The GAA Championship: Mayo, Definitely Not Gone

by | Aug 9, 2019

It has been a difficult telly year for RTE controversialist pundit Joe Brolly. Under the new regime of presenter Joanne Cantwell at RTE’s flagship GAA programme “The Sunday Game,” his eloquent, always listenable views have been stiffly challenged when, as they can, they drift off-beam. But last weekend was possibly his most difficult.

“Ach, they’re gone, they’re definitely gone,” Brolly said on 14th July, of a Mayo team that hours earlier came third to Kerry in their first game of the “Super-8s,” the All-Ireland Gaelic Football Championship quarter-final phase. Mayo were due to leave last Saturday. Instead, they definitely, defiantly, deservedly beat Donegal by four points in a dramatic Group 1 match which showcased more spirit than talent. And their “reward” is this Saturday’s semi-final in Dublin against… Dublin.

It is tempting to say “they’re definitely gone” now. Dublin have been a leading shampoo brand above all-comers all year. While Mayo have strutted and fretted their 70 minutes’ upon the stage all year. Their wins have been mostly scratchy. And they were dismantled by Kerry. So it was reasonable to predict that Donegal would beat Mayo.

But to say Mayo were definitely gone? Demonstrable rubbish, even at the time. Brolly got pelters when Mayo won, maybe even some from Donegal fans unappreciative of the TED talk that Brolly’s words may have become for Mayo. And the criticism clearly hurt (he let out a ferocious, almost tearful “Goddamit” on Sunday afternoon’s ‘Sunday Game’), even if it didn’t persuade him to say: “Sorry, I was wrong.”

Mayo have been Brolly-ego-sized underdogs before countless big Croke Park championship defeats to Dublin this decade. But, as Brolly himself put it, “it’s been draws, replays, point, point, point.” So. Can they finally win on Saturday? Last Saturday, brilliant win though it was, provided intermittent evidence at best for that.

Donegal were poor in the key areas to their 2019 successes, from keeper Shaun Patton’s kick-outs forward. Mayo led by six points at half-time. But they had played with a ‘six-point wind’ and their 29th-minute goal was a touch fortunate, a deflection on Jason Doherty’s shot for a point looping the ball over Donegal’s defence to Cillian O’Connor, although O’Connor’s punch to the net was a brilliant finish.

Mayo fought hard after half-time as Donegal over-relied on the ubiquitous Michael Murphy. Murphy ‘won’ and converted a 42nd minute penalty, to ‘guilty’ defender Lee Keegan’s astonishment (ref David Gough has a reputation for spotting fouls that happen off-the-ball and can clearly also spot fouls that didn’t happen at all). Donegal were lucky not to be down to 14 when Hugh McFadden shoulder-charged Adrian O’Shea’s nose in a post-penalty shemozzle. Thus reprieved, they ground the lead down to one and were only two adrift as seven minutes’ stoppage-time began.

But veteran forward Andy Moran did his supersub thang. He’d been on as a 26th-minute replacement for the misfiring Darren Coen but waited until stoppage-time to land his two points, stretching Mayo’s lead to two scores with barely time for Donegal to fashion one. And the Mayo crowd roared the team home (“If I’d hair it would have been standing on my head,” noted bald Sky pundit Peter Canavan).

Mayo and Donegal would have both made the semi-finals if Meath had beaten Kerry at home by six points. But Meath’s Super-8 performances have followed the same pattern; competitive and within range with ten minutes left, before tiring towards a convincing-looking defeat which didn’t do their efforts justice. So it was on Saturday.

Kerry won without sensational young thruster David Clifford, who had a back injury (Brolly’s one weekend apology was for attributing this injury to Clifford ‘carrying’ Kerry; “too easy, Joe” said Cantwell, correctly). While Meath were without leading scorer Micky Newman. And although Newman’s fresh-out-of-school replacement Shane Walsh impressed, Kerry’s Sean O’Shea stepped into the sensation shoes.

The 21-year-old’s impact in his debut season in 2018 would have made headlines but for 19-year-old Clifford. And his brilliant 42nd-minute goal on Saturday put paid to a Meath side who had twice clawed back decent Kerry leads to trail by a point at half-time. Meath were only three points back with 10 minutes left. But Kerry powered home to win by eight.

Group 2 was drama-free, with Tyrone and Dublin already qualified. Their Sunday game decided the group winners and the sides’ semi-final opposition. The winners would face Mayo, the losers Kerry. And after Kerry’s above-mentioned hammering of Mayo, the teams should have wanted to avoid Kerry. But they didn’t care. Dublin fielded a virtual second-string, Tyrone an actual one (FIFTEEN changes…to the delight, I’m sure, of the near full-house in Omagh, who paid €25-a-pop to watch).

