The GAA Championship, Part Six – Dublin & Mayo Again

by | Dec 11, 2020

It was going so well for Cavan. They led by a point, having dominated midfield and attacked with verve and accuracy, while their defence had not been troubled. Unfortunately, they were only 13 seconds into Saturday’s All-Ireland semi-final. And by the end, RTE commentator Darragh Maloney was raving about “Harlem Globetrotters stuff” as Dublin completed their 15-point win.

Maloney was awestruck. But the ease with which Dublin won inspired deep debate about inter-county Gaelic Football’s future. And RTE’s ‘Sunday Game’ highlights show spent as long on that debate as it did on the match. Dublin’s dominance looks long-term. They are one match from six All-Ireland titles in-a-row. And they look a better bet for ten-in-a-row than Celtic, as new players continue to emerge without weakening the team.

The plaudits for their record-breaking fifth-in-a-row referenced a “once-in-a-generation” team. But a recent tweeter asked how many once-in-a-generation teams they’ve had in this generation. Only three of their 2011 All-Ireland winners and seven of their first in-a-row 2015 winners started on Saturday.

Maloney and co-commentator Kevin McStay seemed over-delighted when Dublin made even the most minor errors. Meanwhile, Cavan got all their strategies right, especially goalie Raymond Galligan’s kick-outs. They were, dare one say it, Stephen Cluxton-esque, the Dublin custodian being the master of the art.

So, when Cavan scored three unanswered points in three minutes to leave themselves nine behind with ten minutes left, a nation awaited another of the great comebacks which have defined their season. The fools. Cavan didn’t score again. Dublin finally took a goal chance when Robbie McDaid finished off a sweeping pitch-length move on 65 minutes. And the “how to stop Dublin” debate began.

Pat Gilroy is the Dublin boss whose “fault” this is. Or, as Sunday Game presenter Des Cahill put it, more graciously, “the man many credit as the catalyst for the current Dublin success.” In 2011, Gilroy led Dublin to only their second All-Ireland title in 28 years, two years after losing an All-Ireland quarter-final to Kerry by a Dublin-esque 17 points. It was a remarkable drought for a county with nearly 20% of 32-county Ireland’s population, whose big games are at a “neutral” venue in…er…Dublin.

Meath manager Andy McIntee was officially there as an All-Ireland club championship winning coach with a Dublin club. But, as Meath are traditionally Dublin’s biggest provincial rivals…and their biggest current “victim” having been thumped by them in the last two Leinster finals, bitter fireworks might have been expected. But McIntee isn’t that kinda guy. And he didn’t seem too well-up on his brief. Gilroy is. And was. And his basic premise, diagnose the problem properly before considering solutions, is correct.

For instance, competitive imbalance is nationwide. And McIntee didn’t “want this to be about stopping Dublin.” Yet the timing and framing of the debate ensures that it is, despite the inter-county structure being a bigger, longer-term problem.

“It hasn’t worked for a long time,” Gilroy stated, correctly. Competitive imbalance is written into the structure, based as it is on counties with wildly varying infrastructures, economies and populations. And the provincial structure, 32 counties divided into groups of six, six, nine and eleven, makes no sense competitively or arithmetically. If you wanted a sensible structure, it would like what the man in the old joke about asking for directions was told. You “wouldn’t start from here.”

Gilroy came closest to admitting this but undermined his idea of smaller counties merging by jokily suggesting a Cork/Kerry combo. Even his more serious merger suggestions, such as Cavan/Monaghan, were shot down in immediate flames (“they hardly talk to each other” – Cahill). But there was again no battling his basic point. “It’s unfair that a guy born in Leitrim” (Ireland’s least-populous county) “has no chance of winning. It’s almost racism.” True, however over-emotive the language,

McIntee was becoming so vague that he was almost not there. But Gilroy marched on. “You have to think 2050,” he declared, pondering how different an increasingly urban Ireland might look by then, a bigger issue than splitting Dublin into two or four teams. “Like in American sport, every 300,000 people, that’s a team. And the club might move because population grows,” he surmised. Not so radical a suggestion either. It’s how parliamentary constituencies work. Such as…Cavan/Monaghan.

“I’m taking on a lot of sacred cows,” he acknowledged. And, sadly, the GAA is light years from addressing these problems, with many people light years from even wanting to. Structures need starting from scratch, which involves the powerful and influential within current structures ceding that power and influence. And that won’t happen for many years, light or dark.

