The GAA Championship, Week 15: The Final Four

by | Aug 20, 2018

And then there were four. Dublin and Tyrone in football’s 2nd September final, Limerick and Galway in hurling’s 19th August final.

Last weekend, Galway were still in with a shot at four All-Ireland final places. One of the few traditions to survive all recent format changes was that of playing the All-Ireland ‘minor’ (under-17) hurling and football semi-finals as ‘curtain-raisers’ to the ‘senior’ (full first-team) games at Dublin’s ‘neutral’ Croke Park. Galway qualified for both hurling finals and their minor footballers won their semi-final last Saturday afternoon, the curtain-raiser to their seniors’ efforts to dethrone Dublin. Ah well. To slightly recoin a phrase, three-out-of-four ain’t bad, I suppose.

Four-out-of-four was momentarily on. After seven minutes, Galway’s bull-in-a-china-shop forward Damien Comer ended Dublin’s early scoreboard dominance by punching Kieron Duggan’s high ball into the net. Galway led a minute later. And, on ten minutes, a charging Comer was upended for a penalty, which, for reasons which defy analysis still, Eamonn Brannigan took, having scored…NO previous Championship goals. Keeper Stephen Cluxton was yards off his line when, predictably, saving Brannigan’s low, too-measured kick. But, like facts in politics, such things no longer matter.

Galway never led again. A strong spell reduced Dublin’s interval lead to two, after Con O’Callaghan netted a fine team goal for Dublin in the 27th minute. But it was an illusion of competitiveness. Dublin powered ahead in the third quarter, ominously approaching their best form for the first time all summer. Before the break, they lost sweeper Cian O’Sullivan to a hamstring pull of uncertain gravity. But he was replaced seamlessly. And Dublin’s other changes were similarly seamless, even free-taker Dean Rock’s 54th-minute withdrawal, which almost never happens so early (and not that often at all).

The impressive Shane Walsh’s late goal added the cliched (if illusory) ‘respectability to the scoreboard.’ But Dublin’s control was emphasised by Paul Flynn and Kevin McManamon each hitting the upright in the very closing seconds. Dublin could have won by as much as they wanted, how they wanted. And Galway are genuinely one of the top six sides in Ireland.

On Sky, pundit Jim McGuinness had suggested Galway adopt a ‘radical’ defensive strategy which, on the studio’s tactics screen, looked lots like playing for a nil-nil draw. As a manager, he was ‘credited’ with introducing the reviled ‘blanket defence’ to football when dragging Donegal from also-rans to the 2012 All-Ireland title. On Saturday, he appeared to suggest Galway add a quilt, three sheets and an eiderdown to avoid by “eight or ten points.” They didn’t. They lost by nine points. McGuinness is Sky’s best bet and deserves better.

It indicates the mediocrity of football’s 2-18 Championship that Monaghan and Tyrone fought out, too-often literally, two of its better games. Monaghan’s two-point win in Tyrone in mid-May was arguably THE best. But Monaghan/Tyrone in Croke Park has a semi-ugly brief tradition. And for all the plaudits it received for the excitement of its denouement, Sunday’s encounter largely maintained that tradition.

Tyrone were the better team, possibly by more than the point by which they fell over Sunday’s line. And the, correct, consensus is that Dublin would have much preferred to face Monaghan in the final. But, my word, there isn’t a dirty trick in the book that they haven’t employed, amid their frequently fabulous counter-attacking football.

After four minutes, Tyrone led by four points to one and we were set for a free-flowing affair, at least until Tyrone streaked too far clear. Then, tradition took hold of the match, just as players took hold of each other. Five points in four minutes, then 11 in 33 as the sides ended the half level. One Sky pundit called it a “wrestle” and Tyrone appeared to be allowed to do most of the wrestling by referee Anthony Nolan, who had a ‘difficult’ time adjudicating an already ‘difficult’ match.

There were moments of first-half brilliance. The terrific (if almost as terrifically cynical) Colm Cavanagh started his man-of-the-match display with a point on 18 seconds. Monaghan’s Conor McManus fired over a point with all the, considerable, genius he could muster. There were further fine scores from Tyrone’s Niall Sludden and Monaghan’s Fintan Kelly and virtuoso goalkeeping from Monaghan’s Rory Beggan. The RTE highlights show, The Sunday Game, that night made the first half look excellent.

It wasn’t. And swathes of the second half lacked even intermittent brilliance. Beggan boomed over one trademark, long-range free. But substitute Kieran Hughes’ spectacular point to draw Monaghan level again on 59 minutes was only the half’s second score from open play. The drama began here, though, as two minutes later, Monaghan led for the first time in the match (from a free, natch).

However, a minute later still, Tyrone grabbed the game’s only goal, their first score at all for 18 minutes, with a string of the sort of luck you simply cannot buy. Peter Harte, misery-guts manager Mickey’s nephew, ploughed a furrow through the defence, with marker Fintan Kelly arguing that he over-carried the ball. The chance he created seemed squandered as Monaghan bodies, eventually, got in the way. However, however, Darren Hughes’ block of Tiernan McCann’s shot fell kindly-and-a-half at Sludden’s feet and he first-timed the ball, ‘soccer-style’ past the very on-rushing Beggan.

Monaghan weren’t dead yet, although they shot themselves in the foot more accurately than they shot for goal as a frantic three minutes’ stoppage-time loomed (a paltry amount which provided post-match debate). They reduced Tyrone’s three-point lead to one after late substitute Jack McCarron was magnificently denied another very clear point-scoring opportunity by a wonder-tackle from Cavanagh. Gaelic Football’s tackling rules are as much of an ill-defined mess as most actual tackles. Cavanagh’s tackle was rule-book, textbook and ultimately match-winning-book.

But Monaghan weren’t dead YET. Beggan played ‘rush goalie’ in stoppage-time and barnstormed forward one last time to give himself a brief sight of goal, 55 yards out, with seconds left. If this was hurling he would have pointed to take the game to extra-time. And he had regularly scored frees from that distance all summer. So post-match criticism of him for taking on the shot was a little harsh. He sliced and skied his effort. And Nolan seemingly held his arm aloft to signal a very scorable Monaghan free as the ball hurtled towards a grappling Kieron Hughes and McCann. But it was a false flag.

Despite the new format making Tyrone the first team to reach an All-Ireland final having lost two Championship matches, football’s top two are pretty clearly in the final, the most (only?) satisfactory aspect of (yet) another unsatisfactory football summer.