
Yet they have no room for error and it’s conceivable that their campaigns could be dead and buried by 10pm Thursday.
For Shamrock Rovers, on the other hand, there is a guarantee of European games all the way through the month because of the backdoor routes created by winning their opening Champions League tie with Hibernians of Malta.
They have the power to become the main Irish story of the next month.
For a short while in Tallaght on Tuesday night, they threatened to cause a sensation which would have made football bulletins across the continent.
When a Ludogorets side already a goal down on the night were reduced to ten men early in the second half, the door opened to the possibility of the greatest Irish Champions League comeback of all time taking place in a tie that pretty much everybody had given up on.
Ludogorets regrouped and their superior quality allowed them to see it out, but a win on the night for the Hoops demonstrated the levels they can hit on a good day.
It was always going to take an extraordinary effort to remain in the premier competition, but Rovers now face a two-legged tie with Shkupi, the champions of North Macedonia, in a third round Europa League qualifier. The winners are guaranteed Conference League group stage football and close to €3.4m in prize money with the opportunity of collecting more by getting a shot at the Europa League.
Shkupi come to Dublin next Thursday, before the return leg in Skopje five days later. Shkupi pushed Dinamo Zagreb close, so they are clearly a decent outfit, but a two legged tie with the best team in North Macedonia for a group stage run is a scenario Stephen Bradley’s side would have paid for at the start of the year. And they still get another chance if they lose.
If Rovers are to make the next step as a club, they have to start throwing their weight around in their own division. They were knocked out at the final hurdle last year by the Estonian champions, yet that league and North Macedonia’s top flight are both ranked lower than the LOI in the UEFA charts. It’s reasonable to expect better from what is a very experienced side.
Their average age in both legs of the Ludogorets tie was north of 30. They know what progression would mean to their legacy and maybe that self awareness and expectation is creating a degree of pressure.
Stephen Kenny’s Dundalk team of 2016 was younger and playing without fear. The core of this Rovers group are at a different stage of their lives, although youngsters like Emakhu and Justin Ferizaj are names to watch while Andy Lyons (21) has reached a level which means he will be leaving Ireland this year.
A recovery from injury for Jack Byrne, their best known player, would certainly help Rovers’ prospects and also provide another angle for a wider public to latch onto.
However, what’s interesting about the Rovers climate at the moment is that their crowds are growing steadily regardless of TV exposure.
A few idiots disgraced themselves by chucking plastic bottles on Tuesday, but there are visibly more families and kids attending fixtures to the point where the ongoing construction of a fourth stand is entirely justifiable rather than a luxury.
The post-lockdown enthusiasm for live events has coincided with a year of European opportunity. They will never forgive themselves if it’s passed up.