The GAA Championship: Kilkenny, Kings For A Day

by | Jul 19, 2019

I’d love to start this article with first-hand tales of Roscommon derring-do and victory over Tyrone. But they derring-didn’t. They played well and only lost by four points a year to the minute after an EIGHTEEN-point trimming from the same team. But the shocks came elsewhere.

It is a shock that Kilkenny reaching an All-Ireland semi-final IS a shock. But an entire, well-informed TV studio panel on RTE’s ‘Sunday Game Live,’ including Kilkenny hurling legend Henry Shefflin, unhesitatingly tipped Cork to win Sunday’s quarter-final. So, Kilkenny’s six-point win WAS a shock.

Some clown (me) wrote recently that Kilkenny were, in part, “not very good at all.” But on Sunday, the not-very-good players were very good, two veterans of better Kilkenny times rolled back the years. And…well…Brian Cody. Tactics aren’t the forever-serving Kilkenny manager’s thing, apparently. He’s “out-of-touch with the modern game,” whisper some. Yet he continues to get more than the sum of their parts out of his teams. Managerial greatness.

Kilkenny were “un-Kilkenny-like” in losing Leinster’s provincial final to nearest and archest rivals Wexford. And though Cork, who came third in Munster, had potentially undermining defensive weaknesses, they also had star forward Patrick Horgan. There was only one team in it for most of the first half…but only two points in it at half-time. Cork were that team but collapsed in the third quarter. Horgan hauled them back into contention. But Kilkenny’s rightly much-maligned substitute forwards to hauled them back out of contention again.

Horgan scored 3-10 of Cork’s 3-18. Goal one was a penalty…but hurling penalties are not nearly as easy as soccer ones, even if not facing Ireland’s best custodian, Eoin Murphy. Horgan was on his knees when he drilled in his second goal, which Murphy hadn’t a prayer (sorry) of stopping. And for his hat-trick, he caught a ball over his marker’s shoulder, like a magician producing a coin from behind a kid’s ear, before beating two more defenders and firing home.

Kilkenny’s third-quarter surge was reminiscent of many victories from their best days. And talisman TJ Reid didn’t even need to score from play, as 11 colleagues found their shooting sticks. Meanwhile, Cork missed good chances as they reduced an eight-point deficit to two. But they have now gone a calendar-decade without an All-Ireland title for the first-ever time. And the 31-year-old Horgan, a truly brilliant hurler, may go without one forever.

Tipperary’s ten-point win over Laois was a different affair. Not least because change kits rendered both teams utterly unrecognisable, with Tipp’s sometimes-sloppy play not aiding recognition.

Two early Tipp goals threatened the Laois trimming many observers feared. But Laois’s Ross King netted to help deservedly halve an eight-point deficit by half-time. Alas, Laois wildest dreams effectively died three minutes after the restart when Aaron Dunphy, the goalscoring star of the wins which got them here, saw red for swinging his hurley into marker Padraic Maher’s knee.

Nonetheless, Tipp failed to overwhelm their man-disadvantaged opponents. Sub Michael Breen’s second caution reduced them to 14 in stoppage-time. And only when Laois understandably wilted in the last quarter of their third match in 15 days did Tipp establish a significant lead; as over-reliant on a few scorers as Cork were on Horgan.

Patronising post-match sludge could have engulfed Croker, as Tipp’s players applauded Laois did a lap of honour. But even accounting for their opponents’ on-the-day deficiencies, Laois were simply pretty good and demonstrably worth their 2020 Leinster championship spot.

Afterwards, Tipp boss Liam Sheedy called Wexford “raging hot favourites” for the teams’ semi-final on Sunday week. But no-one in RTE’s studio could agree without laughing and only immense self-control stopped Sheedy derisively snorting at his own clear mind-gaming. If there are favourites to be had, they are Limerick against Kilkenny in Saturday’s semi-final. Limerick are after all, the current champions of all they survey in hurling. Still…Brian Cody.

Football’s two Super-8s groups began last weekend, with Group…er…B, on Saturday evening at Roscommon’s colourful, noisy, if archaic Dr Hyde Park. Tyrone beat the hosts 0-17 to 0-13 which, amid the match’s many missed chances, hit posts and ‘what-ifs’ was about the right result.

Roscommon are good. And you don’t need to be as biased-as-**** as me to say that. Tyrone, meanwhile, are 1970s Leeds United, with outwardly-sour, LONG-serving manager Mickey Harte an ideal Don Revie. Revie’s Leeds were equally brilliant and cynical, winning more trophies than affections while observers pondered whether the cynicism upped their trophy haul, or caused their many final-hurdle falls in league and cups.

Tyrone scored the first two points and kept Roscommon at arms’ length throughout a match which combined attacking flair with cagey turgidity, sullied by snippets of free-floating violence from, mostly, Harte’s men. Roscommon’s Cathal Cregg was a strong first half influence…so was sent flying by two pre-meditated fouls separated only by his treatment after the first assault foul.

Tyrone keeper Nicky Morgan made vital saves from Cregg and Enda Smith to keep Tyrone ahead at half-time. Tyrone were getting their scores easier, the fabulous-but-isolated Cathal McShane pointing regularly. But when Roscommon were deservedly only a point behind approaching the third quarter, Tyrone started pressurising the hosts’ kick-outs and were soon six ahead.

They were nearly eight-up when Peter Harte (Mickey’s nephew but in the team on outstanding merit) thumped the underside of the crossbar. Yet Roscommon were the width of the other crossbar from being only two adrift with two minutes left. But a win from there would have been a smash-and-grab worthy of legal attention, RTE controversialist pundit Joe Brolly’s assertion that Roscommon “most certainly could have won” was most-certainly-based on his dislike of Harte as a manager.

