The GAA Championship, Week Four: Remembering Bloody Sunday

by | Nov 26, 2020

Two outrageously high-scoring All-Ireland hurling quarter-finals, even for a high-scoring championship, and two gargantuan football final shocks, would have been the talk of any ordinary GAA weekend. But Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s line about when “hope and history rhyme” has been frequently quoted lately. Because hope and history rhymed throughout this last, extraordinary weekend.

Tipperary footballers shocked Cork to win the Munster final, after Cork had shocked All-Ireland title fancies Kerry in the semi-final. It was Tipp’s first Munster title since 1935. But not even that was why the win mattered so much.

On Sunday 21st November 1920, as an indiscriminate reprisal for the killing of 15 British intelligence agents that morning, 13 spectators and one player at a Dublin/Tipperary Gaelic Football match in Croke Park were shot dead by British “Crown Forces.” Not one for the British history books when I was growing up.

This all happened during Ireland’s grisly ‘War of Independence.’ And the day became ‘Bloody Sunday.’ Among the 14 Croke Park dead were three children, one of whom was 11, my age when I first went there in 1977. Croker’s Hogan Stand is named after the murdered player, Tipperary’s Michael Hogan.

The GAA held a moving ceremony at the stadium before Saturday’s Leinster Football Final between Dublin and Meath, with memorials to each victim set up by the corner of the pitch where Hogan died. And actor Brendan Gleason read short passages about each of the 14, written by historian Michael Foley. But the current Tipp team’s outstanding display on Sunday, in the green-and-white shirts of their 1920 predecessors, was the ultimate tribute

The result seemed fated. Key Cork players succumbed to injury in the build-up to and during the match. Meanwhile, Tipp were strengthened by the inclusion of current Sydney Swans Australian Rules footballer Colin O’Riordan, who last played for Tipp in July 2015 and needed special dispensation from Sydney to line-out.

Cork had their own Aussie ruler on the bench in Mark Keane, who scored their last-kick winning goal against Kerry. But O’Riordan was a telling presence, his professional training increasingly standing to him as the game progressed. While forwards Conor Sweeney and Michael Quinlivan had shown glimpses of top-class throughout their careers. Sweeney ‘s wonder-point took their semi-final against Limerick to extra-time. Both were top-class on Sunday. And RTE commentator Marty Morrissey mentioned the number of 2011 All-Ireland minor champions in Tipp ranks so often that you wondered how they were ever underdogs.

They deservedly led by four at half-time. And Cork only stayed in it thereafter as Tipp got nervous and defensive. Hand of history etc… Tipp’s Luke Casey’s early second-half goal was disallowed for about two fouls, otherwise the game would have been over there-and-then. RTE co-commentator Dessie Dolan bemoaned their shrinking scoring rate before the water-break, as they only added one to their half-time tally. But eventually he noticed that Cork only scored twice.

Tipp added two quick points as the break worked its momentum-shifting magic. And when Cork got to within two on 63 minutes, they repeated the trick. Keeper Evan Comerford pinged over a long-range free. Then Cork’s Micheal Martin (the Irish prime minister’s son) pinged his kick-out straight at Quinlivan, who lobbed the panicking, retreating keeper for a point. And sub Philip Austin, a veteran of many darker Tipp days, appropriately completed the scoring, as Cork’s efforts to fashion another wonder-finish floundered.

Thus Tipp finally fulfilled the potential of those All-Ireland minor champions, who helped them to an All-Ireland senior semi against Mayo in 2016 but otherwise underachieved. Now, under 2011’s minor manager Dave Power, Tipp face another Mayo semi-final, with fate and form arguably on their side.

In Ulster, Donegal outscored Cavan 0-7 to 0-1, from minutes 11-1o-21, when Cavan had only 14 men after Killian Brady’s incorrectly-awarded black card. But otherwise, 14-to-one ON favourites Donegal received the hammering they were 14-to-one on to administer, even being outscored 0-2 to 0-1 when Cavan had only 14 men, from minutes 54-to-64, after Conor Madden’s incorrectly-awarded black card.

