GAA Championship: Week Five – The Good, The Bad & The Killarney

by | Jul 30, 2021

2021’s All-Ireland Gaelic Football and Hurling championships are now down to their last half-dozen teams, after last weekend again exposed inter-county football’s competitive imbalances while further questioning the narrative that hurling is getting boring.

For once, Sky Sports Arena got the best action. The last two hurling “qualifiers” offered an exciting alternative for sports fans dissatisfied with so much of the Olympic Games being on the bleedin’ Discovery channel and shoved behind a paywall on Eurosport 5 or some such telly backwater. I mean, FIVE Eurosports? You’ll be telling me there’s four ITVs next…

Anyway…the qualifiers, the brief knock-out competition (a.k.a. the “back door”) which allows the beaten provincial championship teams a second chance, with the last two teams winning an All-Ireland quarter-final tilt at the two losing provincial finalists. Both of Saturday’s qualifiers were slow burners, which metamorphosised into thrillers as they progressed.

Waterford and Galway had no championship form coming into their clash at Tipperary’s Semple Stadium. And as the teams took their second-half water-break, on another scorching afternoon, Galway STILL had no championship form. “Galway have a big 20 minutes ahead,” said Sky pundit JJ Delaney, as if they were six, not SIXTEEN, points behind. Yet a big 20 minutes was nearly enough.

With manager Liam Cahill in the ‘screaming-bug-eyed-lunatic-on-the-touchline’ role almost patented by Tipp supremo Liam Sheedy, Waterford led on 16 seconds and by 0-4 to 0-1 within 160 seconds. And after the first-half water-break, Waterford couldn’t miss, with a variety of points and Jack Fagan’s goal from a sweeping pitch-length move giving them a 1-18 to 0-9 interval lead.

Sky’s cameras didn’t reveal if Cahill applauded his team off at half-time as maniacally as Sheedy in the previous Sunday’s Munster Final. They instead focused on Galway’s Joe Canning, who was nursing a left forearm injury, wrapped in a sling fashioned from his shirt-sleeve. Indeed, Sky announced Canning’s substitution, which seemed to extinguish what little hope Galway had left.

However, Canning emerged for the second half, flexing his left hand but hiding any pain. And the next thing to emerge was Waterford defender Conor Gleeson’s responsibility for Canning’s injury, Gleeson seeing a belated but justified red for thwacking Canning with his hurley (“a flick,” claimed ex-Waterford manager Derek McGrath on RTE’s ‘Sunday Game’ highlights show, suggesting he was conned by that dictionary salesman).

Waterford were furious at their interval team-talk being rendered irrelevant in, literally, a flash. Their anger was soon released in a touchline brawl, released further when Galway’s Shane Cooney saw yellow for a martial arts move on Waterford’s Shane Bennett, and ultimately channelled into comprehensively masking their man disadvantage, an Austin Gleeson wonder point helping them to a 1-25 to 0-12 with 15 minutes of normal time left.

Galway pushed Cathal Mannion closer to goal. And he netted on 56 minutes when Waterford keeper Shane O’Brien dived around his stoppable shot. A minute later, they pushed Jason Flynn closer to goal by introducing him from the bench. Canning began playing as Canning can, his 65th-minute point making him the hurling championship’s highest-ever scorer, as Waterford’s once 16-point lead became eight. And as seven minutes’ stoppage-time began, Waterford’s then six-point lead became three when Canning eschewed a scoreable free to pick out a goal-hanging Flynn with a fantastic pass.

Waterford repaired that damage with three points on-the-spin before Flynn netted again, 120 seconds from time. But Steven Bennett’s wonder point from the left touchline had Galway needing two scores. And while Gleeson booted Canning’s fizzed low free off the line, not even Canning could score twice at once. So, Waterford, deservedly over the piece, held on.

Clare’s response to Galway’s near resurrection from the dead? Hold my beer; as their blistering finish nearly produced the mother of (God of) all comeback victories.

The run-in to the game exposed a competition-structural kink. The sides were Munster’s losing semi-finalists. But Clare beat Waterford and Wexford to get here, while Cork ‘qualified’ for this stage by losing to Limerick and…er…that’s it. It was hard not to reflect on this at full-time, as exhausted Claremen sank to the turf while Corkmen leapt about in, rightful, celebration.

Cork started impressively. Patrick Horgan landed a third-minute point while he appeared to be taking a knee (he’s scored goals like that before). And two minutes before the first-half water-break, corner-forward Jack O’Connor cut in from the right, outpaced Clare’s speedy corner-back Rory Hayes and netted from a tight angle.

