GAA Championship, Week Three: And Then There Were 13

by | Nov 19, 2020

The All-Ireland Football and Hurling championships are suddenly at their business ends. Six quality, in-form hurling teams remain, all of whom might be champions. While six of the seven remaining football teams aren’t Dublin, and thus will not be champions. Except, maybe, Donegal.

They ruthlessly dismantled Armagh on Saturday; a potential banana skin thrown in the bin by half-time. Michael Langan opened the scoring as fast as his legs could carry him through Armagh’s defence, 11 seconds after the throw-in. After the water-break, Donegal scored points like they were compiling a highlights package in real time. And Peadar Mogan’s 34th-minute goal ended any pretensions of a contest.

Donegal’s 12-point interval lead was wind assisted but also assisted by their superiority in every sector. And they maintained both after half-time. Significantly, they have impressed despite long-time talisman Michael Murphy being on the periphery of the action. They are demonstrably Dublin’s nearest challengers.

Meanwhile, Cavan is as Cavan does. After half-an-hour against Down, they were ten points behind, having played into a breeze rather than the storm which has followed championship around this year. Down attacked at a ferocious pace, buoyed by Ceilium Doherty’s third-minute goal (although Cavan were victims of two officials’ mistakes in the build-up). And they missed two good late first-half goal chances.

Cavan’s comeback began with a free awarded by referee Martin McNally for…well, a laugh? Because if it was for time-wasting by Down keeper Rory Burns, McNally’s watch was wonky. And match officialdom also facilitated Marty Reilly’s 43rd -minute penalty, which cut Down’s lead to four.

Burns was clonked by Cavan’s Conor Madden as he fielded a dropping ball. Down’s Kevin McKernan touched the dropped ball on the ground, thereby conceding the penalty, and carried it into the goal. But Madden left the pitch before clattering Burns, to avoid being in the “small square,” both of which were fouls. And the umpires, close enough to join in, saw him do nothing wrong. But Madden was legitimately influential too, scoring 40 seconds after coming on at half-time. And despite being a sub, he was named man-of-the-match by the BBC’s Martin Clarke, about which defender Padraig Faulkner might want a word.

Both sides missed great goal chances before the penalty. But Cavan scored eight of the nine points after it, mostly by letting balls into “the big lads up front,” to lead by three with 90 seconds of normal time left. Down reduced the lead to one with 37 seconds of stoppage-time left. But when Cavan’s mountainous Gearoid McKiernan, caught the last kick-out, Down were out.

Start slowly against Donegal and Cavan WON’T come back. Asked why it kept happening, Cavan boss Mickey Graham told the BBC: “If we knew that we’d have rectified it by now.” Still, their resurrections have genuinely thrilled. And they made for a fabulous match here.

There was also a point in it as Mayo won in Galway to take the Connacht title. The closeness of the game made it exciting, especially the finish. But it was error-strewn stuff. Galway’s lack of a previous championship fixture showed. Random individual genius kept them alive. Shane Walsh hit two wonder points after half-time and portly keeper Brendan Power made fabulous saves early and late on. And Mayo shouldn’t have needed to hang on so desperately.

Mayo’s wind-assisted three-point interval lead looked thin. They stretched it to five after three points in three early second-half minutes before Walsh’s magic helped leave a point in it entering stoppage-time. So it was sad that Walsh then missed two near-impossible frees, Still, Mayo needed a ‘professional foul’ by Eoin McLaughlin on the goal-bound Sean Kelly to deny Galway a winning goal. McLaughlin was sin-binned. But Walsh declined a third near-impossible shooting chance. And time ran out.

“We know, we know,” RTE presenter Des Cahill said to camera, with Cork and Tipperary fans undoubtedly screaming at their TVs, after Sunday Game pundit Sean Cavanagh unwisely declared that “Mayo are probably going to make the final.” Cavanagh qualified this, suggesting that “in a mad year, with Joe Biden, a Mayo man, in the Oval Office and a pandemic,” it would be “like Mayo” to win the All-Ireland. But if Cork could beat Kerry…

Dublin routinely flattened Laois, winning by 22 points despite a sluggish start and Laois keeper Niall Corbet making three excellent saves. Laois are a decent-ish team. But on Sunday, after Evan O’Carroll thumped the post early on, they came third. Meath will make Dublin work harder in the Leinster final. They scored five second-half goals against Kildare on Sunday, a week after putting seven past Wicklow. (Ireland soccer manager Stephen Kenny should swap his misfiring forwards for Meath’s). Kildare led by six at half-time. But when Meath’s goal-machine met Kildare’s clownshoe defending, that was that.

The Leinster, Ulster and Munster finals await next weekend. Dublin, Donegal and Cork should beat Meath, Cavan and Tipperary. Dublin/Donegal and Mayo/Cork would then be the semi-finals. And Dublin will win the final, “Mayo man in the White House” or not.

The Leinster and Munster hurling finals were belters.

Kilkenny beat Galway in Leinster by two points. They had looked likely losers for long spells of the third quarter, until (relative) veterans Richie Hogan, not long on as a sub, and TJ Reid turned a five-point deficit into a one-point lead with a goal apiece in the 56th and…erm…56th minutes.

Hogan’s might be the abiding memory of the whole championship. He beat Galway keeper Eanna Murphy to the ball, flicked it round Murphy, balanced it on his stick before it hit the ground, having nipped round Murphy himself, and overarm-flicked it into the net before you could say “remember Dennis Bergkamp’s goal against Newcastle? Like that…”

RTE’s cameras missed the build-up to Reid’s more conventionally brilliant goal. Partly because they were replaying Hogan’s goal to fathom how on earth Hogan had done…THAT. And partly because Reid’s rasping shot hit the net FORTY SECONDS after Hogan’s did. “By God,” wrote the “The42” website after the goals, in its “as it happened” feature. Yes, they were.

