GAA Championship: Football’s Final Five

by | Jul 24, 2019

The All-Ireland football championship can now only be won by five teams. Cork, Meath and, embarrassingly, Roscommon were eliminated during the “Super-8s” weekend residency, for its ‘neutral’ matches, at…erm…Dublin’s Croke Park.

Of course, only one team can really win it. And many observers saw Dublin’s 18-point ‘Saturday Night massacre’ of Roscommon as further proof of the inevitability of their history-making fifth consecutive title. However, Roscommon froze on the Croker stage against top opposition for the umpteenth time. And the best teams this weekend were Kerry and Donegal who met on Sunday, arguably for Gaelic Football’s second-biggest prize…avoiding Dublin in the semi-finals.

They threw Super-8s Group 1 wide open by drawing a classic encounter, 1-20 each, after Mayo beat Meath in Sunday’s curtain-raiser. Kerry and Donegal have three points each, with Mayo on two, making Mayo’s hosting of Donegal on Saturday week an easy sell for Sky Sports, who have the live rights to a genuine winner-takes all encounter, unless Kerry make a deeply-unexpected hames of their simultaneous trip to Meath.

Meanwhile, Group 2 is essentially over. Tyrone and Dublin qualified for the semi-finals after their Saturday victories, making Dublin’s trip to Omagh on Sunday week a difficult sell for RTE, who have the live rights to what could be a meaningless meeting between two shadow teams, instead of the All-Ireland final dress rehearsal their PR department will surely push.

Kerry/Donegal was arguably the best football championship match in YEARS, easily 2019’s best even though it has been a good year. The sides were level 13 times and never more than two points apart as they traded brilliant scores, with RTE match commentator Ger Canning inadvisably using the phrase “cracked one” to herald the best, his tone suggesting he might over-excitedly added the word “off” at any time.

Star players and new players on both sides came to the fore. Kerry’s ‘superstar’ 20-year-old forward David Clifford scored three points, created three others and generally played OK, despite squandering an early goal chance. But others’ performances made his day look like an off-day. And Kerry’s stars were longer-servers Stephen O’Brien and Paul Geaney, and championship debutant Killian Spillane.

Meanwhile, Donegal duo Michael Murphy and eventual man-of-the-match Ryan McHugh linked telepathically to score-enhancing effect all afternoon and 19-year-old sub forward Oisin Gallen announced himself on Gaelic Football’s biggest stage with a vital two-point cameo as the game crescendo-ed thrillingly.

Indeed, the only person who had a mixed day was referee Paddy Neilan from Roscommon (it wasn’t our weekend), whose decision to black-card Donegal’s Niall O’Donnell on 35 minutes was clearly wrong in real-time and was thus portrayed as ‘trying to even things up’ after he’d rightly black-carded Kerry’s Gavin White moments earlier (though why referees would want to ‘even things up’ after a correct big decision is never properly explained). Actually, White had a nixed day too, having taken two ferocious, treatment-requiring ‘hits’ in his 33 pre-black-card minutes.

The afternoon, Donegal’s especially, was more admirable still given the intermittently wet weather and the injuries to key players on both sides. Kerry’s towering experienced midfielder David Moran starred in the destructive first half of Kerry’s first-game win over Mayo. But Donegal lost key defenders Neil McGee and Eoghan Ban Gallagher last week (the latter out for the season after breaking his ankle in training). And by 38 minutes, they were down midfielders Hugh McFadden and Jason McGee too.

Kerry led by 0-10 to 0-9 at half-time and ‘stretched’ their lead to two points on 44 minutes when Caolan Ward fell over like he’d just realised five pints was one too many and left Geaney with the ball and 25 free metres into which to run before finding the net. Nine minutes later, Murphy put Donegal a point ahead again from the penalty spot after O’Brien said ‘no pasaran’ over-physically to goalbound sub Daire O Baoill.

“Michael Murphy has to be tired at this stage,” RTE co-commentator Dessie Dolan noted after 48 minutes, referencing Murphy’s huge workload rather than general fitness concerns. “You’d imagine that in the last 10-15 minutes he’s going to get tired.” And as the frantic score-trading continued, most players were knackered by then. But the quality if anything increased.

With 82 seconds left, Paul Murphy put Kerry one-up (yet) again. But late Kerry sub Tomas O Se immediately saw red for an indeterminate off-the-ball incident. And Donegal motored upfield through the O Se-sized gap, winning an eminently missable last-kick-of-the-game free which the ‘tired’ Michael Murphy easily pointed because he’s Michael Murphy. A fitting end to a fabulous match.

For the second consecutive Sunday, Meath matched more-fancied opposition for the guts of an hour before succumbing to a nine-point defeat which might have been forecast pre-match but which ill-reflected their performance. Indeed, Meath were only a point back on the hour. But the momentum was already with Mayo by then.

