The GAA Championship: Week Two – Brian Cody & Lesser Mortals

by | May 16, 2018

There was drama-a-plenty in New York two Sundays ago. And ‘summer’ isn’t exactly here (Ireland’s first day of test cricket being rained off was no surprise). But ‘Championship’ REALLY started last weekend.

Controversialist pundit Joe Brolly was the focus of the start of RTE’s 2018 live TV coverage, And he was in crowd-pleasing form, in the bar in…Castlebar, where Mayo hosted Galway in the day’s big football match. passing off long-time criticism of Mayo by claiming his “words were taken out of context…for a decade.”

But Brolly was upstaged by a…Joe Brolly impressionist, the brilliant Conor Moore, sitting alongside Joe Brolly and sounding more like Joe Brolly than Joe Brolly. Moore mimics personalities from all sports (you should see his Jurgen Klopp). Google “Conor Sketches,” and enjoy.

Sunday’s first match was a Dublin/Kilkenny Leinster Hurling championship clash. In football, Dublin reserves are arguably Ireland’s second-best team. In hurling, Dublin are arguably only Dublin’s second-best team, behind All-Ireland club champions Cuala. So, while the footballers need Dublin city’s 82,300-capacity Croke Park to meet demand for their games, the hurlers can use Dublin’s ‘official’ home, north Dublin’s 13,499-capacity Parnell Park.

Dublin currently dominate football and probably will for some time. One-fifth of 32-county Ireland lives there, and they play every big game in Dublin, so it is surprising that such dominance hasn’t transpired before, especially as the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) passively facilitate Dublin’s treatment of its Croke Park ‘headquarters’ as ‘home.’

The clearest manifestation of this is ‘Hill 16,’ the terracing behind one of the goals, which is Dublin fans-only on their matchdays. Gaelic sports crowds don’t require segregation, but Dublin always ‘get the Hill.’ Dublin fans deny this. RTE pundit and ex-Dublin midfielder Ciaran Whelan has bristled on-screen at the suggestion. But he is the ultimate ‘fine one to talk.’

In 2006, Dublin hadn’t won an All-Ireland for 23 years. And, in a team/fan-bonding exercise, they made a pre-match ritual throughout the Championship of linking arms and marching towards the Hill, possibly the CAMPEST sight ever seen on any sports field (though you mightn’t tell the 6ft 3 Whelan that to his face). This ritual came to a glorious end before the semi-final against Mayo.

Big-match teams take the field separately. And, yes, Mayo emerged first and headed for the Hill. A stunned Dublin delayed their entrance, heightening tensions everywhere. But Mayo didn’t budge, visibly agitating manager Micky Moran. And, predictably, Dublin marched extra-purposefully towards the Hill, a visibly raging Whelan hauled back by his shirt, lest he piled into the Mayo lads before reinforcements arrived (Whelan is a class pundit and a class act generally…but this was not his finest hour).

During the resultant argy-bargy (“the Mill at the Hill”), Dublin boss shoulder-charged Mayo trainer John Morrison, live on telly (where studio pundit Brolly was LOVING the controversy) and Mayo dietician Mary McNicholas was clonked by a flying football (no, I don’t know why a dietician was on the pitch then either). Mayo won the psychological battle and a fantastic match. Dublin’s marching days were over.

I digress. Dublin hurlers have rarely had cause to march. Their last All-Ireland title was in 1938, their last final, 1961. I was in Croke Park when they won the 2005 Leinster Minor (‘under-18s) title, heralding a Dublin hurling revival. They won 2011’s National League and 2013’s Leinster senior title. But this revival tailed off and they were second-favourites against Kilkenny, as most teams have been this century.

Kilkenny are hurling’s Manchester United, 36-time All-Ireland champions (Cork have won 30, Tipperary 27 and nobody else very many at all). And manager Brian Cody is Ireland’s Alex Ferguson. Under Cody, Kilkenny have dominated more than ever, winning 11 All-Irelands, nine National Leagues and fifteen Leinster titles since his appointment in November 1998.

Like Ferguson, Cody has built and rebuilt Kilkenny teams. Kilkenny is usually blessed with natural talent (they barely bother with football). But even when it isn’t, Cody has won All-Irelands. While Dublin and Dublin reserves MIGHT be Ireland’s top-two football teams, training matches within Kilkenny’s panel (squad) were tangibly regarded as among the most intense, competitive games of the hurling year. Particularly when Kilkenny have metaphorically waltzed to All-Irelands.

Cody was written off when Kilkenny were denied an all-time record five-in-a-row in 2010 by a comprehensive thumping from Tipperary. But he rebuilt again and won four All-Irelands in five years, until another Tipperary hammering in 2016’s final. 2017 was a stinker but the 63-year-old Cody kept calm (and, more importantly, Kilkenny county board support) and carried on.

This seemed ill-advised after a number of high-profile player retirements and two early league defeats for his ‘next’ new team. But they’ve won every game since, including the League final. And, from nowhere, Kilkenny are All-Ireland contenders again.

Dublin had a wretched league. But the return of Cuala’s players and Kilkenny’s seven championship debutants suggested a close-ish contest. For 63 minutes, it wasn’t that close, with…Dublin dominant and five points up. Five points is generally considered ‘nothing in hurling.’ But Kilkenny were atrocious, kept in it by near-veteran forward TJ Reid, and goalkeeper Eoin Murphy, both scoring points from frees from all over North Dublin.