He nearly did it again from the other side a minute later. And two minutes before half-time, Seamus Harmedy hammered the ball almost directly into the ground, eight yards from a semi-gaping goal. But two minutes later, Cork did net again, Shane ‘I’m-Not-In-The-Side-Just-Because-The-Manager’s-Me-Da’ Kingston ‘butchering’ a pass to Horgan, who skilfully retrieved the situation and played the perfect return ball to the grateful son-of-the-manager.

But Clare were electrified in a six-minute early second-half spell by a trio of sensational points from Tony Kelly. The first was ‘normal’ Kelly genius, finding space where there was none by the right touchline and skying the ball over the bar. For the third, Kelly pirouetted past his diligent marker Niall O’Leary and fired over the bar from the left touchline. Ref John Keenan had blown his whistle for at least one foul on Kelly. But he didn’t dare disallow such a work of hurling genius. And, while celebrating, Kelly answered the question “can pats on the back be sarcastic?” as he ‘consoled’ O’Leary.

Meanwhile, the second point was hilarious. Cork’s Tim O’Mahony appeared to miss a swish at a line-ball. Kelly nipped in, in case appearances had deceived, took the ball and fired it over the bar, as O’Mahony stood, likely open-mouthed (hurlers must wear protective headgear, so you can’t tell), pointing to where the ball once was. Alas for O’Mahony, the ref believed he’d hit the ball. And, more alas for O’Mahony, the TV cameras were in close-up on the ball at the key moment, and showed that it did move, possibly due to the wind from O’Mahony’s swish…but possibly not.

Clare soon edged ahead. But Cork led by two again with five minutes left, when matters pivoted sharply towards them. Clare sub Gary Cooney’s first strike of the ball was goalbound until Cork defender Robert Downey (not junior) got in the way. And in the next attack, Harnedy fed Shane Barrett, rather than take an easy point, and Barrett shot to the net past unwisely on-rushing Clare keeper Eibhear Quilligan. However, amid that fun, O’Connor saw yellow for the second time in the match.

This mightn’t have mattered. Cork were five-up entering three minutes’ stoppage-time. But Kelly won and converted a 71st-minute penalty, for the concession of which O’Leary was shown every card bar a birthday card (“the Belgian flag,” my mate Pete noted of this black/yellow/red combo). And with two points in it, and barely time left for a run through Cork’s depleted human resources plus a drilled shot at goal, Kelly did just that. A goal would have won the game and all bets on everything everywhere would have been off. But Cork keeper Patrick Collins got in the way. And Kelly was left head-in-hands when the game ended, seconds later.

Cork meet Dublin in Saturday’s second quarter-final at 7pm, with Tipp playing Waterford in the first, at 1.30. However, when asked to ponder the quarters last Saturday, Sky’s pundits initially overlooked Dublin entirely. Not a mistake they’ll repeat now Sky are showing the game, although Cork will be slight favourites. Tipp/Waterford may depend on which bug-eyed loony Liam’s head metaphorically explodes first. Sideline officials will need earplugs, regardless.

Blindfolds might have been handier accessories for the closing stages of Sunday’s Connacht football final. Mayo’s six-point win over Galway (2-14 to 2-8) looked like a stirring second-half comeback triumph, as Galway were five-up at half-time. But Mayo dominated most of a game played in the “wide-expanses” of Dublin’s Croke Park which, punditry cliché suggests, suits them. Croker is 8m x 6m bigger than Mayo’s McHale Park. And the gap between Mayo and Galway would have been wider but for two unanswered Galway goals in a nine-minute first-half spell, which genuinely rattled Mayo…hence there being a half-time brawl in the players tunnel.

At his best, Galway’s Shane Walsh is among the best there is. And Croke Park suits him too. He got Galway’s first goal, running in on Paul Conroy’s shot for a point as it came back off the post and slamming it into the net while Mayo players stood looking or assumed their positions for a kick-out, having assumed that the ball missed the post. Then he created their second goal, running round Mayo’s defence like an elegant Forrest Gump before handing the score on a proverbial plate to Damien Comer.

Peter Cooke’s stoppage-time ‘point’ briefly put Galway six-up at half-time “A thing of beauty,” RTE commentator Marty Morrissey eulogised. Co-commentator Oisin McConville “thought it curled just behind the post.” Croker’s ‘Hawkeye’ technology seemed to split the difference. But, unlike cricket, the ‘umpire’s call’ carries no weight in matters of doubt. Hawkeye said “Nil” (the Irish for “Nah”). And “nil” was what Galway scored during the first 26 minutes of the second half, as Mayo applied enough of that half-time tunnel aggression to take control.

