GAA Championship, Week Eight – Dublin’s Seven Is Up

by | Aug 20, 2021

Move over, Dublin.

When the end came, it was ugly. Dublin’s bid for seven All-Ireland football titles in-a-row was ended on Saturday by Mayo. And their empire crumbled amid a sea of dark arts, darker deeds and petulance. Still, when you are so unused to losing, you aren’t going to be very good at it.

Dublin’s season so far suggested that their days at champions were numbered, although perhaps in hundreds, not dozens. The general consensus was that the Dubs were “coming back to the pack.” And at their best, Dublin famously never found Mayo easy. Thus, the Connacht champions travelled to Croker on Saturday with genuine hope of a ‘surprise’ rather than a ‘shock’ victory.

Mayo were missing long-term injury Cillian O’Connor, championship football’s all-time top-scorer, and influential defender Oisin Mullin. But Dublin were down some high-profile retirees (and “stepped away” goalie Stephen Cluxton), with umpteen multi All-Ireland winners only edging towards fitness.

This all showed. The match’s drama far outweighed its quality. The first-half was uncompetitive and sloppy. The second half was competitive and brutal. Extra-time was a mess, after four golden minutes which won Mayo the game. And the officiating was poor at key moments. But Mayo were responsible for little of this. They made light of their injured absentees and the might-as-well-have-been-absent Aidan O’Shea. And they deserved the win for corner-back Padraig O’Hora’s post-match interview alone.

RTE’s commentary duo Darragh Maloney and Mayo native Kevin McStay had difficult evenings. But Maloney summed up the first quarter neatly when he said that for Mayo “to be three points behind after the way the opening quarter of an hour has gone” was “a positive.” Dublin had started like vintage Dublin. And Mayo captain O’Shea summed up the second quarter neatly when he superbly caught a high ball to win an unmissable free close-range shot at goal…and missed.

Dublin led 0-9 to 0-2 after a wonderful team score on 28 minutes. And they squandered a golden opportunity for a 0-11 to 0-3 half-time lead. Instead, Mayo’s Conor Loftus closed the first-half scoring. 0-10 to 0-4 somehow looked less dreadful. However, as RTE pundit Colm O’Rourke said at half-time: “The game is over, we might as well all go home.” Oopsie.

Mayo were unavoidably better after half-time. Yet that didn’t show on the scoreboard until Mayo keeper Rob Hennelly ended ten minutes of bipartisan on-field dreck by pointing a thumping 57-metre free to leave Mayo four behind. This followed O’Shea’s 49th-minute replacement. A “big” call. But on Saturday, a mercy killing. Dublin still led 0-11 to 0-7 on 57 minutes, and missed a goal opportunity to likely seal victory. There were, however, destined to be six minutes-plus added, as the goal chance immediately followed John Small flooring Mayo’s Eoghan McLaughlin with a ‘belligerent’ tackle.

McLaughlin landed face down. And when the extent of his injury emerged (a double jaw fracture), RTE judged it unfilmable. Mayo players were shocked. Referee Conor Lane’s decision to let play continue was shocking. An enraged Horan screamed “that’s a f***ing red card” at Lane and linesman Maurice Deegan, a three-time All-Ireland final ref. And McStay mystifyingly insisted that Small’s belligerence wasn’t a foul, even as replays exposed it as an indisputable red card offence (McStay apologised for his “bad call” on RTE’s ‘Sunday Game’ highlights show. He couldn’t but).

Then, on 63 minutes, with the score 0-12 to 0-7…the turning point. “Seventy metres, isn’t it?” McStay asked. “Must be, yeah,” Maloney agreed, as Hennelly placed the ball…between the 45 and 65-metre lines for another free. He missed, badly. Yet Diarmuid O’Connor somehow kept the ball in play as Dublin defenders tried to usher it over the end line. And his ‘clearance’ somehow found Kevin McLaughlin, who landed what would have been a sublime point even after a non-freakish build-up.

“Ah, unbelievable,” McStay noted, getting one right at last. “Whatever happens, the narrative about Dublin slipping will continue,” Maloney noted, getting one right at last. Mayo wonderkid Tommy Conroy cut the gap to one, entering seven minutes’ added-time. Dublin’s Dean Rock landed an extraordinary tight-angled free. And then the fun started.

