The GAA Championship, Week 12: (Gaelic) Football’s Coming Home

by | Jul 29, 2018

Gaelic Football’s ‘Super-8s’ took one weekend to become ‘much-maligned.’ But Sunday’s games were so good that I thought I was watching the hurling.

The upshot of Saturday evening was that Dublin are hotter All-Ireland title favourites than the weather. They took their biggest step thus far to a history-equalling four-in-a-row in Omagh’s Healy Park, beating hosts Tyrone by one semi-fortuitous-looking goal and, locals will tell you, about 94 semi-fortuitous-looking refereeing decisions.

And they will now play their remaining games in Dublin. First, Roscommon in their final superb-eights game at a ‘home’ Croke Park, Then an All-Ireland semi-final and possible final at a ‘neutral’ Croke Park, with potential opponents Galway, Monaghan or Kerry warm second-favourites, whatever the weather.

Outside Sky TV’s relentless hyperbole, Dublin’s narrow win was as tough to watch as it was visibly, and occasionally audibly, to play in. For 66 minutes, certainly. It wasn’t a bad game, per se. Indeed, rugby league fans might have loved it. It just wasn’t the thriller Sky were claiming.

Last August, Dublin ran lanes through Tyrone’s supposedly-tight defence in ‘neutral’ Croke Park’s open spaces. Healy Park was as much less of an open space as Gaelic Football regulations allow (narrower by up to 10%, as ordered by Tyrone or…ulp…Sky Sports, depending on who you believe). This didn’t, and wasn’t designed to, necessarily help the spectacle. And it didn’t help Tyrone enough.

Dublin led almost throughout, although their recent sloppiness occasionally re-appeared. Tyrone kept in touch through some wonderful individual scores. And the roar which greeted Michael McKernan’s 32nd-minute point, which brought Tyrone to within a point, could have been heard in Croker.

However, Dublin upped the ante after the break. James McCarthy scored the only goal of the game, on 41 minutes. His first shot was saved by Tyrone keeper Niall Morgan. But he had sufficient wherewithal to slap home the rebound as he hit the ground. Making goalbound contact was the semi-fortuitous bit , but he deserved credit for having the speed of thought to make any contact at all.

Dublin were soon six points ahead, which, in Croker would have been game over. Not in Omagh. Tyrone pressed up from the 66th minute to force more Dublin errors. Dublin keeper Stephen Cluxton suddenly started missing the (narrow) pitch entirely with his usually pinpoint-accurate kick-outs. And despite commentary-box insistence that Tyrone needed a goal, they…didn’t.

Alas, letting the talented but just-introduced sub Ronan O’Neill take a late free proved pivotal. O’Neill could have left Tyrone a point behind, with time for another score. But he missed, horribly. And Dublin, with champions’ ice-coolness, got that other score. They will now win the group, because even drawing with Roscommon is not a prospect outside my wildest dreams. Meanwhile, Tyrone will travel to Ballybofey, Donegal, on 4th August needing only a draw to reach the semi-finals thanks to their bigger win over Roscommon.

Donegal were more than seven points better than Roscommon in Saturday’s first game and may yet rue not proving it. Roscommon’s Dr Hyde Park was only half-full after that Tyrone dismantling. And their defence was only half-full after a stirring start.

Donegal’s Michael Murphy burst onto the football scene, a decade ago, as a swashbuckling full-forward. More recently, he has plied his trade in and around Donegal’s midfield, thrown into the forward line mostly as an occasional measure of lost-cause saving desperation. On Saturday, Donegal’s midfield dominated without Murphy, who thus got free rein from Donegal’s management and Roscommon’s stand-offish defence to wreak scoring havoc.

The game was over as a contest by half-time. But the fun wasn’t, quite. Roscommon boss Kevin McStay raged at two refereeing decisions which might have left Roscommon only three points back at half-time. He invaded the pitch with all the grace of THAT David Pleat incursion at Manchester City in 1983, remonstrating, briefly physically, with one (as he saw it) errant official before clonking said official on the bonce with a 30-yard throw of the match-ball as everyone left the pitch for the interval.

The decisions were awful. Murphy shoved Roscommon’s Brian Stack in the face before scoring his last point of the half, which RTE’s ‘Sunday Game’ programme had the temerity to post on their facebook-page announcement of the result. Then Roscommon forward Diarmuid Murtagh was trodden-on by each of Donegal’s three-man full-back line in turn, 25 yards from goal.

However, McStay’s reaction was also awful, despite being firmly in the “you-shouldn’t-laugh-but-you-do” category. “I thought Liam McHale,” McStay’s assistant manager, “was the basketball player,” RTE pundit Tomas O Se noted, laughing. And McStay will deservedly face disciplinary action far beyond his second-half exile from the touchline technical area.

A late mini-revival catapulted Roscommon into plucky territory. But unforced errors unpicked their prospects. And Donegal would have had to undergo a collective brain-freeze NOT to have won anyway. And it was too hot for that. The only black spot on Donegal’s otherwise comfortable weekend was the injury to key player (especially in Scrabble) Eoghan Ban Gallagher. And if Donegal now realise the folly of playing the mercurial Murphy miles from goal, that could be the their most important takeaways from the Hyde.

Roscommon have lots of mistakes from which to learn. And it is too early to tell if they will benefit from making them. I suspect three or four counties could have made a better fist of these superb-eights. Yet I’d fancy Roscommon to beat two or three of them (Mayo being the exception, since you ask). But dismal though it is that strength so often trumps skill in modern Gaelic Football, that has been true for years.

