The GAA Championship, Week 11: The Not-So-Super Eights

by | Jul 20, 2018

He could have said nothing. But it said lots about RTE presenter Michael Lyster as a man and a broadcaster that he admitted his mistake, knowing it would make good punditry. In what is already being touted as hurling’s game-of-the-year, even this remarkable hurling year, Limerick beat Kilkenny by two points in Sunday’s All-Ireland quarter-final in Thurles. While football’s ‘history-making’ superb-eights began with the extended family of all whimpers, hurling stole another weekend. And, in RTE’s studio, Lyster asked: “Do you know how exciting that match actually was? At the end of it, I put on somebody else’s jacket.”

The jacket was RTE football pundit Pat Spillane’s (“and there’s quality there, lads, I can tell you that,” Lyster noted, approvingly). The game, hurling pundit Ger Loughnane suggested, was the “epic to crown all epics.” The consensus was ”you can keep your World Cup.” Limerick will face Cork in the All-Ireland semi-final, on 29th July, a repeat of the game-of-the-year until Sunday. In terms of pure hurling quality, Cork and Limerick’s 0-28-all Munster Championship draw still is ‘game-of-the-year.’ But, for all its impurities, Sunday’s drama was truly epic. Kilkenny manager Brian Cody famously and frequently suggests in pre-match interviews, when asked where things might be decided, that matches “take on a life of their own.” Sunday’s sure did.

Kilkenny had seven days to recover from their semi-epic Leinster Final replay defeat, a situation which has almost invariably proved too much for teams down the years. But, y’know, Cody. Kilkenny tore into Limerick, and they were denied a larger-than-four-point lead after 16 minutes only by off-beam shooting. Yet Limerick stormed back to lead at half-time, their much-vaunted half-back line living up to that much-vaunting, catching balls from all heights and angles, and they were denied a larger-than-three-point lead by breathtaking goalkeeping from Kilkenny’s Eoin Murphy.

The great Cody teams would storm out of the second-half blocks into a match-winning lead, seemingly without deserving to, almost without anyone realising. Sunday’s team stormed out…but their shooting remained underminingly off-beam. And Limerick were magnificent, denied their own match-winning charge, again, by the mercurial Murphy.

Yet Kilkenny hung on. Cody’s substitutions worked. And one, John Donnelly, caught a mighty catch to set up Richie Hogan. Hogan starred in those great Cody teams but isn’t long back from long-term injury. Yet some of his old genius returned on Sunday and he goaled on 64 minutes, leaving Limerick, the better side, two points behind, with RTE match-commentator Ger Canning moved to prematurely claim there was “no stopping” Kilkenny.

Limerick reacted like they’d heard Canning’s every word. Tom Morrisey pointed instantly. And Limerick manager John Kiely matched Cody for shrewd substitutions, Peter Casey and Shane Dowling helping Limerick lead again, 123 seconds after Hogan’s goal. And, in stoppage-time, with the coolness of a top egg-and-spooner in a particularly relaxed school sports day’s parents’ race, Morrissey sauntered down the wing and fired over from miles out. There was “stopping” Kilkenny, after all.

Statistically, Wexford have almost matched Kilkenny this year, denied a Leinster Final place by a one-point defeat IN Kilkenny. Yet history is already treating Wexford very differently, after their limp quarter-final exit on Saturday to Munster runners-up Clare.

Wexford were expected to have fire in their ‘yellowbellies’ (their nickname referencing their shirts, not any perceived cowardice). ‘Outspoken’ manager Davy Fitzgerald is a Clareman and Clare goalkeeping and managerial legend, with a personality which would be inspired by facing ‘his’ county. Yet Wexford perspired. Clare were likely winners from 15 minutes onwards. They worthily led by seven at half-time and only had their equilibrium upset when Wexford’s Conor McDonald’s “absolute rasper” (RTE’s Marty Morrissey loving it, as per) goaled on 58 minutes.

Two minutes later, Clare keeper David Tuohy superbly denied substitute Jack O’Connor, when a goal would have left Wexford only three points back. “Pulsating moments,” Morrissey noted. And Wexford were still only three points back with five minutes of normal time left. But ‘moments’ is all they were. Clare pulled away again in the remaining nine minutes to prevail by seven.

Clare will face All-Ireland champions Galway in their semi-final, on 28th July, which would be eagerly anticipated even if it wasn’t such a relatively novel semi-final pairing. Hurling, it seems, will continue to outstrip football this year.

Last year, RTE football pundit Colm O’Rourke described football’s four provincial finals as “ducks.” And not only did ‘ducks’ almost rhyme with my final-whistle reaction to Roscommon’s hammering by Tyrone last Saturday, it adequately described three of the first four games in football’s superb-eights, with only Dublin’s ‘intriguing’ five-point win over Donegal NOT being a major disappointment.

Roscommon/Tyrone briefly threatened to be enjoyable, although you sensed even before the start that Tyrone would be far too physically strong. Star Roscommon forward Ciaran Murtagh waited for said start alongside Tyrone’s Frank Burns, right in front of me. Burns was frighteningly taller, wider and more muscular than Murtagh. And those differences existed all over the field.

Roscommon could afford no mistakes but made a biggie on 11 minute. Enda Smith drilled an inch-perfect pass to…Tyrone’s Niall Sludden. And 16 seconds and three passes later, Sludden found the net. There was still a point in it on 20 minutes. But Tyrone’s half-time lead was seven. And while Smith made complete amends with a wonderful 38th-minute goal to help reduce the deficit to four, Tyrone soon made their superior physicality, speed and, frankly, everything else tell.

