GAA Championship: Week Four – Brendan Og Duffy
It hit home harder because it happened while 19-year-old Brendan Og Duffy was doing what every GAA player has had to do in these Covid-restricted times. Shortly before 11.30pm last Friday, Duffy was driving home, after captaining Monaghan under-20s football team to Ulster semi-final victory over Donegal, when he was involved in a two-car collision on the N2 road in Monaghan. He died at the scene.
The tragedy cast a shadow over the Monaghan senior team’s Ulster semi-final with Armagh on Saturday, which was all-too-visible during the pre-match tributes to Duffy. Manager Seamus McEnaney managed Monaghan’s 2018 under-17 panel. And he revealed during his semi-tearful post-match interview that 24 of the 30 panellists chose Duffy as their captain. So, his reply to the standard opening “what are your feelings?” question was “devastation for Ogie Duffy’s family.”
Before the match, Sky Sports Arena pundit Peter Canavan expressed a commonly-shared surprise that it was going ahead at all. And it was a wonder that Monaghan could play at all, let alone win an outstanding match in an outstanding manner.
Armagh were missing keeper Blaine Hughes, man-of-the-match in their quarter-final win over Antrim. And 20-year-old replacement Shea Magill was at direct fault for Monaghan’s second goal. But you’d wonder how even the outstanding Hughes would have coped as the waves of Armagh’s previously formidable defence continually parted, especially for Monaghan’s fourth goal, when Darren Hughes played a one-two with Jack McCarron and ran through to score, as the half-backs, literally, stood looking.
But Armagh landed an impressive 14 first-half points, the first from the soon-to-be-mercurial Rian O’Neill on 17 seconds. So we had, as Sky pundit Jim McGuinness delightedly suggested, “a full-time score at half-time.” Also, Armagh were only seven behind. And Monaghan ceded a seven-point interval lead to Cavan last year, though they’d faced a strong second-half wind then, and there wasn’t a puff of the stuff on Saturday.
Monaghan reached the second-half water break still seven-up. However, Armagh goaled before the water had settled in stomachs, O’Neill scraping the skies to catch a ball in midfield, and arrowing it goalwards where sub Conor Turbitt bravely flicked it into the net past out-rushing Monaghan keeper Rory Beggan.
And with ten minutes left, Armagh led for the first time since the 17th second. They took a quick line ball from demonstrably the wrong place (the ball went over the line on-camera, the line ball was taken yards off-camera). And Tiernan Kelly utilised this ill-gotten gain to beat two star-jumping defenders and drill a low shot into the net past Beggan’s left hand. Three minutes later, the lead was two and the game was Armagh’s for all money.
Yet they didn’t score again. And while their defence was at last getting tackles in, most were fouls. Monaghan’s long-time talisman Conor McManus landed three ordinarily semi-difficult frees which were high-pressure wonder scores in the circumstances. And Stephen O’Hanlon’s unhindered dance through Armagh’s defence for a point rendered irrelevant referee David Coldrick’s ‘Graham Poll moment,’ not dismissing Aidan Forker after showing him a second yellow when Forker conceded McManus’s second free.
You’d have to dive into record books to find a higher-scoring Ulster championship match. Saturday also broke Northern Ireland heat records, 31.2 degrees in the not-made-up county Down town of Ballywatticock. Playing football at all in THAT was remarkable. Playing all THAT football in it was sensational.
The second Ulster semi was always going to suffer by comparison, even though Tyrone’s six-point win over titanic Ulster rivals Donegal came in a quality, if controversial, encounter, with talisman Michael Murphy’s availability proving pivotal for Donegal’s third consecutive game.
Donegal’s veteran defender Neil McGee went off injured (a veteran phrase in itself) on four minutes. And on 10 minutes, Tyrone’s Darren McCurry found a McGee-shaped gap in Donegal’s defence, but fired straight at keeper Shaun Patton. Thus reprieved, Donegal should have taken control. On 27 minutes, Tyrone’s Rory Brennan hauled down Anthony Thompson just outside the penalty area, referee Joe McQuillan black-carded Brennan for his cynicism and gave a penalty for denying a goalscoring opportunity.
However, the very nearby Michael McKernan seemed set to devour a scoring opportunity of any sort. And RTE co-commentator Kevin McStay said: “I don’t think it was a goal chance, that wasn’t my sense of it.” Mind you, 41 seconds later, without seeing the incident again, McStay flipped to “he (McQuillan) has decided it was a goalscoring opportunity and I think he’s correct,” not a respect for referees he always displayed when he recently managed my team Roscommon.