Cavan’s visceral post-match celebratory screams vocalised their display. They mixed crazed defending with cool points-scoring, playing throughout like they’d played in the later parts of most of their post-lockdown games. They were never more than three points behind on Sunday. They levelled during Madden’s ill-enforced absence. And on his return, Madden thumped home the decisive goal after Donegal’s otherwise excellent keeper Shaun Patten mis-punched a clearance straight to him.

Cavan’s tenacious tackling was not always obviously legal. But the unsanctioned treatment of Thomas Galligan and the two black cards, one for an accidental collision, the other a yellow card offence, gave Cavan the rough end of the refereeing decisions. And there was no denying their magnificence, especially the (unrelated) Galligans.

Goalkeeper and captain Raymond made outstanding second-half saves on two of rare occasions Donegal breached Cavan’s wall of crazy. And the ubiquitous Thomas did everything else possible and got repeatedly clouted for his trouble. His face was a mess for his post-match interview, and not just his ‘tache; daft facial hair for charity (Movember) is still daft facial hair. More seriously, he emerged from some clashes in visible neck pain. And hopefully there is no lasting damage.

But the list of Cavan heroes is…well…the teamsheet. Smiths everywhere. Killian Brady and Martin Reilly, more common Cavan surnames. Padraic Faulkner, Gearoid McKernan. And Madden, a three-time first-half blood substitute. Black-carded. But back to seal history. In contrast, Donegal were a team of bad days at the office, a performance over which to draw a veil.

Dublin next for Cavan, though. So we can write them off at last. Can’t we?

I wrote last week that Meath would give Dublin a harder game in the Leinster Final than Laois had in the semi-final. And Dublin beat Laois by 22 points while Meath held them to…21. So…erm…

Initially, we did have a match. Meath even threatened a goal after 54 seconds. And, after seven minutes, Meath’s Donal Keogan dispossessed Dublin’s James McCarthy and helped set up Jordan Morris to make it two points apiece. Then, 29 seconds, one goalkeeper’s kick-out and three passes later, Dublin’s Dean Rock found the Meath net, 140 yards up the other end of the pitch. And by half-time, Meath were obliterated and humiliated, failing to score again while Dublin amassed 2-13, as if admonishing Keogan for daring to take the ball off them.

In fairness to Meath, Dublin were magnificent. They habitually steamroller provincial opponents. But any county in the country would have struggled against their first-half display on Saturday. RTE’s Pat Spillane starred in one of Gaelic Football’s best-ever teams, Kerry’s 1978-81 all-Ireland winners, as he never tires of mentioning. He did so here too, but only while acknowledging that this Dublin are THE best-ever.

The one downside for the Dubs was the late straight red card for sub Cormac Costello. He supposedly swore at a linesman after an innocuous decision went to Meath and will miss the semi-final if the decision stands. TV audio and pictures revealed nothing. And Costello looked genuinely non-plussed to be even spoken to by the referee, let alone dismissed. Costello is a fine player. But Dublin have dozens just as good.

In the hurling, Galway and reigning All-Ireland champions Tipp produced as epic a contest as their 2015, 16 and 17 semi-final meetings. Waterford looked likely winners from the fifth minute of their match with Clare, but only advanced after a feast of high-quality scoring from both sides. And a championship which previously had a dearth of goals suddenly produced 11.

Goals and points flew in and over from all angles in a sensational first half, which Tipp ended 2-13 to 2-9 ahead, full-time score numbers. But Tipp were reduced to 14 men on 52 minutes, when defender Cathal Barrett received a second yellow card, 37 seconds after the second-half water-break.

