GAA Championship 2021: Week One… Sided

by | Jul 2, 2021

RTE were prepared. They had the graphic underway and just needed Donegal to beat Down by an expected margin in the Ulster Gaelic Football Championship’s opening game to complete it. Sky Sports were prepared, too. Because Championship’s week one was dominated by one-sided matches. And Sky Sports Arena had the live rights to two VERY one-sided football matches.

In their championship opener, Mayo won their Connacht quarter-final in Sligo by 20 points, as very expected. Sligo were among Ireland’s worst teams in the League, winning only one game in the bottom tier, having been opted out of 2020’s championship entirely by the overwhelming effects of the pandemic. And there was an inevitability about Mayo’s win after the one Sligo player good enough for a better side, Niall Murphy, missed a first-minute chance.

Next up, ‘live’ on Sky, Kerry beat Clare by 17 points, well above the expected margin as Clare only lost a Division Two promotion play-off at home to Mayo by four points, a fortnight ago. So the GAA must have hoped that Down/Donegal would be a closer affair…even a dour, attritional affair if the result was in doubt for minutes rather than seconds. And it was closer, the closest of all the games involving Division One counties, as Donegal won by only a mere small matter of…oh fcuk…16 points. RTE’s graphic was complete, and the debate about football championship structures restarted.

And the football championship’s actual opener, Limerick’s Munster quarter-final with Waterford, was a second-half cakewalk for Limerick, who racked up a score worthy of Limerick’s hurlers. There wasn’t much between the teams until Hugh Bourke netted Limerick’s second goal in the last minute of first-half normal time. And after that…there was much between them, as they won by 18 points.

There WERE closer games in Leinster. RTE website headlines could even include “edge” after Wexford, well, edged Wicklow by three points, although Wexford’s joy would have crumbled under the headline’s conclusion, “and book Dublin date.” Longford beat Carlow by six in a high-scoring affair, especially for a match involving Carlow. And Offaly only beat Louth by nine after extra-time.

And football was not the weekend’s only competitive wasteland. The hurling championship opener, Dublin’s Leinster quarter-final win over Antrim, was a second-half cakewalk, as the Dubs racked up a score worthy of their all-conquering footballers. Wexford and Laois broke scoring records-a-plenty in Saturday’s other Leinster hurling quarter. Laois’s tally would have won a ‘quite’ high-scoring match, but it came third here. And hurling’s “biggest” game this weekend, the Clare/Waterford Munster quarter, was only close because Clare’s shooting was appalling.

Mayo’s win in Sligo was a horrible watch. Mayo were eight-up at the first water-break. Such breaks have become unashamed tactics breaks and have often changed games’ momentums. Not here. Mayo led by 3-13 to 0-8 at half-time, playing INTO a strong wind. And they cruise-controlled the second half, making light of long-term injury absentee and football Championship all-time top scorer, Cillian O’Connor. Sligo’s only win this year? Against Leitrim. Mayo’s Connacht semi-final opponents? Leitrim. More of the one-sided same, then.

Kerry led Clare after 12 seconds and led throughout. Yet they were sloppy and over-reliant on costly unforced Clare errors and the poor shooting which dogged their hurlers, until ruthlessly exploiting Clare’s late weariness. Star forward David Clifford personified Kerry’s early woes, mixing fine scores with wild misses…his brother, championship debutant Paudie, was the better first-half Clifford.

Clare’s costliest unforced error let Clifford P fire a laser-precision 40-yard pass to give the consistently impressive Sean O’Shea for Kerry’s first-half goal, which gave them a nine-point interval lead they hadn’t quite deserved. And they scored a measly two points in the third quarter. However, Clare only scored three and missed umpteen clear chances. And David Tubridy didn’t net for Clare until Kerry’s forwards, including Clifford D, had clicked into gear and fired them 12 points clear.

That 12 points lead was extravagantly restored when Clifford D did himself a mischief hammering the ball into the net and was subbed as a precaution, with his replacement, Micheal Burns, netting Kerry’s third goal. Kerry manager Peter Keane made a post-match deal of Kerry visiting the “defending Munster champions” (Tipperary) in the semi-final. But no-one’s fooled. The seriousness of Clifford D’s quad tweak is still unclear at the time of typing. But even without him, if that game isn’t more of the one-sided same, questions will need asking of Kerry’s All-Ireland title pretensions.

Other stars got injured too. Donegal’s long-time lynchpin Michael Murphy was a surprise starter in Down, five weeks after a hamstring strain in a league match. It was a decent decision when he started well. But it was a reckless risk on 28 minutes when he winced in pain and was forced, against his highly-visible will, to sit the rest of the game out with the top of his left leg strangled by strapping. Donegal were only briefly distracted, which rather confirmed that the wisest decision would have been using him off the bench if, and only if, Down threatened a shock win.

They didn’t. Donegal led by ten points at half-time after Murphy’s replacement, Jamie Brennan, did a lap of honour BEFORE firing home his 33rd-minute goal, taking 12 steps with the ball in his hand when the rules allow four. My Donegal cousin-in-law suggested, possibly correctly, that 12 Brennan steps covered the same ground as four Murphy ones. That this is the best explanation I’ve heard so far says it all about how bad the decision was.

