GAA Championship: Week Three – Back To One-Sided
On paper, the dethroning of two of 2020’s provincial champions on one Saturday evening should have been dramatic telly. But the throning of 2020’s Munster champions Tipperary and Ulster champions Cavan on one Sunday afternoon was dramatic telly because they were shocks. And the two counties’ form since then was just shocking.
More shocking was the hideous (mis)match of Leitrim’s visit to Covid-ravaged Mayo in the Connacht semi-final. Eight minutes after half-time, Mayo led Leitrim by TWENTY-FOUR points, 5-13 to 0-4. