The GAA Championship, Week 8: Arlene Foster & Home Comforts

by | Jun 30, 2018

The big GAA story of a weekend which followed football’s form-book to the letter was who was there, not what they saw.

Fermanagh predictably lost the Ulster final to Donegal when their tactic of boring the opposition to death failed. Amongst the crowd was Fermanagh-native actor Adrian Dunbar (IMO, the star of the brilliant BBC cop-corruption drama ‘Line of Duty’). Oh…and Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster, who accepted the Fermanagh team’s initially semi-serious invitation to attend. Which, in hindsight, was possibly the bigger story.

Foster made huge sacrifices to promote unity between Ireland’s ‘unionist’ and ‘nationalists.’ Attending a big GAA occasion, in Ulster but Irish Republic county Monaghan, where the Irish tricolor flew, and Ireland’s national anthem was sung pre-game. And posing for a selfie with Sinn Fein leader Michelle O’Neill. The biggest sacrifice, though, was enduring this Fermanagh team. As RTE controversialist Joe Brolly noted, “she’ll be taken aback by the warmth of the welcome she’ll get” but “she may not be as encouraged by Fermanagh’s blanket defence.”

The cloudless sky allowed her to wear sunglasses throughout. But if she’d worn them on a cloudy day simply to cover bouts of in-game sleep, she wouldn’t have lost any more votes or respect than she might lose anyway from the more virulent strains of Ulster Loyalism. Foster is not my political cup-of-tea but fair play to her, for many reasons. Alas, she would now probably roll around naked in a field of barbed wire…in the snow…than watch this Fermanagh side again. And, in that regard, she probably found enough common cause with GAA followers to make her attendance a PR success.

Until Eoghan Ban Gallagher scored Donegal’s first goal, after 16 minutes, the game was going to Fermanagh’s grim plan. Brolly had been wordily-outspoken, even for him, about Fermanagh’s ‘style’ in the ‘Sunday Game’ studio. He said “knotweed” again, twice, dismissed “this sentimental twaddle” about Fermanagh and openly stated that a Fermanagh win would be “very, very bad” for Gaelic Football.

Four minutes after throw-in, he tweeted “oh, for fuck sake.” But, mercifully, Donegal defenders, bereft of attackers against whom to defend, joined the attack, outnumbered Fermanagh’s blanket defenders and scored the two goals and two points by which Donegal led at half-time, including Ryan McHugh’s fabulous 31st-minute solo goal. “Arlene Foster can go home and attend to business” noted RTE’s Colm O’Rourke. While a barely calmed-down Brolly declared matters “a farce” and touted a “new punishment” for players committing “a particularly serious offence,” being “forced to watch Carlow v Fermanagh on a loop.”

“Donegal could hold the ball for the rest of the game,” he added. “If it’s all about winning and it doesn’t matter about the spectators, or about the kids watching the game, or about inspiring us, or about sport,” Donegal “should kick the ball to (their) corner-back and he should sit down beside it and wait.” Don’t give them ideas, Joseph.

Blanket defences are oft-excused as smaller-resourced counties optimising said smaller resources. Fermanagh had no such excuse. After beating Armagh, they dropped Seamus Quigley, who got half their scores that day. They beat Monaghan without him. But when they introduced him at the start of Sunday’s second half, they started looking not terrible. Too late, alas. Especially after Ryan Jones’ 53rd-minute dismissal for two bookings.

After the match, presenter Michael Lyster heralded a match review for those who had just tuned in, saying “First of all, well done.” Harsh on Donegal. But not on Fermanagh.

Saturday evening in Cork’s Pairc Ui Chaoimh resembled a different sport. A young Kerry side, average age about 12 to judge by the hype, hammered the hosts by 17 points, despite conceding two identikit early goals, missing four goal chances and easing up long before the end of a game which was outstanding for ten minutes and outstandingly one-sided thereafter.

Kerry were so breathtakingly dominant that it was difficult to gauge how good they were defensively, especially when Cork’s lone attacking threat, Ruairi Deane, received a 30th-minute black card for, almost literally, nothing. Deane passed the ball to a colleague, defender Jason Foley collided with him and…er…that was it. Even if it was a foul (it wasn’t) it was no more a black-card offence than Deane having one-too-many ‘I’s in his first name.

The emergence of so many young Kerry players was no surprise. Their minors (under-18s) won the last FOUR All-Irelands. And players such as David Clifford and Sean O’Shea have already seamlessly transferred to the more demanding senior ranks.

The manner of Saturday’s win, though, brought to mind a previous famous group of Kerry youngsters (including current RTE pundit Pat Spillane) which burst on the scene almost all at once, shocking favourites Dublin in 1975’s All-Ireland final. The two counties dominated the late 1970s, until Kerry emerged as the greatest Gaelic Football inter-county team ever to that point, denied a still-unprecedented ‘five-in-a-row’ All-Ireland titles by a dubious refereeing decision late in 1982’s final.

Kerry and Dublin look set to similarly dominate the next few years. And Brolly’s headline-grabber was Kerry are ‘coming for’ Dublin. However, on Sunday, Dublin reminded everyone just how dominant they currently are, with an 18-point Leinster final victory over Laois, despite not playing very well at all. Kerry’s kids may be “a wee bit young for (Dublin) at the moment,” which Brolly also said but which got overlooked. Nonetheless, Dublin’s five-in-a-row is not as inevitable as it may previously have seemed.

