The GAA Championship: Football’s Back Door Shuts

by | Jun 28, 2019

“Joining Roscommon in the Super-8s…” said RTE presenter Joanne Cantwell, last weekend, sounding better (and, dare I say, looking lovelier) whenever she said Kerry, then Donegal, then Dublin would indeed be “joining Roscommon.”

Three of football’s four provincial championships were decided last weekend, with predictable results, if not entirely predictable routes to them. A well-attended, but equally shock-free, second round of ‘qualifiers’ ended eight more teams’ footballing summers. And for the next two weekends, until the ‘Super-8s’ begin, each defeat will end a footballing summer.

Saturday evening’s Munster’s football final was, against all odds, a more exciting, competitive game than anything in 2019’s Munster hurling championship to date. Almost unbackable favourites Kerry edged Cork in a high-scoring encounter against hosts relegated to National League division three in March, an all-time low ebb for football’s fourth most successful county, seven-time All-Ireland champions, the last just nine years ago.

In last year’s final, a baby-faced Kerry team announced themselves as football’s next big thing when they hammered Cork by 17 points slowing up, giving Kerry their seventh consecutive provincial title, most won in relatively uncompetitive affairs. For 13 minutes on Saturday, it was deja-vu all over again, as Kerry led by seven points. The Cork fans who stayed away (18,265 attending an event which usually attracts at least twice that) seemed vindicated. However, Kerry were exposed as not yet football’s next big thing in last year’s Super-8s. And the weaknesses exposed then re-emerged on Saturday.

It is often said that teams “run lanes through” poor defences. But RTE pundit Sean Cavanagh saw “a runway down the middle of” Kerry’s defence. Luke Connolly palmed in their first goal, on 19 minutes, beating Kerry’s inexplicable offside trap (there’s no offside, as such, in Gaelic Football). On 37 minutes, Killian O’Hanlon sped down the runway and was fouled for a Cork penalty, which Connolly netted.

And on 47 minutes, Cork were level, when Kerry keeper Shane Ryan went flying through the air with the greatest of ease as Brian Hurley punched a high ball past him, to near-tearful cries of “what was Shane Ryan thinking of? There was no need to come for that ball, at all at all” from RTE co-commentator and Kerry football legend Tomas O Se.

Worse followed three minutes later, when Kerry’s Paul Geaney took his frustrations out on Kevin Flahive, earning a black card which mixed in the wash to turn his earlier yellow card red. However, Kerry, two points ahead when Geaney walked, were visibly unaffected by their man disadvantage and eventually won by three. And, as RTE match reporter Paul Brennan cheekily but correctly noted: “we finally had a Munster final which will be remembered beyond Sunday mass.”

Donegal followed their four-point Ulster semi-final “annihilation” of Tyrone with a five-point “hammering” of Cavan in the highest-scoring Ulster final ever. Donegal also took early control. But Cavan never seriously threatened an upset, despite overcoming transparent early nerves to contribute handsomely to a high-quality, if largely uncompetitive, match.

Donegal led by eight points at half-time. And when Cavan reduced that deficit to six with 13 minutes left Jamie Brennan grabbed a fine solo goal. Cavan only reduced the margin to four with Conor Madden’s very late in stoppage-time goal. And Michael Murphy reaffirmed Donegal’s dominance with the game’s last score.

Both teams will arguably be happy, although I can’t envisage Cavan smiling just yet. Donegal are being almost universally touted as the main obstacle in Dublin’s path to an unprecedented fifth consecutive All-Ireland title. Solid in massed defence but lethally, speedily entertaining on the counter-attack, they are replicating the form and beating the style which in 2012 brought them only their second-ever All-Ireland title, captained throughout by mercurial talisman Murphy.

Murphy divides GAA people straight down the middle, between those who doubt his ‘big-match’ effectiveness (RTE pundit Colm O’Rourke) and those who consider him legendary already (everyone else). There are demonstrable weaknesses in all predicted challengers. Donegal have very few.

Cavan weren’t psychologically damaged by this loss before their fourth-round qualifier. And they remain one win from the Super-8s and an opening weekend visit to (the mighty) Roscommon, the counties having had numerous recent big-game encounters, most of which have been close.

Meath were psychologically damaged by Sunday’s Leinster final loss. Dublin forward Dean Rock came off the bench 18 minutes from time and would have outscored Meath ON HIS OWN if he hadn’t missed a very clear goal chance. As it was, he matched Meath’s historically-miserable four points, one of many available savage indictments of Meath’s non-performance.

Each RTE pundit called the first half “strange,” because they couldn’t say “shite” on national telly. Pat Spillane said “sh’ite football” after a half with only six points in it, in 2011. Dublin led at half-time on Sunday by five points to…one. Meath’s defensive strategy was effectively, entertainingly aggressive. But while they had more first-half shots than Dublin, all-but-one of them were total “strange.”