Dublin’s trademark attempts to run down the clock foundered in the 74th minute. And as Bryan Walsh advanced goalwards, defender Davy Byrne yanked supporting runner McLaughlin’s shirt. McStay suggested “he has to go,” biased-as-**** but correct. Maloney exclaimed “we’re hearing it’s a yellow” (thus revealing RTE com-box access to the officials’ in-play conversations). McStay replied “that’s a cop-out.” O’Donoghue pointed the resultant free. And then the fun really started.

“Dublin will try and hold onto it with a minute left,” Maloney declared, with…erm…two minutes left. But three Dublin players were soon exchanging lateral passes three yards in front of their own goal. A discombobulated Byrne eventually toe-ended the ball out for a 45 and Dublin resorted to the darkest arts before the kick was taken.

James McCarthy felled O’Donoghue as the umpire signalled the 45. And as Hennelly approached the most important kick of his ten-year Mayo career, Dublin sub Philly McMahon decided to jog to his position directly across Hennelly’s eye-line. Hennelly was actually unmoved by this and only complained after firing miles wide again. No O’Connor this time. But then the fun REALLY started.

Lane ordered a retake, which everyone assumed was for McMahon’s f*kwittery but was actually because Mayo had 16 players on the pitch when Hennelly took the 45, as they were halfway through subbing Stephen Coen for his brother Darren. So, in a plot development the US Coen brothers might have deemed “too weird” for their films, Mayo were ‘penalised’ by…the salvation of their All-Ireland hopes, as Hennelly emphatically, inevitably pointed the retake.

Then McCarthy (again) felled O’Connor. And Lane ended normal time as players’ testosterone levels and intelligence quotients diverged wildly during a multi-man brawl/shirt-tearing contest. This also involved O’Shea, livelier here than when he was supposed to be on the pitch. “Epic,” they said, after one ball was kicked in the final 185 seconds. Not MY four-letter word.

Dublin pointed 22 seconds into extra-time. And…NEVER…SCORED…AGAIN. Mayo then hit four-in-a-row in four minutes. The last three took 88 seconds, including two more Conroy wonder points. The second put Mayo ahead at last. And they…NEVER…SCORED…AGAIN as the game became chaotic, uplifted only by the fact of Mayo winning and the joy of their astonishing support in a 24,000 crowd which sounded like an 82,300 full house.

Dublin resorted to route one and violence. John Small’s brother Paddy ‘tackled’ Mayo’s James Carr with a clenched fist. Small saw yellow and was taken off before he could get sent off. And, right at the end, McCarthy was finally sanctioned, black-carded for a judo throw on Lee Keegan (dumb), almost literally under Lane’s nose (dumber).

When winning streaks end, sympathies for the winning-streakers often emerge, whatever their unpopularity. And Dublin were sawn-off by some of Lane’s errors (see a massively-biased Irish Examiner newspaper interview with 1970s Dublin great David Hickey for details). But they should have had three players dismissed. They tried holding their second-half leads by boring the arse off everyone. And when light shone on their dark arts…ugh.

Meanwhile, O’Hora’s tears before his RTE man-of-the-match award presentation were tear-inducing (co-incidentally, I had a speck of dust in my eye). And while the whole interview was marvellous, one line stood out. “Look at this place, and what it means to all of us,” he semi-croaked/laughed, his delivery conveying the sense, like no other sports interviewee I’ve heard, that players, management and supporters were as one.

Hopefully, the noise still surrounding Saturday won’t submerge the necessary reminders that “there’s no All-Ireland won yet.” Saturday’s post-match celebrations resembled All-Ireland title celebrations. But after their last wins over Dublin, the 2006 and 2012 semi-finals, Mayo lost the finals. Fortunately, for them anyway, they have four weeks to set themselves against a repeat, due to Tyrone’s on-going Covid issues.

The GAA had delayed last Sunday’s Kerry/Tyrone semi-final by six days. Then Tyrone said last Saturday that they were “not in a position to field” a team, “having received expert medical opinion” on their Covid-stricken players’ panel. This was, they admitted, a pain for the GAA, Kerry and their own fans. But players’ “welfare and safety” came first. So, on Sunday, with the threat of a forfeit implicit in Tyrone’s statement, the GAA acceded to Tyrone’s original request to set the game for August 28th, “following receipt of additional medical information from Tyrone GAA and subsequent deliberations with the relevant parties.”