Also in Group B, Dublin beat Cork at home by 13 points, an entirely predictable winning margin, obtained in unpredicted circumstances; Dublin scoring three goals in four-and-a-half dying minutes to put an overwhelming gloss on the final score of a largely terrific match.

Cork established an early four-point lead. But Dublin wiped that out when  Jack McCaffrey’s 12th-minute shot-to-nothing rolled past unsighted Cork keeper Mark White. Michael Darragh Macauley netted Dublin’s second goal right on half-time to give them an ultra-flattering six-point lead, which could have been more if referee David Gough hadn’t, correctly, changed a decision to award a penalty after consulting better-placed officials.

RTE pundit and ex-Dublin captain Ciaran Whelan said Dublin would power away in the third quarter. But Cork actually cut the gap to four with eight minutes left, Luke Connolly netting a penalty moments after Dublin keeper Stephen Cluxton then-decisively denied Mattie Taylor. They paid a physical price, however. And the floodgates were opened by Niall Scully’s 63rd-minute goal, with Ciaran Kilkenny and majestic midfielder Brian Fenton taking equivalent advantage of the game’s new reality.

Post-match, Brolly metaphorically dribbled hyperbole all over the RTE studio floor, as if his medication needed adjusting, likening “the Dubs” to the Harlem Globetrotters and the All Blacks and dismissing Whelan’s factual assertion that Cork “stayed with” Dublin for 62 minutes. “Joe’s forgetting that Cork were playing,” Whelan angrily noted, as presenter Joanne Cantwell’s laughter at the studio arguments grew increasingly nervous.

Brolly is my favourite pundit. But recently he has descended into possibly knowing self-parody. His umbrage at being interrupted dictionary-defines hypocrisy (Whelan could well stick one on Brolly, if Brolly keeps interrupting HIM). And even if, like me, you think this Dublin are Gaelic Football’s greatest-ever team, Brolly’s incessant eulogising is nauseating, negatively impairing his punditry judgement and visibly discomfiting for Whelan, among the most Dublin of Dublin football people. “He’s not saying: ‘I’m the centre of attention here, I’m right. There’s none of that with him,’” Brolly noted of referee Gough’s penalty-decision reversal; his own words upon which he should reflect.

In Sunday’s first Group A match, Donegal beat Meath at home by nine points, an entirely predictable winning margin, obtained in unpredicted circumstances. Donegal were five-up seconds before half-time, the sides 60% separated by prolific forward Paddy McBrearty’s skilful exploitation of horror-show Meath defending for a 25th-minute goal. But Meath worked a point in those seconds, setting the tone for a second-half display which threatened to turn Group B sideways.

Meath had an early second-half goal rightly disallowed. But they were now unexpectedly dominant. And Micky Newman’s 44th-minute penalty deservedly cut the gap to two. Ten minutes later, Meath led, and would have led by two if Shane McEntee had blazed a 57th-minute shot inches under not over the bar. Enter Donegal captain Michael Murphy. Seconds after McEntee’s near-miss, Murphy reached for the sky to palm a high ball on and set up a point. And he continued to inspire as Oisin Gallen’s stoppage-time goal helped Donegal ‘win’ the final quarter of a highly-competitive, highly-entertaining encounter, 1-8 to 0-1.

It was carnage in Killarney, where hosts Kerry out-thought, out-muscled and out-fought Mayo with frightening intensity and aggression. And that was BEFORE the throw-in to start the game…20 seconds which have gone viral, with good reason.

TV viewers were spared any pious ‘disgraceful scenes which have no place in football’ nonsense from RTE commentator Darragh Maloney, who suggested the “the referee needs to throw the ball in,” with a tone which left ‘before someone gets hurt’ unsaid. Instead, Kerry won the post-fight possession, to ‘set down a marker,” on their way to a game-decisive 0-15 to 0-6 half-time lead.

Mayo looked like they had played four matches in four weekends, a huge physical challenge when you have proper jobs in the week. While Kerry had worked on the weaknesses exposed by previous opponents. After an even first few minutes, Kerry had upper-hands everywhere…and David Clifford.

“How long has he been playing inter-county football, ten years?” awestruck RTE co-commentator Oisin McConville asked after one especially special Clifford pass. Two years, actually. Other Kerry players shone occasionally. Clifford shone whenever he was given the ball, which wasn’t often enough. On the Sunday Game highlights show, Brolly suggested Clifford could “become the greatest Gaelic Footballer the game has ever seen.” Insane pressure to place on a 20-year-old. But Brolly, this time, could be right.

Kerry couldn’t maintain their quality in a second half during which they suffered from a series of ‘close’ refereeing calls. Mayo’s 67th-minute penalty was a correct call. But Kerry keeper Shane Ryan saved Cillian O’Connor’s decently-hit spot-kick (in a match where O’Connor became football’s all-time top championship scorer). And Kerry ‘won the half’ by a point.

Donegal will offer a greater challenge when they meet at Croke Park next Sunday, part of a double-bill also featuring Mayo/Meath. So Mayo, as per, aren’t finished yet, despite you-know-who hyperbolising that “they are definitely gone.”

On Saturday, the other group’s semi-finalists will be decided, if the bookies are right, as Tyrone play Cork before Roscommon face Brolly’s Babes. And 200%’s GAA correspondent…won’t be there. I’m not made of money.