Dublin were also unimpressive before half-time, making more handling errors than the wettish conditions excused and Paul Mannion’s penalty hitting the post. Mannion was also a penalty-spot failure in last year’s Leinster decider. But that miss was ultimately as costly (i.e. not at all) as Dublin moved into third gear to win by SIXTEEN points. Heaven help the other provincial champions in Dublin’s Super-8s group, which will be…Roscomm…oh f**k…

The most eye-catching result in the qualifiers was Armagh’s eight-point away win against Monaghan, although the counties’ Ulster championship displays against Cavan suggested that the only shock was the ease of Armagh’s victory, Monaghan edging the final score three points nearer respectability with Jack McCarron’s late goal.

It was the end of an Ulster era and the changing of an Ulster guard, as Monaghan boss Malachy O’Rourke resigned immediately after a youthful Armagh side despatched an ageing Monaghan one. Monaghan last year reached their first All-Ireland semi-final since 1979 and damn nearly won their second-ever semi-final. But the team’s age-profile and over-reliance on the talismanic, genuinely brilliant, Conor McManus hinted at a fall following this pride.

Things get no easier for Armagh, as they visit Mayo in Saturday’s third round, live on Sky at 7pm. Mayo had a sketchy five-point win in Down last Saturday. But such slogs typify Mayo’s huffs-and-puffs through the qualifiers, from where they have twice reached All-Ireland finals. However, Mayo’s age-profile is very Monaghan-esque. And we just saw what Armagh did to them.

In 2018’s third-round qualifiers, Mayo lost to a Kildare outfit emotionally turbo-charged by the GAA’s money-driven decision to unilaterally move Kildare’s home draw to neutral Croke Park, despite Kildare being entitled in-rule to home advantage. “Newbridge or nowhere,” they cried. Newbridge it was. And in such circumstances, not even seasoned qualifier combatants Mayo dared win.

On Saturday, its Newbridge for Tyrone, as the four universally-recognised strongest teams left in the qualifiers were drawn together. Tyrone sauntered to a four-point win in Longford last week, while Kildare ran up a mountainous score against an Antrim side with their own home venue issues (long story, for another time). But form, as much as Tyrone’s 2019 form is a guide, suggests a Tyrone win.

The ‘other’ qualifiers are Westmeath/Clare and Offaly/Laois, with away wins, narrowly, favoured. And Saturday’s winners will play the beaten provincial finalists on Saturday week for a Super-8s place. Football’s ‘business end’ is here.

As is hurling’s business end. Munster’s and Leinster’s provincial finals form a potentially genuine ‘Super Sunday’ for RTE. All-Ireland champions Limerick host Munster round-robin group table-toppers Tipperary. Then Kilkenny and Wexford clash at Croke Park. Remarkably, hurling has some catching up to do in the quality AND competitive stakes this year. If Sunday’s finals fulfil their considerable potential, that gap will close.

FOOTNOTE: Before Roscommon beat Galway the other week, Galway won Connacht’s Junior football final, in ‘alternative’ circumstances.

Galway led Mayo by two points going into four minutes’ stoppage-time. Half-a-minute later, a Mayo shot was parried into the air. From my seat at the other end of the stand, I couldn’t tell if the ball went over the bar for a point, or if the umpires behind the goal raised the white flag to indicate that.

Nevertheless, the score appeared on the scoreboards, which no-one appeared to query. Mayo soon regained possession and tried to work an equalising point, which arrived with seconds left. The final whistle blew. And the teams prepared for extra-time, which was announced over the tannoy.

Seconds later, “there’s been a mistake…Galway have won,” was announced over the tannoy. The “mistake” wasn’t specified. But, remarkably to my cynical professional sports-watching eyes, Mayo appeared to accept this and watched/listened passively as Galway’s captain apologised for “how the game ended” in his trophy-presentation thank-you speech (which mercifully excluded the “scoreboard operator”).

It transpired that the parried shot WAS a point but was disallowed. However, Mayo demonstrably weren’t told this, as they spent three-and-a-bit minutes fashioning a point, when they needed a goal. Now these are solid grounds for a replay. But even the Mayo Advertiser newspaper reported that despite “some protests from the Mayo players, it was sorted out quickly and Galway were the rightful winners.” Well, they may have been the better side. However, that’s a different matter. VERY fair play to Mayo for being so accepting. But, dear me…

The GAA is often endearingly amateur. Before Roscommon’s trophy presentation, three tannoy announcements were needed to get captain Enda Smith away from celebrating fans “to come to the main stand to receive the cup” (like a supermarket staff announcement “Alice to aisle three, please”). But after Connacht’s Junior Football final, it was just amateur.