However, the superb-eights didn’t seem so dismal in the afterglow of Sunday’s games in Newbridge, co. Kildare and Clones, co. Monaghan, where the idea of taking the biggest championship games to the provinces never looked and sounded better.

Monaghan beating Kerry would have rendered three of the last weekend’s four games ‘dead rubbers’ (although avoiding Dublin in the semis is very worth playing for). Thus, Kerry snatching an undeserved draw from a thriller was probably the most pleasing outcome. It kept Kerry in the championship, while leaving Monaghan’s fate in their own hands. Indeed if they draw their last match, IN Galway, both they and Galway will progress.

Galway clinched a semi-final spot, albeit not guaranteeing that they would avoid Dublin, by overcoming the emotional surrounds of Newbridge, unlike Connacht counterparts Mayo last month. The first half was as thrilling as anything produced by any hurlers so far this year. However, the 46th-minute dismissal of mercurial full-forward Daniel Flynn for a reckless off-the-ball swipe at Galway full-back Sean Andy O Ceallaigh’s head ultimately ended Kildare’s roller-coaster championship run.

The first half ebbed and flowed at a breathless pace. Galway’s Michael Daly looked unmarkable until succumbing to injury after only ten minutes (he was still Galway’s third-top-scorer despite this). Points came in all shapes and sizes and from all angles. Galway’s Patrick Sweeney had a shot blocked on the line by Mick O’Grady, whose clearance set up a Kildare counter-attack and, 41 seconds later, a point and…and so on, for a long time. Brilliant it was.

The scoring slowed before Flynn’s dismissal. But the genuine fascination grew (as opposed to the ‘fascination’ of a, to pick an example purely at random, Tyrone/Dublin ‘tactical battle’) as Galway’s wayward shooting kept Kildare in the game. Indeed, ‘star’ Galway forward Damien Comer loused-up a late three-on-one situation as Galway failed to clinch victory until deep into stoppage-time.

Galway will fancy their chances of an All-Ireland final if they avoid Dublin in the semis, although Donegal and Tyrone will fancy the same chances for the same reason. Kildare, though, are currently the story of the championship. Shock defeat to Carlow before ‘Newbridge or Nowhere’ turned them into serious superb-eighters.

Monaghan, though, could be, should be, and were 100 seconds from becoming the story of the championship. Sport’s capacity to surprise can often be gauged by how much a TV commentator’s voice croaks at the moment of surprise. And RTE’s Ger Canning nearly lost his as teen sensation David Clifford netted Kerry’s championship-saving, 74th-minute goal in Clones from a ridiculously-tight angle, with ridiculously-little time to set himself.

Clifford’s contribution had been feast-or-famine until then. His three points were astonishing. Otherwise he had been held, literally, by Monaghan’s defenders, who tried to intimidate the very-youngster into a Flynn-esque game-ending response. They say that ‘he who keeps his head while all around are losing theirs…hasn’t assessed the situation properly.’ But Clifford, just, kept his cool. And never more so than when beating the previously unbeatable Monaghan keeper Rory Beggan.

Beggan’s extraordinary display underpinned Monaghan’s tremendous display. Rarely, if ever, can a goalkeeper have so dominated a match. “You might as well have a butler carrying the ball out to the forward,” Joe Brolly said of Beggan’s kick-outs, during the ‘Sunday Game’ highlights show. One kick-out was nearly EIGHTY yards, directly creating a score (footage filmed in the crowd captures the gasps of amazement as the ball took flight). And four long-range frees made him Monaghan’s second-top-scorer.

Too-scorer Conor McManus found the net within 80 seconds to give Monaghan a lead they held right until Clifford’s volley. And with Kerry eschewing blanket defending (and, occasionally, any defending whatsoever), McManus made hay. Had his forward counterparts shown his composure, Monaghan would have comfortably clinched their first-EVER championship victory over Kerry.

Kerry genuinely looked like the (very) next big thing when they free-scored their way to the Munster title. But their confidence was shattered by Galway. And little at Clones helped pick up the pieces. They were kept in touch by intermittent individual brilliance, mostly from Clifford and fellow youngsters Sean O’Shea, Tom O’Sullivan and Gavin White.

But 35-year-old Kieran Donaghy helped write the late plot twist. Donaghy is the ‘big-lad-up-front’s’ big-lad-up-front (“a fairground attraction” – Brolly). His late inclusion in Kerry’s starting line-up looked like desperation…until he diverted substitute James O’Donoghue’s ‘hail Mary’ ball into the path of the on-rushing Clifford…

RTE co-commentator Kevin Cassidy bemoaned the defensive risks Kerry were taking seconds before McManus exposed those risks and found the net. So, when Cassidy spent the closing stages refusing to write Kerry off because…Donaghy, we should have known. But even the predicted has the capacity to surprise when sport is at its best. And Monaghan/Kerry was sport at its best.

Kerry must beat Kildare at home on 5th August, hope Galway beat Monaghan and then hope that points difference swings sufficiently in their favour. For a team ‘coming for Dublin’ (Brolly again) last month, it’s a mighty fall.

Next weekend is the new concept of “All-Ireland hurling semi-final weekend.” Galway/Clare at 5pm Saturday, Cork/Limerick 3.30pm Sunday. Both live on Sky. Now that the football’s getting good, will the hurling get grim? I wouldn’t bet on it.