GAA Championship, Week 2: Storm Aiden & Clenched Fists of Defiance

by | Nov 5, 2020

Through a month’s wind and rain last weekend (aka ‘Storm Aiden’), the All-Ireland football and hurling championships temporarily blew and washed away some of a nation’s lockdown woes.

Ulster’s football championship had a month’s drama in its opening game. Leinster hurling nearly produced the unlikeliest comeback since Jesus started Easter Sundays. And despite conditions which might have kept Noah’s Ark in the harbour, Munster hurling served up a classic semi-final to close a weekend for which RTE presenter Joanne Cantwell offered a heartfelt “thank you to all the players across all codes for putting on such incredible displays for all of us in unbelievable conditions.” Can’t imagine Roy Keane being so moved.

It was “only” windy on Saturday. And, pun intended, Monaghan “blew” their football championship prospects, losing to Cavan for the second consecutive year. Last year, Cavan raced into an early six-point lead, scoring an early goal, in a game they won by four. Playing into Aiden’s proverbial teeth this year, Cavan raced into an early four-point lead, scoring another early goal. However, Owen Pierson injured his ankle netting a superb low shot and was ineffective until finally being substituted after half-time.

And Monaghan, with star forward Conor McManus in masterclass mode, led by seven at half-time. This left Cavan very much in the game, although Monaghan, the Sky Sports Little Mix pundits agreed, had the “running game” to cope with Aiden’s flatulence. Sadly, Monaghan employed cautious counter-attack against a Cavan team which didn’t attack. Ergo, third-quarter turgidity. But Cavan were sh*te for 50/60 minutes of recent matches, which now emerged as tactical experimentation.

They were six points adrift, with ten minutes left. But Gerard Smith’s spectacular outside-of-the-boot effort levelled matters midway through stoppage-time. McManus had missed four late Monaghan chances. And referee Ciaran Brannigan, with a better sense of theatre than time, made the fourth miss the last kick of ‘normal’ time, despite 36 seconds remaining, plus 30 seconds minimum for stoppage-time stoppages.

Monaghan led by two at half-time in extra-time. But Monaghan sub Christopher McGuiness was dismissed for an off-camera incident, reportedly misinterpreting the instruction “use your head.” And Martin Reilly’s goal put Cavan a man AND a point ahead with four minutes left. However, Monaghan levelled immediately and while Cavan entered extra-time stoppage-time a point up again, Monaghan won a late, long-range free to potentially force Championship’s first-ever penalty shoot-out. Monaghan keeper Rory Beggan is famed for nailing these…and he did.

Brannigan had already added two minutes of extra-time stoppage-time, from approximately nowhere. Yet his sense of theatre wasn’t satisfied by Beggan’s heroics. So Cavan had time to win one last long-range free, which captain and keeper, Raymond Galligan, belted between the posts and halfway home. Sense of theatre finally satisfied, Brannigan immediately blew for full-time. And. like many others for varying reasons, Galligan cried.

Elsewhere in Ulster, Armagh won in Derry, after their Aiden-assisted six-point half-time lead was cut to one before they prevailed by two. Between 2014 and 2019, Derry went from League finalists to Division Four. They were promoted last year. And their return to credibility continues, based on this showing. But Armagh also impressed and will face Donegal on 14th November as only slight second-favourites.

In normal weather, Donegal/Tyrone would have been ‘error-strewn but compelling.’ In Storm Aiden, it was borderline-brilliant. Tyrone led by four points on 20 minutes, when play stopped for an ironic, superfluous water break. This, as such breaks often do, changed the game’s momentum. Donegal goaled five minutes later when goalie Shaun Patten’s wind-driven kick-out was transferred by Peadar Mogan to Michael Langan, whose rifled right-foot rocket found the roof of the net.

