The GAA Championship: Devastating Dublin, Ta-Ra Tyrone
Well, Mayo are definitely gone now. As, probably, is all hope of denying Dublin a fifth consecutive All-Ireland football title.
When Kilkenny dominated this century’s early years, their big game victories often followed a similar pattern. Their opponents would have genuine hope at half-time, often having fashioned a narrow lead. But early in the second half, as if it were behind-the-scenes, Kilkenny would ‘suddenly’ be seven or more ahead and on the road to victory.
On Saturday, Dublin amplified that script. Two points down after a ‘feisty’ first half, Dublin were TEN points up 12 minutes after the interval, and on the road to wherever they liked. Kilkenny, just, failed in their ‘drive-for-five’ in 2010, although by 2012 they had won six titles in seven seasons. If there were any reasonable doubts about Dublin’s drive-for-five, those 12 Saturday minutes dispelled them all.
I watched the match ‘as live,’ after it happened. As it happened, I was following the GAA website’s ‘as-it-happened’ page. And even that was brutal viewing. No sooner had I read the details of Dublin’s first second-half point than their first goal was being flagged up. Then, as details of the goal were posted, notification of the next point appeared. And so on, until Dublin were nine ahead. And had I lasted two minutes more, I could have read about them going TEN ahead.
The TV pictures were devastating, even though I knew what was coming. Mayo metaphorically gave it everything before half-time, tackling even more ferociously than they had against Donegal seven days earlier. And that mere seven-day gap, maybe, was the problem. Mayo had almost literally given it everything. And when Dublin hit their straps, Mayo were…well…definitely gone.
Dublin’s first goal was fortunate. Lee Keegan had defended with an outstanding tenacity even for this Mayo performance. But his ill-timed slip let Dublin’s Con O’Callaghan in for a goal. And Dublin, two points down at half-time, were two points up two minutes after half-time. Four more points flowed like wine before Dublin’s second goal. O’Callaghan’s side-step wrong-footed everyone in Mayo colours, defenders AND fans. And his shot possibly hit the same square of netting as his first goal…you wouldn’t put such things past anyone in this team.
The ubiquitous Keegan netted for Mayo with an impudent finish which could have been filed under ‘p*sstake’ had Mayo been ten points AHEAD. But Dublin’s Brian Fenton soon replied in kind and nearly had another goal as Dublin breezed down the home straight. They look like champions for as long as their legs will carry them, which could be years (O’Callaghan, for instance, is only 23).
RTE pundit Tomas O Se said “they should cancel the semi-final tomorrow,” between his native Kerry and Tyrone. “I’m not writing them off,” he added, before pausing for thought and admitting: “Well, I am.” O Se was quick to demur when fellow-pundit Joe Brolly was as dismissive of Mayo four weeks ago. No-one demurred on Saturday. Brolly, though, took a final (for now) dig at a Mayo team he once called “celebrity losers,” suggesting, un-necessarily, that Mayo “had enough good players to win an All-Ireland” but “not enough good men.” His next trip to Mayo may be…interesting.
On a normal semi-final weekend, Kerry’s storming second-half display against Tyrone would be the stuff of page-topping headlines and the slashing of bookies’ odds on their first All-Ireland title since 2014. But not last Sunday. And only 33,848 turned up, the lowest semi-final crowd this century (although such semi-final crowds were commonplace before a 1990s GAA attendance boom).
Kerry were further off the pace in their opening half than Dublin ever were. Tyrone led by four at half-time, combining suffocating blanket-defence with forward masterclasses from Mattie Donnelly and Cathal McShane. Kerry’s full-backs were playing well. Yet McShane was borderline unstoppable.
However, Tyrone are unloved by many for their un-necessary, ahem, ‘physicality’ off-the-ball and loved by those many for occasional weakness if ‘proper’ football breaks out. And, in Sunday’s second half, it did. Kerry lacked pace, patience and penetration in a first-half display lit up only by a Clifford wonder point. They began the second half with all three. And, from the 50th minute, Tommy Walsh.
Walsh was a young Kerry star a decade ago before a spell as a professional Australian Rules footballer. And the 31-year-old showed all his pro skills on Sunday, giving Kerry’s attack a previously-lacking focal point, like a speedy Peter Crouch. Tyrone brought a defender back for the high balls they expected Kerry to aim at Walsh. But Kerry played the ball low into him and he set up on-rushing team-mates, apparently a strength of his in Australia, while Tyrone’s extra defender watched like the rest of us.
Kerry were level by 55 minutes. And a minute later, Stephen O’Brien started and finished a pitch-length move for the game’s sole, ultimately decisive goal. The teams then swapped points at an almost Dublin-esque rate, as players such as the previously well-marshalled Clifford kicked some picture-book scores. Kerry held on, O’Brien literally holding on to a fast-advancing Connor McAliskey to receive his third black card of 2019, which technically bars him from the final, even though the first card was in a different competition…in March.
The consensus is that O’Brien will be let off, partly because the second card looks appealable but mostly because “ah, sure he can’t be missing the final for that.” And on the ‘Sunday Game’ highlights show, former Monaghan manager Malachy O’Rourke said he hoped O’Brien would “get off” and insisted that “there’s nothing more to be said on it.” So…er…there.
Sky Sports pundit Kieran Donaghy, a big target man in his Kerry playing days, insisted that Walsh should start the final. Although he appeared to suggest that about 18 players should be in Kerry’s starting 15…perhaps the one way to stop Dublin.
And RTE asked if time was up for veteran Tyrone boss Mickey Harte. Pundit and ex-Tyrone talisman Sean Cavanagh has already got pelters for saying: “There comes a time for the baton to be passed on. No-one can fault Mickey Harte but time moves on.” But he was answering leading questions on a non-issue (Harte has a year left on his contract). And fellow pundit Ciaran Whelan agreed. Harte has long-refused to co-operate with RTE’s football coverage. But only a cynic would link that to the tone of this discussion.
The hurling and football finals will be contested by VERY traditional rivals. Kilkenny (36 titles) and Tipperary (27) are first and third in hurling’s roll-of-honour, with 30-time champions Cork the only other team in double figures. And this Sunday’s final is easily previewed. Tipp should win but…Brian Cody.
Kerry lead Dublin 37-28 on football’s roll-of-honour, with no-one else beyond nine. The pair were football’s ‘Super-2’ between 1975 and 1979, when they only failed to meet in the final because they met in a, fantastic, 1977 semi-final. And Dublin beat Kerry in 2015, the first title of their current four-in-a-row. The prospect of topping-and-tailing a five-in-a-row by beating Kerry AND Kerry’s four-in-a-row record should strip Dublin of complacency on 1st September.
So, four counties, 38% of 32-county Ireland’s population, are technically still in ‘Championship.’ Let the (Gaelic) Games begin.