Galway were two down at the time, having cut Tipp’s five-point early second-half lead. And, backed by a stiff enough breeze, they might have won anyway. And Tipp overcame comparable adversity in 2019’s epic (natch) All-Ireland semi-final against Wexford, won with 14 men for 25 minutes. But Barrett’s red felt pivotal on 66 minutes when Galway defender Aidan Harte filled the Barrett-shaped hole in Tipp’s defence and drilled home a wonder goal from 25 yards.

That edged Galway two points clear and they stayed between one and three in front as the nutjob scoring rate refused to abate. “He’s allowed the puck-out,” RTE co-commentator and ex-Tipp goalie Brendan Cummins exclaimed hopefully, his neutrality mask slipping as play entered the…um…fifth of three minutes’ stoppage-time. But his hopes soon vanished.

Cliched-but-true, no-one deserved to lose. Not least because Barrett’s first booking was for two-tenths of five-eighths of ****-all. ‘Saturday Game Live’ presenter Joanne Cantwell suggested that Tipp boss Liam Sheedy was “clearly not happy…if you’re a lip reader, you’ll have a fair idea what he was saying.” And RTE pundit Donal Og Cusack momentarily silenced the “Sunday Game” studio by strongly implying that Limerick referee Johnny Murphy might have had a vested interest in Galway being Limerick’s semi-final opponents.

But Sheedy is never happy during matches, even when Tipp are winning. The attention-seeking Cusack was…attention-seeking. And after the way the Leinster title escaped their grasp, Galway will have no f***s to give about all that.

This season, Tony Kelly has BEEN Clare. And when he scored a fine point from open play, straight after Dessie Hutchinson’s first-minute goal for Waterford, business appeared to be as usual. Then Kelly turned his ankle running towards the touchline, with no other player involved. Je recovered and didn’t have a bad game, scoring another brilliant point from play in the second half and eventually top-scoring for Clare again. But that was his only other score from play. And some may argue that Waterford’s nine-point winning margin was the difference Kelly’s injury made.

However, Waterford were brilliant. Aaron Shanagher’s 18th and 20th-minute goals only matched Hutchinson’s opening six-minute double. And Hutchinson turned provider for Jack Fagan’s 35th-minute goal which edged Waterford 3-10 to 2-10 ahead at half-time, more full-time score numbers.

Waterford edged further ahead after the break…and the second-half water-break, to lead by seven after 56 minutes when Shanagher took his turn to turn provider, setting up defender Aidan McCarthy to do what Aidans do (see Aidan Harte above). And three minutes later, Waterford keeper Stephen O’Keeffe made a stunning save from David McInerney. Clare would have been two behind had that gone in. But Waterford powered clear again as Clare over-committed in chasing the game.

Having drawn one and lost seven championship matches since losing 2017’s All-Ireland final, Waterford’s renaissance under new manager Liam Cahill has been comprehensive. They face Kilkenny in the semi-final on Saturday evening (live on Sly Sports Little Mix). They are not underdogs.

Thus a fine hurling championship ends with the four best teams capable of producing three more epics. But we must end with the football, on a weekend when Dublin, Tipperary and Cavan joined Mayo as provincial champions and All-Ireland semi-finalists.

Football, and hurling semi-finals are traditionally Croke Park affairs. But calls for the Cavan/Dublin semi-final to be staged at a neutral ground were initiated by BBC pundit Peter Canavan, directly after Cavan’s Ulster final. And while Cavan have made no formal requests, their manager Mickey Graham asked: “With the year that is in it, no crowds allowed in, is there a need to go to (Croke Park)? For Dublin, that’s like their own back garden.”

Navan’s Pairc Tailteann, in Meath, was suggested. Because we have the same four provincial champions and the same semi-finals as…1920, when the venues were Navan for Cavan/Dublin. And Croke Park for Mayo/Tipp.

A decision is awaited as I write. But based on provincial final form, whatever the venue, there’s no discounting a Dublin/Tipperary final. The teams that met in the 1920 final. And on Bloody Sunday. 21st November 1920. And after a weekend when hope and history rhymed repeatedly, who dares rule that out?