They led by two at half-time. But Aiden had favoured them. Defensive kingpin Neil McGee’s muscles spasmed at half-time. And Tyrone were up to some old tricks. Just before half-time, Donegal’s Paul Brennan gave Michael McKernan a pat on the head/clip round the ear hybrid. McKernan collapsed, holding his skull like he was keeping it in place. And while McKernan was tested for concussion (!), Brennan became the first Gaelic Footballer to be booked for mildly patronising behaviour.

Future Tyrone legend, Darragh Canavan, opened the second-half scoring with a classy point. And Tyrone led on 53 minutes when Donegal defender Eoghan Ban Gallagher dropped the ball and toe-ended it straight to Canavan, who somehow stopped laughing while finding the net; a coolness which made his later substitution mystifying

Donegal undid that damage, and more, with four unanswered points in seven minutes. Tyrone’s Mark Bradley threatened supersubdom with two quick points and Donegal’s Steven McMenamin cleared the ball a yard off the line after a small but frantic goalmouth scramble. But Oisin Gallen WAS the supersub, his magnificent long-ranger into the wind with two minutes left putting Donegal two-up, where they stayed.

Verbal indiscipline cost Tyrone. Twice, their dissent led to frees being moved 13 metres forward, making difficult kicks relatively easy scores. But Donegal were the better team. Even uber-partisan ex-Tyrone star Sean Kavanagh said so, on RTE’s ‘Sunday Game,’ although you could hear his teeth gritting from Surrey. And RTE and Tyrone boss Micky Harte are not friends. Each Championship exit sparks a TV debate on his managerial future. This year too. But defeat in a straight knock-out competition is no basis for so big a decision.

Connacht and Leinster football were comparatively low-key. Mayo advanced to next Sunday’s Connacht semi-final in Roscommon, But it took longer than expected for hosts Leitrim to enter plucky territory. Aiden helped them to an early four-point lead and only when Cillian O’Connor netted on 48 minutes to put Mayo six-up could the visitors relax.

Leinster’s football championship will be an exercise in futility while Dublin dominate nationally. Longford beating Louth and Wicklow winning in Wexford, albeit for the second time in a week, will test memory banks soon enough. Carlow received plentiful Sunday Game plaudits for their 20-point haul away to Offaly. But they still lost, as Offaly’s not-unimpressive 17 scores included three goals.

The hurling continued on its merry, high-scoring way, despite the worst weather hitting Cork on Sunday. Limerick/Tipp, in Cork, was the “big one.” But Kilkenny/Dublin was the weird one.

Dublin was on the outskirts of Aiden. So, Kilkenny’s FIFTEEN-point half-time lead in Croke Park against Dublin was down more to hurling whirlwind, TJ Reid. Reid has been Ireland’s best hurler for years. And he showed all of that best in Saturday’s first half. His goal was a superb solo effort and he created the other two first-half Kilkenny three-pointers. When BBC soccer commentator John Motson legendarily called Kenny Dalglish the “creator supreme” he hadn’t seen Reid hurl.

Dublin’s half-time changes helped nullify Reid’s threat. Nevertheless, they had only reduced the lead to 14 with 20 minutes left. But Donal Burke, last week’s Dublin scoring star, and half-time sub Eamon Dillon then began to impact. RTE co-commentator, and ex-Dublin manager, Anthony Daly insisted that for the qualifiers, the second-chance knock-out competition for Leinster and Munster’s three defeated teams, “you must put Eamon Dillon into the team.” And even after sub Ronan Hayes goaled to put Dublin eight behind with 12 minutes left, the usually perceptive Daly said Hayes was merely “making a statement that he wants to be in there for the qualifiers.”

Dublin were still seven points back with five minutes of normal time left. But when Chris Crummy’s goal left four in it, it dawned on Daly that “there’s eight minutes possibly on the clock here…and Dublin have taken over most positions.” A minute into four minutes’ stoppage-time, Dublin levelled, prompting commentator Marty Morrissey to ask, a bit breathlessly, “is this really happening?” But late sub Alan Murphy and full-back Hugh Lawlor put Kilkenny two-up again, with 90 seconds left. And even Burke only had one more score in him. Weird. But fantastic.