Tyrone won by 18 points, which isn’t even ‘nothing in hurling,’ the game microcosm-ed by its death throes, Roscommon looking to fashion a consolation goal, losing possession and leaving Tyrone just enough time to fashion a goal themselves. Tyrone were brilliant. But, in a second half which mostly occurred right before my eyes (my seat was level with the 21-yard line at the end Tyrone attacked at will) they only failed to score through their own unforced errors, unhindered by the increasingly-distant concept of Roscommon ‘defending.’ And, agonisingly, Tyrone didn’t ease up, knowing points difference might make a difference. They looked like they’d been in an energy-sapping battle by the end. They hadn’t been.

Dublin/Donegal was weird. The Dubs made more unforced errors in this quarter-final than possibly all the championship matches they’ve won since 2015. Donegal played well and were in contention almost throughout. But Dublin’s win was never in doubt. The match exposed the nonsense of Croker being a ‘neutral’ venue. On 27 minutes, Donegal’s Jamie Brennan sliced a clear goal chance towards the blue-shirted Dubs packing the ‘Hill 16’ terrace. The Hill’s laughter echoed, the psychological effect exacerbated by the noise, which could not have been replicated at a genuinely neutral venue. And crowd-barracking visibly forced Donegal keeper Shaun Patton into, for him, rare kick-out errors. The small margins by which, experts say, closer games are decided.

Nonetheless, Niall Scully personified Dublin’s current dominance. He was a third-teamer at the start of 2017, playing in a pre-season tournament while Dublin’s best players were on the holiday awarded them for their 2016 All-Ireland title win (genuine amateurs, remember). And, 18 months later, he was the difference against Donegal, his goals either side of half-time putting Dublin seven points clear.

But there were signs that Dublin’s on-going dominance isn’t certain. Dublin and Tyrone were seven points clear shortly after half-time in their matches. But while Dublin and Donegal were demonstrably far-better matched than Tyrone and Roscommon, Dublin’s failure to even maintain that lead, let alone kick on, was surprising and concerning. Indeed, late on, Dublin reverted to two three-minute-long, bouts of dismal keep-ball to maintain a four-point lead. Some spectators booed. But they were aurally-swamped by Dublin ‘oles’ from the ‘neutral’ crowd. Dublin substitute (and multiple All-Ireland winner, natch) Paul Flynn finished a 94-pass move with the game’s final point, unsatisfactorily underlining Dublin’s control.

Donegal must beat Roscommon on Saturday (live on Sky, 5pm, again). And after last Saturday they should. Still, Roscommon have played four Championship games, losing the two I was at and winning the other two. So, for the team’s sake (and because the CHEAPEST timeous flights are THREE…HUNDRED…POUNDS), I’ll be watching Sky. However, this group’s centre was always Dublin’s visit to Tyrone’s designated home, Omagh’s Healy Park (live on Sky, 7pm). I wondered how the GAA missed an opportunity to wangle another Dublin home game, until RTE pundit Colm Cooper noted that “Tyrone’s record isn’t so great” in Omagh. Clucking bell.

Dublin’s heatwave/drought ended early Sunday morning. And Croker was a third-full dripping mess when Kildare and Monaghan began the superb-eights other group. ‘Attritional’ was the word. Both sides wore change kits and Kildare looked especially unrecognisable. Full-forward Daniel Flynn inspired flickers of recognition with his driving run and deftly-placed shot for Kildare’s sixth-minute goal. And Flynn was denied a second goal ten minutes later by Monaghan keeper Rory Beggan, although Flynn’s shot was at the cliched ‘right height’ for Beggan.

However, Monaghan led by two points at half-and-full-time, with Beggan’s main contribution being his two points from placed-balls, rather than his goalkeeping. Monaghan star forward Conor McManus was similarly restricted in going about his normal business, until his class emerged with a wonderful late point.

Kildare’s more punishing qualifying route told as they couldn’t summon a late victory burst. But if a dour Monaghan victory didn’t completely surprise, the Galway/Kerry dirge which followed certainly did. Monaghan manager Malachy O’Rourke noted, correctly, that “it was a very difficult day for playing football.” And when Galway and Kerry started, it got more ‘very difficult’ for watching football.

The first 29 dismal minutes even moved RTE controversialist Joe Brolly, in the stands not the studio, to tweet “my apologies to Carlow and Fermanagh,” the main targets of his on-and on-and-on-going tirade against blanket-defensive football. The scoreboard image with his tweet showed Galway leading, three points to two. But more serious was Galway midfielder Paul Conroy’s horrific leg injury, later diagnosed as a double-fracture. Hopefully, Conroy will make as speedy a recovery as possible.

Kerry’s much-vaunted attack was rendered virtually anonymous by resilient Galway defending. Only the increasingly-mercurial 19-year-old David Clifford could seriously seek exoneration. But even he couldn’t mask Kerry’s tactical mess and general ineptitude. Galway struggled too. But they were the better side through mere competence…there were no “you can keep your World Cup’s” here.

Galway play Kildare next week in Newbridge (the GAA wouldn’t DARE suggest otherwise). Meanwhile, Monaghan host Kerry. And Monaghan and Galway wins would qualify both for the All-Ireland semi-finals, dumping Kerry from the Championship, a few short weeks after Kerry were ‘coming for Dublin.’

The games in Newbridge, Clones, Omagh and Roscommon are what the ‘superb-eights’ are supposedly ‘all about,’ taking the All-Ireland championship’s business end all-over-Ireland. The football will need to be at least… well… 200% better, though, for these occasions to match the history they are making.