The sides were level at half-time, with pairs-and-pairs of shooting boots left in the dressing-rooms. After six minutes waiting for a score, the half warmed up but was undermined by both side’s poor shootings, allowing RTE’s studio pundits, including former Meath star Colm O’Rourke, to be sniffily dismissive OF both sides, while match commentator Marty Morrissey regularly referenced the “poor quality” of the football.

The half-time introduction of veteran Mayo forward Andy Moran, 2017’s footballer of the year, improved matters. (Moran, as I may have said before without bitterness, is from Ballaghadereen in Roscommon, which is “in Mayo for GAA purposes”). But while Meath were kept in the game by Mayo’s concession of five scoreable frees, two missed, less-scoreable, frees proved pivotal.

Meath free-taker and all-round inspiration Micky Newman limped off in first-half stoppage-time, leaving free-taking duties to 19-year-old senior team debutant Shane Walsh. And the pressure frees were, understandably, too much pressure for a lad who, as Morrissey regularly noted, had just retaken his “leaving certs” (the final exams in Ireland’s school system), designed to emphasise Walsh’s youth but also…well…he had to retake his exams…

Both missed frees were followed by Mayo scores. And when Kevin McDonald goaled on 63 minutes, Mayo were seven-up, a lead which Cillian O’Connor’s late goal helped up to nine. Meath keeper Andy Colgan was black-carded after gormlessly body-checking O’Connor to concede the penalty. And sub keeper Marcus Brennan, on his competitive Meath debut, saved O’Connor’s kick but couldn’t stop O’Connor netting the rebound.

Tyrone’s win left Roscommon needing to beat Dublin to stay in the championship, a prospect not considered by ANYBODY…AT…ALL. Even some of the most fanatical, optimistic ‘Rossies’ spoke, after the previous week’s loss, of “giving Croker a miss.” So, metaphorically, did half the team.

Roscommon were competitive for ten minutes but missed three first-half goal chances (one decent, two clear), collapsed after Dean Rock scored Dublin’s first goal, on 15 minutes, made countless glaring unforced errors and were reduced to 14 on 33 minutes when Conor Daly was yellow-and-black-carded in a two-minute return to nursery-school. Apart from that, the perfect first half.

When good players get time and space, they punish you, the mantra goes. And Dublin had a team of brilliant players with more time and space than money could buy. Dublin led by 15 when midfielder Michael Darragh Macauley netted his second goal in seven days, just after half-time and, mercifully, declared.

Roscommon nailed fine scores throughout. RTE’s Morrissey correctly identified Diarmuid Murtagh’s point as “a thing of beauty.” And the remaining Conors, Cox and Hussey, wore shooting boots, half-back Hussey making the GAA ‘Team of the Week’ amid the surrounding defensive carnage. But Sky pundit Peter Canavan suggested that Dublin could have won “by 30 points” if needed. Correctly.

This was especially galling after Tyrone overcame Cork with broadly comparable difficulty to their win over Roscommon. And Cork were competitive against Dublin for sixty minutes.

Cork were a goal up on Tyrone after 14 seconds, Luke Connolly netting almost straight from the throw-in after a training ground move worked perfectly. They were potentially hit by an early injury to defender Tom Clancy. But within seven minutes of his arrival, sub James Loughrey bisected Tyrone’s curiously enfeebled defence to score Cork’s second goal and put them seven points up.

Tyrone toyed with composure to cut Cork’s interval lead to five. And surly manager Mickey Harte made three changes after lengthy Tyrone dressing-room ‘discussions’ extended half-time considerably. They worked almost instantly.

Cork scored first after half-time thanks to a fortunate turnover. But Tyrone scored an unanswered Desmond (2-2…sorry) in four minutes, to lead by two. The menacing Cathal McShane palmed into the net after a move started by eventual man-of-the-match Mattie Donnelly, whose change to a more attacking role by the not-always tactically brilliant Harte was tactically…brilliant. And Peter Harte (relation…nephew) drilled home a penalty after Mattie Taylor blatantly shoved Niall Sludden over as he shaped to net himself.

Cork creditably halted this charge, mainly through wonder-scores by sub Michael Hurley, before Tyrone eventually sealed a three-point win, although Cork keeper Mark White had to make a desperate late save to keep the margin down. Cork are out. but will approach their last game, at home to Roscommon, in better form THAN Roscommon.

Next, All-Ireland hurling semi-final weekend. Croke Park hosts Kilkenny/Limerick on Saturday evening (6pm throw-in) and Tipperary/Wexford, 4pm Sunday. Last year, Galway and Clare thrillingly drew after extra-time but were outdone by Limerick’s extra-time win over Cork. We can’t really expect that this year, especially as the championship generally has, excusably, not lived up to 2018’s. But both games are worth watching, live on Sky Sports Arena. Tipperary/Wexford could need extra-time and more. And Limerick should beat Kilkenny…but…well…Brian Cody.