Dublin’s Christopher Crummy produced a man-of-the-match display belying his name. And Dublin looked set for their second Championship victory over Kilkenny in…SEVENTY-THREE YEARS. (Counties don’t meet that much but still…). However, either the enormity of the occasion hit them, or they wilted in the (for Ireland) heat.

And once Kilkenny started closing the gap, you knew, like Germany in a World Cup, that they would win. It was cruel on Dublin, although they missed some easy scores at crucial times. And the new format means the Dubs are back in action this Sunday.

The old football qualifying competition often left beaten provincial champions with only six days to recover from dispiriting defeat (including five working days for these amateur sportsmen) which usually led to another defeat. Dublin have seven days to recover but have much to do to buck that trend away to a talented Wexford team, despite playing their part, and more, in a fabulous match.

Sadly, the ‘football’ (inverted commas advised) was less-than-fab. If Mayo/Galway was your first Gaelic Football experience, it might be your last. Galway have shipped criticism (Brolly to the fore, natch) for their new ultra-defensive approach, after playing like Arsenal in recent years, with similar (limited) success.

And Mayo employed similar tactics after key forward, Diarmuid O’Connor, was dismissed before half-time. With a wisdom best described as ‘Norman,’ O’Connor elected to ‘hand-off’ Galway’s Paul Conroy with an elbow to the side of Conroy’s head (HAND-off, Diarmuid, the clue’s their somewhere). Compounding this ‘wisdom’ was the fact that the referee was almost close enough to be splattered with the blood from Conroy’s resultant bloody cheek. O’Connor himself had a bloody cheek to be surprised when he was sent-off.

So, after half-time, both teams focused on counter-attack. And with no ‘attack’ to ‘counter,’ there was a fear that the ball would be left in midfield while both teams danced around like a scene from ‘Westside Story.’ Not what the truly astonishing crowd of 29,449 paid to see (8% of the combined population of the counties)

Thankfully, the game didn’t descend into the persistent brawling of their league encounter in February (Brolly none-too-fondly recalling “the sight of Paul Conroy trailing Aidan O’Shea out of a melee like a tranquilised cow”). And Galway just about deserved their victory, sealed by a stoppage-time goal of wholly out-of-context quality. Although Mayo were guilty of the sort of woeful shooting which has plagued them for decades, as if handed down through the generations as a tradition.

But as an advert for Gaelic Football, it was a good advert for hurling. And popular Mayo midfielder Tom Parsons’ serious knee injury cast a further pall over proceedings.

Mayo have been All-Ireland finalists or semi-finalists throughout the decade, desperately, DESPERATELY unlucky not to win at least one title. They reached the last two finals after first-round losses to Galway. But this year’s defeat for an ageing team looks terminal. Mind you, we said that last year. But the new ‘Super 8s’ system means they will have to play seven games in nine weeks (amateurs, remember) to reach this year’s semis and that looks just too much.

Mind you, we said that last year, too, and they got through seven games, with two extra-times and two replays. But last year almost certainly took too much out of the better, older players and with few youngsters stepping up to replace them, the ‘scenic route’ through the qualifiers looks just too long and winding. Mind you, we said that last…you get the message.

Elsewhere, Galway hurlers got their title defence off to an expectedly victorious start against Offaly. Offaly actually played OK at time, which is huge progress after a wretched century so far for a county that won football and hurling All-Irelands throughout the last quarter of last century. That they weren’t ‘beaten out the gate,’ as the Irish phrase goes, kickstarted RTE pundit and Offaly native Michael Duignan’s world record attempt for words-per-minute in a sporting tactical analysis.

Donegal beat Cavan in an entertaining encounter, especially for an Ulster Football Championship pock-marked for years by dour, semi-violent dross. Donegal were relegated from division one by the last kick of the season) in this year’s league, while Cavan were promoted in their place by the last kick of their season). But it was as if those kicks never happened as Donegal were inspired by a star performance from stellar performer, Michael Murphy.

“Dublin fans think he’s a thug,” my Donegal-native cousin-in-law once told me. And, occasionally, you could see their point. But Murphy was an outstanding young player. And after a few years’ indifferent form, he was outstanding again on Sunday. If he is outstanding against better opposition in 2018, Murphy will be a star of it.

There was controversy as Laois footballers (pronounced ‘leash’) came from miles behind to beat Wexford. The sides were level when Wexford got a penalty which, according to their boss Paul McLoughlin, the referee told them was awarded ‘thirty-eight-and-a-half minutes into a 39-minute game’ (the standard 35-minute half, plus stoppage-time). Thus informed, Wexford’s Donie Shanley drove the spot-kick over the bar for a ‘winning’ point, rather than risk it being saved by going for goal (three points).

Shanley was ill-informed, however, as Laois took rather more than 30 seconds to equalise, before carrying their second-half momentum onto a convincing extra-time victory. Cruel-and-a-half on Wexford. But McLoughlin’s relatively stoic post-match reaction suggested they realised RTE pundit Sean Kavanagh was right to say: “when they knew they were going to take the point, they should have been better set-up defensively.”

An ‘interesting’ weekend, then. Better than the Premier League’s final day, anyway.