Galway displayed genuine All-Ireland credentials, including some breathtaking scores. And they showed them again by greeting the goals with three unanswered points. They nearly led by five again when veteran star Joe Canning hit the post with a terrific sideline-puck and Brian Concannon fired the rebound inches wide. But Kilkenny have had the same credentials for years under perennial boss Brian Cody. They powered over the last four points, with Hogan inches from another goal. And they held on after Canning struck the post again.

Galway boss Shane O’Neill denied he was frustrated but one particular f-word must have passed his lips as the game turned outrageously. Kilkenny joy was unconfined. It was their 72nd Leinster title but their first since 2016 (an age if you’ve won 72 of them out of 133). Even Cody replaced his trademark low-monotone interview style with high-pitched delight, his beaming smile bursting through his black-and-amber facemask. Although he will know how reliant on genius they were. By God.

Limerick have genius everywhere, letting them play a “passing game,” which in such a fast-paced sport with such a small ball, is exceptionally difficult. They are current All-Ireland favourites because they have theirs down pat. Waterford were the latest team to discover this. They were magnificent on Sunday, with defender Tadhg de Burca in the best form of his excellent career. But it wasn’t enough.

The teams traded some fine points during a fabulous start. And they were level at the first water-break but Limerick powered to a three-point half-time lead. However, Waterford led, fleetingly, midway through the second-half. Then the water-break repeated its momentum-killing schtick (“Limerick love a sup of water,” noted RTE’s website) and Limerick’s strength-in-depth told. Subs Seamus Flanagan and Adrian Breen scored soon after coming on (Breen with his first touch). And David Dempsey SHOULD gave scored soon after coming on.

Limerick keeper Nicky Quaid saved a late Stephen Bennett piledriver. But they were five-up with a minute left by then. And Bennett’s point from the resultant 65 was mere consolation. It was Limerick’s second Munster title in-a-row, the first such double since 1981. And some argue that Limerick could be after their third All-Ireland title in-a-row, after they were denied extra-time in last year’s All-Ireland semi by a poor refereeing decision.

Clare’s Tony Kelly couldn’t beat Limerick three weeks ago, after his stellar first-half form led a mid-game tweeter to suggest he might. But last Saturday, he beat Wexford by 1-15 to 0-17, as Clare won by 1-21 to 0-17. In this truncated championship, Kelly should already be ‘hurler-of-the-year,’ even if all he does from now on is tie his shoelaces straight. “That’s just ridiculous,” said TV pundit Micheal Donoghue, correctly, after the third of Kelly’s three fabulous first-half points.

Kelly was class amid the crass, with Wexford especially keener to fight than hurl. Bad blood exists between the Clare and Wexford managers, former Clare team “mates” Brian Lohan and Davy Fitzgerald respectively. And some players seemed intent on drawing real blood. But once matters becalmed, slightly, Clare used their huge first-half wind advantage to build a 13-point interval lead.

Wexford piled forward after half-time but were inevitably caught on the counter-attack, when you-know-who sped clear on 54 minutes and drilled the ball to the net. Wexford avoided scoreboard embarrassment with a flurry of late points. And even those were topped by a brilliant final point, from you-know-EXACTLY-who.

Tipp overcame Cork by four points in the other hurling qualifier, which thrilled in the second half after the weather won the first. Star forwards Patrick Horgan (Cork) and Jason Forde (Tipp) both found the net as the sides scored, and missed, in spurts until ten minutes from the end, when Cork went a point up having been five points down 15 minutes earlier. The sides then took turns to lead before Jake Morris grabbed the game-winning goal right at the end of normal time. And the current All-Ireland champions keep their title. For now.

Kilkenny and Limerick await the winners of this Saturday’s two quarter-finals, Galway/Tipperary and Clare/Waterford. Galway and Tipp produced sensational All-Ireland semis in 2015, 16 and 17, the first a “greatest-game-of-all-time” candidate. Waterford are on a roll. And if Clare are seen as the weakest quarter-finalists…well…Tony Kelly.

The week’s big off-field news was the departure of Micky Harte, after 18 years as Tyrone football manager. He led Tyrone to their first-ever senior titles, in 2003, 2005 and 2008. Since then, Tyrone have won four provincial titles but failed, occasionally dismally, on the national stage. Thus, while Tyrone have been one of many victims of Dublin’s dominance since 2011, Harte’s managerial career trajectory has rather resembled Jose Mourinho’s.

His leaving was not by ‘mutual consent.’ I wrote here recently that Tyrone’s 2020 championship exit to Donegal was no basis for Harte to depart, especially in such circumstances. And this was Harte’s pitch to Tyrone’s county board. As he said during the BBC’s Cavan/Down match coverage, he thought wanting another year wasn’t “unreasonable given the year that was in it, taken from us by Covid. I didn’t see it as an extension I saw it as a replacement of a lost year.” But “other people in their wisdom decided differently.”

Harte’s legacy will be…complicated. I witnessed at first-hand the off-the-ball intimidation and targeted brutal fouling of threatening opposing players, which he instructed or condoned. Un-necessary too. Tyrone were excellent, and the better side, whenever I saw them live. His tactical innovations in the 2000s changed football. But not in an entirely good or loved way. This earned him many critics, who he readily treated as enemies. Hence his reply, “depends who you have with you,” when asked live on-air last Sunday to join the BBC’s punditry team for this Sunday’s Ulster final.

He was/is a brilliant manager. And an excellent pundit, judging by his performance last Sunday. But…

Also off-the-field, Covid didn’t impact the championship last week. Long may THAT continue.