Mayo’s big players produced big second-halves. Ryan O’Donoghue scored a 37th-minute penalty, after a moment of Aidan O’Shea brilliance, the sort he has too-rarely produced in a 12-year Mayo career. They overhauled Galway on 48 minutes. And after Comer flicked Walsh’s underhit shot onto the bar, Mayo were obvious winners. Galway were only two points behind on 66 minutes, But then Conor Loftus’s excellent solo goal made the score look more representative of events.

Galway similarly collapsed after leading Roscommon by five points at half-time in 2019’s Connacht final (I know ‘cos I was there). They were timid that day, though, whereas Mayo would have overpowered most teams on Sunday’s second-half showing.

Blindfolds would have been MUCH handier accessories for all but the opening stages of Munster’s football final in Killarney last Sunday. And RTE’s ‘Sunday Game Live’ presenter Joanne Cantwell had to reassure viewers that the programme’s pundits “DID actually watch” the atrociously one-sided second half of Kerry’s evisceration of Cork, after Kerry pundit Tomas O Se said that “you couldn’t watch (it), it was terrible.”

Cork certainly were terrible, apart from the first 19 minutes, when they tore into Kerry as if THEY were seeking revenge for a 2020 championship shock defeat. They built up a five-point lead (1-6 to 0-4) underpinned by Brian Hurley’s 17th-minute goal. And the RTE pundits’ pre-match debate about how many points Kerry would win by, and whether Cork would be “hosed” or not, seemed more foolish by the minute (as did my suggestion in last week’s column that “Cork only lead Kerry on alphabetical order”).

Then Kerry assumed control, and what we all said would happen happened, as they routed Cork by 4-18 to 0-3 in the last 50 minutes. Actually, it was worse than even that score suggested because, as O Se’s punditry colleague Cora Staunton noted, correctly, Kerry were “good” but “they were sloppy at times,” the prime example of which came on 38 minutes.

Cork were ‘only’ five points behind at half-time and started the second half as they’d started the first…for two minutes, anyway. But they failed to score, and Kerry found the net within three passes of clearing the ball from their own end-line. Yet even as Sean O’Shea ran down the open road where some sort of Cork half-back line should have been, he fumbled the ball before setting up goalscorer Paul Geaney. Any sort of team would have pounced on that mistake. But Cork were no sort of team from that point/goal on.

Kerry also did all this while starman David Clifford had a stinker…and not just a stinker by his sky-high standards. He scored only once, a pointed free with the game long over, and missed about 1-3 which would normally have been his with his eyes shut. Clifford hasn’t looked fit since doing himself a mischief slamming in his goal against Clare four weeks ago. That didn’t matter last Sunday. From here on in, it surely will. But if Cork are THAT bad…well…to paraphrase Glasgow comic Kevin Bridges’ joke about Scottish football when Rangers went bust, Munster football was a two-horse race and has now lost a horse. Munster football’s become show jumping.

The other two provincial football finals are in Ulster and Leinster. Monaghan and Tyrone meet at 4pm on Saturday, Dublin face Kildare 24 hours later. Both finals are at Croke Park. The Leinster final always is. And Ulster’s was from 2004 to 2006, when football’s popularity and Ireland’s “Celtic Tiger” economy pushed ticket demand beyond the capacity of Ulster’s grounds.

Tyrone edged Monaghan in their last two Croker meetings, 2013’s quarter-final and 2018’s semi. Current general form suggests a repeat. Monaghan’s form against Armagh suggests different. If Dublin show their 2021 championship form, Kildare have a chance. If Dublin show their 2011-2020 championship form, Kildare don’t.

But, bar that last scenario, there should be no more Killarneys, in football or hurling. Let the (competitive) games begin.

STOP PRESS: Just as I pressed “send” on this article, Galway’s Joe Canning unexpectedly announced his inter-county hurling retirement. Canning broke the all-time hurling championship scoring record last Saturday. So he has gone out on a high, especially as he nearly engineered a sensational comeback win for Galway that day. The flow of tributes from across hurling demonstrates that his popularity matched his ability. And though he only won one All-Ireland title, in 2017, he already ranks alongside hurling’s greats. Google “Joe Canning goal v Kilkenny 2015” and “Joe Canning winning point – Galway v Tipperary 2017” for glimpses of his genius.