The eight football ‘qualifiers’ were almost as shock-free as the provincial finals. Tipperary briefly threatened to win at home to Mayo in an entertaining offering which maintained SKY’s unwarranted good fortune in their match choices.

Tipp lead by three points with 19 minutes left, before another Thurles turnaround, a trademark of this summer. Jack Kennedy missed a near-sitter which would have put Tipp two scores ahead. And within a minute, Mayo’s James Durcan miskicked a near-sitter, only for his feeble shot to arc over Tipp keeper Evan Comerford’s head and flop into the net off the far post.

Thereafter, Mayo were at their exhilarating best and Tipp lost by eight points. “The arse fell out of it for them,” noted Sunday Game pundit Tomas O Se, evocatively. However, Mayo’s Seamus O’Shea severely damaged his shoulder when he fell awkwardly near a Tipp challenge. Desperate luck for Mayo, who lost the even more influential Tom Parsons to a freak leg injury in May. Mayo trod a fraught path through the 2016 and 2017 qualifiers’ ‘scenic route.’ 2018 is shaping up similarly.

Elsewhere, there were predictable wins, albeit by varying margins, for Monaghan, Tyrone, Clare, Cavan and Armagh. Leitrim hammered out-of-sorts Louth to be National League Division Four’s sole remaining team and Longford led Kildare for 69 minutes but lost by three points. Leitrim have a ‘dream’ home tie with Monaghan, while Kildare have an intriguing home tie with Mayo, made all the more intriguing by the Mexican stand-off(CHK) of a build-up.

Within hours of the draw being made, the GAA said the Kildare/Mayo match would form half of a Croke Park double-header. The other half was Cavan’s ‘home’ game with Tyrone. But while Cavan ceded home advantage for the second time because their Breffni Park pitch is being relaid, Kildare’s county board helped to get ‘Newbridge or Nowhere’ trending with a statement which declared, in paragraph one, that “the team will not be in attendance, as the game should be played at our county grounds, St Conleth’s Park.”

They added that Newbridge police “were happy with the fixture going ahead, their only request being that it throw in at 7pm, given the influx of people to the area due to the Irish Derby at Curragh Racecourse at 5.15pm” (four miles away across the M7 motorway). And that Kildare told the GAA they “would have no difficulty in hosting the fixture as an all-ticket affair.”

Nevertheless, the GAA’s stated ‘reasoning’ was capacity-based. St Conleth’s Park IS surprisingly small, given Kildare are not a ‘lesser’ football county. Its 6,200 capacity can be lifted above 8,000 with ‘unreserved seating.’ But, whatever the capacity, Saturday’s game there would sell out and much more. Mayo’s phenomenal travelling support could fill it by itself. And, a GAA spokesperson told RTE Sport, “there are 3,500 season-ticket holders in Mayo,” all reportedly entitled to a ticket.

However, “live on Sky Sports” apparently trumped all. Including issues with Cavan and Tyrone fans being hauled down to Dublin at five days’ notice for a game which could last past 7pm. Or Kildare losing the home advantage granted under, lest we forget, the GAA’s own rules for qualifier draws.

Last Thursday, the GAA website reminded readers of said rules: “The first team drawn will have home advantage,” and the exception (singular): “a Division 3 or 4 team…drawn against a Division 1 or 2 team will have home advantage.” Kildare and Mayo were Division 1 teams, meeting at…St Conleth’s Park. Mind you, another GAA rule says: “Home Venues shall be subject to approval by the Central Competitions Control Committee (CCCC).” Lawyers across Ireland were probably on high alert for a bit.

Mercifully, Mayo don’t employ a blanket defence, otherwise Saturday could have been very low-scoring. Seriously, though, Kildare’s doggedness won the day. Manager Cian O’Neill insisted on Monday’s RTE News. “We’ll be in St Conleth’s Park. We’re going to be togged out, we’ll be ready to go,” echoing Roscommon manager Kevin McStay’s ultimately successful insistence that Roscommon would be IN Roscommon for the Connacht Final, even if no-one else was.

So, while Foster was an admirable story last weekend, the GAA’s prioritisation of money and SKY TV over fair treatment of players, fans and THEIR…OWN…RULES would have been a less admirable story this weekend. Their priorities were entirely arse-about-face. And the money-losing prospect of a tiny Croke Park crowd for a Cavan/Tyrone and Mayo/Nobody At All double-header, might have forced their hand (STOP PRESS: the GAA have also rescheduled Cavan/Tyrone for Brewster Park, Enniskillen, the Fermanagh ground where Cavan hosted their Round 2 match).

Some might prefer Mayo v Nobody to Fermanagh v ANYBODY. And an outcome for the mischievous might have been Mayo advancing downfield to get the score to confirm their victory…and deliberately missing. ‘Control’ THAT, CCCC. Still, forcing the GAA to let Newbridge stage the game is THE ideal outcome. And fair play to all involved with Kildare for standing their, ahem, ground.

In the 1990s and 2000s, as the ‘Celtic Tiger’ growled, the GAA discovered the financial power of big-game replays, leading to unsubstantiated rumours of stoppage-time manipulation to ensure draws, ‘earning’ the GAA a fair few euro…and the epithet ‘the Grab-All Association.’ Little, seemingly, has changed.

Next Sunday, it’s the Munster and Leinster hurling finals. No problems with the venues. And no blanket defences. Arlene Foster should go. She’d love it.