Anyway…Donegal could have been five points up and, until half-time, a man up. Alas, Murphy ‘Rashford-ed’ the penalty, sending keeper Niall Morgan miles the wrong way but hitting the post. Thus reprieved, Tyrone cut the gap to one in the next attack. And moments after Frank Burns was let away with a judo throw on Michael Langan, as Langan prepared to shoot, they were level. Then Murphy fumbled a pass, took a wild hamstring-testing swipe at the ball just as Kieran McGearey’s left shin came within range and exited proceedings when McQuillan added a black card to his earlier yellow.
McGearey’s extravagant swallow dive didn’t, let’s say, match the contact. And there was some debate over the colour of the card, as the facts Murphy visibly tried to withdraw from the tackle and toe-ended McGeary’s shins suggested it wasn’t the deliberate trip for which he was black-carded. But it was reckless and should have been a yellow, which meant Murphy was off anyway.
With Brennan back, Tyrone started the second half with a key score and personnel advantage in what RTE commentator Ger Canning called “the broiling heat of Fermanagh,” surely the first time those words have been said together in that order. But Donegal levelled with a goal on 40 minutes when Caolan McGonigle superbly finished an equally superb pitch-length running and passing move.
Tyrone were soon two ahead again. And while they didn’t lead by more until the closing stages, they were getting scores easier than Donegal. McCurry’s 57th-minute point, after Conor McKenna’s great interception and lung-busting run, was as good a score as McConigle’s, while Donegal over-relied on drawing fouls and scoring frees. Personnel parity was restored by McGeary’s 65th-minute black card. But Donegal’s Michael Langan looked exhausted in close-up after scoring an earlier free. His missed free after McGeary’s card, was as exhausted. And Tyrone scored the final four points to win by six.
Leinster’s football semi-finals could not physically have been in Ulster’s class. Nevertheless, they were intriguing. Two early second-half goals underpinned Kildare’s two-point win over Westmeath, whose performance summarised their season; narrow defeat, having squandered good goalscoring chances. And Dublin reached their half-millionth consecutive Leinster Final. But their victory was as sweaty as their darkish-blue shirts looked.
Meath were denied a clear ninth-minute penalty when Bryan McMahon was taken from behind by Brian Fenton in a manner which only became legal in Ireland in 1993, and even then only in private. Within a minute Fenton was himself felled in the penalty area in a manner which has always been legal, even on a football field. They got, and scored, the penalty, to set-up an 11-point interval lead. However, Meath’s Matthew Costello netted exactly a minute after half-time, they added the next four points, and were only five behind at the water break.
A scoreless 14-minutes was ended by two more Meath points as they entered five minutes’ stoppage-time three behind. Only then did Dublin click into anything like gear again, winning by six, their narrowest provincial victory since 2012. Earlier that afternoon, RTE pundit Pat Spillane claimed Dublin were “on the decline.” Yes, this was an attention-seeker attention-seeking. But Dublin have offered nothing in this championship to discredit him. Yet.
“As unstoppable as the tide,” said RTE pundit Donal Og Cusack of Limerick’s third quarter in an epic, Munster hurling final. The same could have described Tipperary throughout a first-half they won by ten points. At half-time, fellow pundit Henry Shefflin airily dismissed the notion of “Limerick coming back into this,” saying: “Naw, Tipp’ll win it. Another ten points and they’ll get 2-26. They’ll be fine.” Limerick scored 2-29. But, post-match, Shefflin, a hurling legend with Tipp’s bitterest rivals Kilkenny, seemed happy at being wrong.
Limerick stuttered as they have all season. And they were dismantled by a sensational Tipp first half. Tipp’s two first-half goals came from winning high balls against Limerick’s full-backs and firing home, Jake Morris with a neat finish, John O’Dwyer with a thunderbolt which would have taken Limerick keeper Nicky Quaid into the net too if he’d got behind it…and the ball in hurling (the ‘sliothar’) is barely bigger than a tennis ball.
Limerick manager John Kiely had surprisingly dropped free-taker Aaron Gillane and defender Dan Morrissey. They were introduced on 30 minutes and immediate stabilised matters, although that was lost amid Tipp’s overall dominance, with Jason Forde scoring ten points and standing out even from this crowd. Tipp supremo Liam Sheedy’s head nearly exploded with pride as he manically applauded his team off at half-time…although if you’d said he was being angry and sarcastic, I’d have believed you.
Limerick got seriously lucky, though. Gillane should have seen red on 37 minutes for whacking Cathal Barrett across the thigh with his hurley, in unnecessary retaliation for Barrett’s niggly fouling. Ref Paud O’Dwyer consulted the (very) nearest linesman and booked Gillane, which suggested neither official saw the assault and assumed that Barrett wasn’t writhing in agony for a laugh. Limerick’s Seamus Flanagan should have seen red too, after a dangerous neck-high tackle. But, by then, it was as if the teams had swapped kits.