“The coma in Omagh,” said Twitter. The first half hadn’t been that bad. But it hadn’t really been anything. Dublin led at half-time by three and at full-time by six. And the ‘big news’ was their selection of Diarmuid Connolly, a genuine star in a set-up which vehemently eschews such indulgence.

Connolly hadn’t played for Dublin since early 2018. His return on Sunday was low-key and you could nearly smell the rustiness. But there were glimpses of his former greatness as he sprayed 40-yard kick-passes into Dublin’s grateful full-forward line like a gridiron quarter-back. And he’d stroll into most inter-county teams even with that rust. Like Dublin need the help…

“Dublin win phoney war, now let’s never speak of it again,” ran an Irish Times newspaper post-match headline. Fine by me…

Theoretically, there was even less riding on the Cork/Roscommon match. Which was just as well. There were 13 yellow cards and three black cards in a ‘feisty’ encounter. No reds, mind. But God only knows how many there might have been with a semi-final place up for discussion.

The match probably mattered more to Roscommon. They had a humiliation by Dublin to expel from their system, while Cork had performed creditably against Dublin AND Tyrone. And Cork took full advantage as Roscommon emptied their system all over the pitch in a harrowing start.

TV cameras were too busy showing replays of previous Roscommon defensive dysfunctions to show the next one live, as Mark Collins’ gifted goal helped Cork to a five-point lead after no time at all. But Roscommon improved and the referee gave the 50-50 (and a few 40-60) calls their way. And they were level by the 25th-minute after Brian Stack’s goal.

Luke Connolly immediately goaled again and should have goaled yet again, poor finishing which left Cork only a point ahead at half-time. Their lead was out to two when the game went goal-crazy. Stack scored his second on 53 minutes, after the move of the match to that point.

Roscommon netted again on the hour, Enda Smith powering through the centre of Cork’s defence. Cork reacted better this time, defender James Loughrey photogenically netting his second Super-8s goal a minute later. But Shane Killoran finished off a pitch-length move for Roscommon’s fourth goal, as stoppage-time loomed, a goal-of-the-season contender if any of the decision-makers were even watching the game.

Cork landed two points and spurned another decent goal chance in stoppage-time before Roscommon sub Donie Smith landed a genuine point-of-the-season contender with the game’s last kick.

Strong debate has ensued over the Super-8s’ future, with a nation divided between its fans (all three panellists on the ‘Sunday Game’ highlights show) and its detractors (everyone else). The concept’s three-year trial ends next season. And Sunday’s meaninglessness massed the tanks on its border.

Brolly had learned nothing from his Mayo mis-step, claiming that “everyone knew” Dublin and Tyrone would qualify from Group 2, as he railed against the format’s uncompetitiveness. This was cods. Everyone knew Dublin would beat Roscommon. But no-one knew Tyrone would beat Cork until less than a minute before they did. Such matters, though, are a fragment of the debate. The Super-8s are of unclear benefit, unless you’re Sky Sports. And any sensible evaluation of the trial could probably end them now, even without Sunday.

Alas, only two of that paragraph’s words matter (above-average for me, I know). Sky Sports have paid for big games, so by God they’re going to get them. And when they get the first pick, the biggest game becomes available only to the smallest audience, as happened on Saturday. RTE took every opportunity to, rightly, insist that big games should be “free-to-air” while (over?) emphasising that this didn’t necessarily mean RTE getting the rights.

But fans’ interests were conspicuously absent from the debate. Six days’ notice of dates and times of matches, unavoidable with such a tightly-packed fixtures calendar, can mean extra travel and accommodation costs, especially (he notes from bitter personal experience) for overseas fans. But nobody of any relevance at the GAA gives a flying f**k about fans, especially those flying in for games,

And this has been exposed by the problems currently flowing from having to stage an All-Ireland semi-final just six days (including a Bank Holiday in the Irish Republic) after pairings and dates were confirmed. The GAA’s outsourced on-line ticketing system collapsed under the self-imposed high demand for, especially, Dublin/Mayo tickets (the two counties with the biggest football fanbases). But while Sky Sports want them, the Super-8s will continue.

As for the semi-finals, Dublin/Mayo will have to prioritise past illogic over current form if Mayo are to even compete. But they’re not definitely gone…oh no. While Kerry/Tyrone, an expansive but defensively uncertain team against a grimly defensive but talented one, is too close to call. No-one expects this semi-final weekend to match hurling’s epics. But about 140,000 people are expected at the games…if they can get a ticket.