Then the fun started. Kerry GAA “empathised” with Tyrone but a statement cited “resultant knock-on challenges” for “our team, management and supporters,” with the “uncertainty undoubtedly” hindering their “preparation.” It was “a difficult situation not of our making,” having “explicitly followed all protocols” and “taken every precaution to protect our players and management.”

Whether this inferred that Tyrone hadn’t done likewise, only the statement’s authors know. “We will have to take their word for it,” Sky pundit Jim McGuinness said on Saturday, correctly. And, ultimately, Kerry’s “refusal to ‘try and win an All-Ireland in a boardroom’” kept Tyrone in the championship, after reports of the GAA’s readiness “to hand Kerry a walkover” before this intervention. Still, eyebrows had already been raised, initially but not exclusively predictable ones.

Ex-Kerry star Tomas O Se noted that Tyrone had “landed” in the Ulster final with a Covid “situation” and he wondered why it wasn’t “boxed off” like “a lot of teams had” (e.g. Mayo, after a July outbreak in their camp). “I’m not a doctor,” he confirmed, a bit late. But it was “after getting worse in Tyrone.” So, he thought “why or how it happened” was “a genuine kind of question to ask.” And it might be asked, as reports of a possible post-Championship inquiry were among this week’s ‘interesting’ developments.

Tyrone joint-manager Feargal Logan, one of Tyrone’s Ulster Final Covid-stricken absentees, revealed the extent of the latest outbreak. Sort of. He told the Examiner’s Declan Bogue that “we have had at least 17 or more positive tests, most of whom have played in this year’s championship (and) four or more in the backroom. We have had the full cross-section of Covid…from hospitalisation to boys who have had relatively limited symptoms (and) a heavy body of players in the middle, now in the return-to-play protocol.”

Logan used the interview to detail how “we have tried to honour every (Covid) protocol,” adding that “whether people accept that” was “beyond our control.” But he admitted: “We didn’t make (player vaccination) mandatory.” Partly because in a “compressed” season, “we were anxious that if guys were vaccinated, they might go under for two weeks (which) might inhibit their performance.” And “even with the vaccination, people are still getting it,” he concluded, causing a face-palm emoji shortage across Ireland. So much for players’ “welfare and safety” coming first.

Kerry and All-Ireland hurling finalists, Limerick and Cork, are 100% vaccinated. And questions remain about how Tyrone followed Covid protocols after the Ulster final. “You have a high level of Covid in the community and our people live in the community,” Logan’s fellow joint-manager Brian Dooher noted. Logan told Bogue: “The numbers in mid-Ulster are the highest, I believe, in Ireland and the UK” and that “a large part” of why Tyrone were the only semi-finalists AT ALL affected was “co-incidence and luck.” But not everyone is convinced that even a combination of these events explains why Tyrone have suffered SO much more than other counties.

Nonetheless, the onus of proof is not Tyrone’s. And however the outbreak happened, players and staff suffered, some greatly. So, the GAA have done the right thing by everyone directly involved. Giving Tyrone the requested time to prepare properly to meet Kerry. Giving Kerry a game at all, instead of limiting their All-Ireland final preparation to three long-ago Munster championship cakewalks. And giving fans (and broadcasters) a potentially mouth-watering semi-final.

Sunday’s under-20 All-Ireland football final was a joyous contrast to all this. And I can gladly write that, despite my team Roscommon losing, because winners Offaly were brilliant. It was a truly uplifting occasion, from champion golfer and Offaly native Sean Lowry’s larger-than-life victory celebrations to the match itself, which could have gone either way but, just, went the right way. Football as it can, and should, be played. And hopefully will soon be played at senior level by many of Sunday’s protagonists.

And so to this Sunday. All-Ireland hurling final day. Arguably THE Irish sporting occasion. Limerick, almost unbackable favourites for their third All-Ireland title in four years, against Cork, 10-3 outsiders (in a three-horse race) to win their first All-Ireland since 2005. Both teams have improved enormously since Limerick beat Cork by eight points in the Munster semi-final seven weeks ago. And a classic is on.

And, regardless of Sunday’s result, Cork look ready to start a hurling dynasty. They won the under-20 All-Ireland title on Wednesday (having won the 2020 title only six weeks ago). And they face Galway in Saturday’s minor (under-17) final. Never mind Limerick’s three All-Irelands in four years. This could be three in five days. Oh…and the minor footballers face Tyrone in an All-Ireland semi-final on Saturday too. Move over Dublin, indeed.