Limerick outscored Tipp by an incomprehensible 1-10 to 0-1 in the third quarter. Then Limerick’s Kyle Hayes produced what excitable RTE commentator Marty Morrissey called the “goal of the year and its only July.” Hayes started yards inside Limerick’s half, and ran…and ran, flying past defenders, whacking the ball off the ground and back into his hands with impossible skill to avoid sanction for over-carrying, and firing home with his hurley the WRONG WAY ROUND. Limerick led by five, with 16 minutes left. And Tipp were a beaten docket, only reducing the lead to five again with Mark Keogh’s spectacular late goal.
Tipp had produced one of the best halves of hurling ever…but it wasn’t even the best half of the match. And if you watched all this and still don’t like hurling…you’re wrong 😊.
Leinster’s hurling final could not physically have been in Munster’s class, especially as Dunlin four Covid-related absentees, and, after three minutes, lost top-class full back Eoghan O’Donnell to the hamstring injury which cut his semi-final short. Dublin made light of these disruptions, despite losing to Kilkenny by nine points. And labelling their performance ‘plucky’ would be patronisingly unfair.
Five of the game’s best players were Dublin’s Liam Rushe, the two Conor Burkes and the two Danny Sutcliffes (there WERE two of them, right?). And Kilkenny mixed forced and unforced errors. So, their three-point half-time lead was a surprise. Especially when, as RTE commentator Darragh Maloney noted correctly as the teams left the field: “Dublin have hurled well. Kilkenny have hurled OK, at times.”
However, Kilkenny found some second-half rhythm. And having gone five ahead when no-one was looking, as Kilkenny are wont to do, they established their superiority on 51 minutes. Four Dublin defenders broke through 10 tackles between them in about 25 seconds as they ground their way upfield. But Kilkenny’s 11th tackle was successful. And within five seconds the ball was over the Dublin bar and, Maloney noted, Sutcliffe was, symbolically, “down on his knees, exhausted.”
Saturday’s hurling qualifiers were excellent, Waterford’s five-point win over Laois unexpectedly so. Waterford were predictably eight-up at half-time. But Laois led with eight minutes left, before goals by Patrick Curran and Stephen Bennett saved the favourites. Laois face a National League relegation play-off this Saturday, which shows how Waterford have slipped since last year’s All-Ireland final.
It was too hot for the, let’s be honest, hoped-for touchline shenanigans between Clare and Wexford managers Brian Lohan and Davy Fitzgerald. In fact, Davy didn’t start on the touchline. But as Clare built an 11-point after 21 minutes, he was soon pitchside.
It could have been different. Wexford’s Rory O’Connor flashed an eighth-minute goal opportunity into the wrong side of the side-netting, when a goal would have levelled matters. Within two minutes, Clare’s Cathal Malone scored 1-1 and Clare sped clear. Wexford nearly caught up, mind. Diarmuid O’Keeffe’s 22nd-minute goal had an assist and pre-assist (yes, that’s a thing now) from Clare defenders. And when they scored the first three second-half points, they were only two behind. But Clare got the next three points and sub Gary Cooney’s stoppage-time goal put them six-up, before Wexford’s Lee Chin, a colossus as per, netted to leave three in it again at the end.
Westmeath hurlers, meanwhile, are Leinster and All-Ireland championship-round after beating Kerry in Saturday’s Joe McDonagh Cup final. Sixty points used to mean a high-scoring match. The 61 points here brought the weekend’s big-game AVERAGE to 58. Good job hurling is boring…
Both championships are down to their last eights. The first two of four provincial football finals are on Sunday, Cork/Kerry in Munster and Mayo/Galway in Connacht…well…in the Connacht final. The game will be in Dublin’s 82,300-capacity Croke Park, not Mayo’s 25,369-capacity McHale Park. Irish crowds are still heavily Covid-restricted. And the GAA need the gate money.
Cork only lead Kerry on alphabetical order. But there’s no reliable form guide in Connacht. Last year, Galway reached the final without playing a match after semi-final opponents Sligo succumbed to Covid. This year, Mayo reached the final without playing a match worthy of the name, after opponents Sligo and Leitrim succumbed to being sh*te.
Hurling’s qualifiers finish on Saturday with 2013 and 2017 All-Ireland final re-runs, Clare/Cork and Galway/Waterford. Galway/Waterford looks like a nil-nil draw on current form. While the Clare/Cork result rests on whether Clare will be knackered after three championship games or Cork will be rusty after only one.
But they ARE only games. As Monaghan senior captain Ryan Wylie said on Saturday of Brendan Og Duffy’s passing, sport hardly matters “when you see things like that, a young man at the peak of his powers, just after a great game and win, and suddenly everything just changes.”