If the Dubs can recover psychologically this week, they’ll be favourites to beat Cork in the qualifiers (Sky Sports Little Mix’s live Saturday afternoon offering). Dublin have regularly been favourites to bear Cork at football. But not hurling. However, Cork were more-beaten by Waterford in the “other” Munster semi-final than the four-point margin suggested. Waterford had drawn one and lost seven of their last eight Munster matches. And now they are deservedly in the final. Strange times, indeed

Galway had it unexpectedly easy against Wexford in the “other” Leinster semi. Both teams wore their change kits. And Wexford’s yellow shirt with maroon shorts is among the GAA’s finest. But that was the best that could be said for them on Saturday. Galway took control after an even first 25 minutes and ran out 13-point winners, with star forward Joe Canning seemingly content to watch proceedings from the half-back line as his colleagues impressively dethroned last year’s Leinster champions.

It all confused Wexford’s charismatic boss Davy Fitzgerald. “99% of our performances are 110%,” he insisted. And they are certainly much better than Saturday’s showing. Likewise Tipperary, whose third consecutive Munster loss to Limerick dumped them into the qualifiers. They and Wexford got byes into the second round of said qualifiers and not everyone believes that was the “luck of the draw.”

Last year’s football finalists, Dublin and Kerry, were due to meet in this year’s semi-final stage until circumstances ‘dictated’ a re-draw which, surprise, kept them apart. Tipp and Wexford, who produced a classic All-Ireland semi-final last year, could have net in the first round of hurling’s qualifiers. But the way is now clear for both to reach the quarter-finals against the beaten provincial finalists.

Like Wexford, Tipp will be better when they play again. Indeed, they contributed handsomely to a terrific first-half against Limerick. They played into bucketing rain which was visible from all camera angles and not just against a floodlit backdrop. And when Jake Morris found the net on 19 minutes, they were only a point behind. Within a minute, one of Limerick’s 15+ star men, Aaron Gillane, also goaled, with his right foot, a considerable rarity in hurling. But Limerick’s nine-point half-time lead was far from decisive in the conditions, as Tipp demonstrated by scoring two early second-half points.

Tipp manager, Liam Sheedy, angrily paced the touchline whenever the camera was on him…even when Tipp scored (looking particularly vexed after Morris’s goal). But when Gillane converted a 49th-minute penalty to take Limerick’s lead out to 11, he seemed resigned to his team’s fate. Tipp were gifted a lifeline when John McGrath’s 55th-minute goal stood, despite his brother Noel picking the ball off the ground (a foul) in the build-up. The ubiquitous Daly, co-commentator again, cited the dreaded letters V-A-R over TV replays clearly showing the offence.

The goal left Limerick only six-up with 15 minutes left. But they responded like the team with the advantage of playing last week. Three Limerick subs scored, as Tipp tired, Seamus Flanagan’s mishit goal with the game’s last puck indicating their good fortunes. Another fantastic match, though. A pairing already touted as a potential All-Ireland final. And, RTE pundit Donal Og Cusack suggested magnificently, a “clenched fist of defiance against all that’s been thrown at us.”

Big games abound again this weekend…Covid still permitting. Sligo conceded their Connacht semi-final in Galway, after seven positive tests and other ‘close contacts’ on their panel. And this could be the crucial week. By Sunday, 23 of the championship’s 44 football and hurling teams will be knocked-out, which will may reduce the risk of virus spread.

TV sport as national morale boost feels trite to me. But I’ve only just returned to top-tier lockdown. So, I might yet be psychologically reliant on GAA weekends. The TV coverage was occasionally Aiden-affected. Pundits and graphics departments inexplicably kept getting teams mixed up. Worse, though, was Sky’s fake crowd noise, which was dreadful even for fake crowd noise. The frequent expletives heard from various sidelines on RTE (”win a f***ing break,” one Donegal voice implored) were MUCH more fun.

Otherwise, yes, “thank you to all the players for putting on such incredible displays for all of us.”