Down would have been further behind but for Barry O’Hagan scoring six of their eight first-half points. And they were rewarded for running at Donegal after the break. Caolan Mooney’s 37th-minute goal was one of three goal chances while Donegal’s Stephen McMenamin was “sin binned” for a late first-half indiscretion. Comeback hopes dissolved, though, with Gerard McGovern’s 47th-minute dismissal for a brainlessly late, brainlessly head-high challenge (about which he was brainlessly shocked). And Paddy McBrearty’s 62nd-minute goal was coming for all 15 of the minutes after that dismissal.

Donegal face Derry in the next round. If Murphy is fit, that might be more of the one-sided same. If not, it might not be, especially as current Donegal boss Declan Bonner’s immediate predecessor was the not-universally popular Rory Gallagher, the current manager of…Derry.

Waterford hurlers fell as far as they could from last year’s All-Ireland final appearance to what Waterford playing legend and RTE Radio pundit John Mullane labelled a “four-point hammering” in Sunday’s Munster’s first-round tie. This descent was wind-assisted by Waterford missing half their All-Ireland final team. But it wasn’t entirely explained by it. Indeed, Clare should have been the slippery-slopers after all manner of problems with the county board’s management came to an occasionally on-line abusive surface last winter (LONG stories, plural).

Clare were also embroiled in Covid controversy when two players were nominated as “close contacts” of (and, Clare manager Brian Lohan claimed, BY) two Wexford hurlers who tested positive after the counties’ league meeting in May. Lohan’s claims kick-started days of “he said, they said” nonsense. Lohan and Wexford manager Davy Fitzgerald have “history,” going back to their shared Clare playing days in the 1990s.

Only a cynic would link that history to this controversy. But Clare’s form improved after it, and they took that momentum into Sunday, leading at half-time by nine points, aided by new hurling rules which let referees award penalties for certain fouls on “a player with a goal-scoring opportunity inside the 20-metre line,” even if outside the penalty area. The inspirational Tony Kelly netted Clare’s ‘new-rule’ penalty and added other wonder points (“he’s not going to have a go from there is he?” asked incredulous RTE commentator Marty Morrissey as Kelly landed one point from, as they say in Ireland, “another parish”).

Yet their score-taking profligacy exposed them to a fourth-quarter comeback from a previously passive Waterford, who reduced a ten-point deficit to three going into stoppage-time. And even when another Kelly wonder point sealed the four-point “hammering,” it was sandwiched between two shocking Kelly contributions to Clare’s 22 (TWENTY-TWO!!) wides.

In Leinster, Wexford were impressive, especially when focussing on goal-scoring late on against an already-beaten Laois. And Antrim’s nerve-riddled display against Dublin dashed hopes that they could close the chasm in quality between Championship and second-tier Joe McDonagh Cup. They now face Laois, with the losers returning to the Joe McDonagh.

Telly

The National Leagues were extensively covered by RTE and Eir Sports. And Sky’s coverage on Saturday exposed their lack of a pre-season, as they continually misidentified players and counties.

During Kerry/Clare, every David was “David Clifford,” even Clare goalscorer, David Tubridy. Co-commentator Paul Earley cited Clare’s league win over Kildare…and kept calling Clare Kildare. Someone should have had a word, especially any Clare on the production team. And the announcement of one of this Saturday’s live hurling matches as “Kilkenny v Laois” dismantled presenter Grainne McElwain’s composure, as she knew well how Wexford had dismantled Laois. Thankfully, Sky aren’t showing Ukraine/Germany in the Euros.

RTE weren’t error-free. Presenter Joanne Cantwell, desperate to stop viewers leaving the Down/Donegal coverage at half-time, cited Down’s thrilling comeback against Cavan in 2020’s Ulster Championship. This time, someone did have a word. And a sheepish Cantwell confirmed after an ad break how thrilling CAVAN’s comeback against Down was. However, despite this, and Sky having the best football pundit, former All-Ireland winning Donegal manager Jim McGuiness, RTE’s coverage remains dismally superior to all-comers.

What’s next?

A hurling trilogy dominates next Saturday’s screens, if Ukraine/England isn’t your thang.

Either side of the Kilkenny/WEXFORD Leinster semi-final at 4,30, Sky Sports Arena(CHK) has the Galway/Dublin Leinster semi at 2pm and the Limerick/Cork Munster semi at 7. Galway would be too powerful even if not out to avenge a shock 2019 Championship elbowing by Dublin. Kilkenny will be slight favourites against the Wexford of loose-cannon boss, Fitzgerald, whose sideline antics are always ‘fun.’ (if he’s allowed ON sidelines…he’s just served his latest two-match suspension from them). And Limerick’s league form wasn’t as good as Cork’s. So their favouritism is shaky.

The GAA GO website is your ticket to Sunday’s games. There hasn’t been a home win between Roscommon and Galway footballers since 2008, and Sunday’s Connacht semi in Roscommon, at 1.15, probably won’t change that. At 3.45, Clare will be third favourites against Tipperary in the other Munster hurling semi if their shooting doesn’t improve. And, across the weekend, there are two Ulster football quarter-finals, including fancied Armagh against Antrim. and all four Leinster football quarters.

Dublin start their “strive for seven” (or something) when they visit Wexford on Sunday, which also opens their campaign for a ridiculous eleventh Leinster title in-a-row. In general, this weekend’s games are not expected to be as one-sided as last weekend’s. This one is… and more.