Anyway…

Despite the remarkable propensity of high-scoring hurling championship matches this year, no-one was expecting a 60-point football match. Yet one would have so emerged had Tipperary taken one more of their ten (!) goal chances against Mayo on Sunday. Unfortunately, they helped create a number of first-half goal chances FOR Mayo, one directly, in a game which might have had the Mack Sennett estate wondering about copyright infringement.

Tipp’s tactics were clearer than the weather; pump high balls into big forwards Michael Quinlivan and captain Conor Sweeney. It is a far less unattractive tactic in Gaelic Football than in soccer. And it worked. Both had glorious goal chances in the first five minutes. Quinlivan hesitated and his chance was lost, Mayo keeper David Clarke turbo-charging off his line to make a fine save. And Sweeney could not have hit Clarke more centrally with his shot if he’d tried.

It MIGHT have been, as the cliché goes…and as Tipp boss Dave Power suggested afterwards, a “different game” if they had gone in. But probably not. Two minutes later, Tipp’s Brian Fox rolled and tumbled through some Mayo ‘defending’ and dribbled a left-foot shot inches over the line, one of the scruffiest goals ever scored. But in-between times, Cillian O’Connor goaled for Mayo, who then added four unanswered points either side of the water-break, before things got REALLY gruesome for the underdogs.

Cillian O’Connor brushed aside his marker like he was flicking dandruff of his shoulder before driving in his second goal, on 25 minutes. He grabbed his hat-trick when Tipp’s Liam Casey under-hit a pass across his own goal to his keeper by the span of O-Connor’s right-hand, leaving O’Connor with it all to do NOT to say “thanks very much” out loud as he palmed the ball into the uninhabited net.

And when O’Connor mishit a ‘45’ with what should have been the last kick of the half, his brother Diarmuid appeared from the wings to divert the ball into the net with what was the last touch of the half. 4-12 to 1-5 it was at the interval. And Mayo’s attack, traditionally wasteful and profligate this year too, hadn’t hit a single wide.

Done by Mayo’s pace and power, like better teams before them, Tipp decided that attack could hardly be a worse form of defence and made half-time changes to facilitate that. They worked. But only once O’Connor (Cillian) scored his fourth goal and Mayo stretched their lead to a ludicrous 21 points just before the second-half water break. Even the Dubs usually wait a bit longer to lead by that. And had O’Connor not been substituted on 67 minutes, he’d likely have outscored Tipp on his own. As it was, ‘he’ only lost to them by a point, 4-9 to 3-13 and was THIRTEEN up on them when drinks were served.

Tipp’s only hope had long-since the weather. Mayo’s afore-mentioned luck against Dublin was accursedly bad. And it would have been “just their luck” if the fast-falling North Dublin fog were to make conditions unplayable. Thankfully, the curse and the fog lifted sufficiently for the game to finish, which allowed Tipp to add respectability to the scoreboard, as the water-break shifted momentum yet again, albeit to no material effect for a change.

Indeed, they ended up losing by two points less than Cavan had, after goals by sub Paudie Feehan and a deserved net-buster from Sweeney took them to a score which would have beaten Mayo in all three of their previous 2020 championship matches. And as Mayo’s lead decreased, the sense grew that Dublin were becoming increasing winners.

The straight knock-out format, and the consequential shock championship exits of fancied teams, have been placed among the plusses of this year’s football championship. But the one-sided nature of the semi-finals was a direct consequence of these shocks. You suspect Donegal would have got closer to Dublin than 15 points. And Kerry would never have shipped a hurling score against Mayo.

Dublin/Mayo semi-finals, finals and replays, and Mayo’s supernaturally bad luck in them, would have been the story of the 2010s if the Dubs hadn’t survived them all unscathed. And they could fill half an article in themselves, especially the game where Dublin hadn’t scored after half-an-hour but were still WINNING by two points. See you next week for all that.

Next Sunday, meanwhile, Limerick and Waterford meet in the All-Ireland final, five weeks after Limerick won their Munster final clash by four points. Limerick have been 2020 title favourites almost since 2019’s controversial semi-final loss to Kilkenny. And nothing shook that belief until Waterford’s second-half display for the ages against Kilkenny in this year’s semi-final. The game is now, almost formally, too close to call. It could be a classic, too. But it could also be like Limerick’s 2018 final success, an inappropriately stodgy end to possibly the best-ever championship. I’m plumping for the classic. Possibly another 60-pointer. And another Limerick triumph.

Waterford to win one-nil, then.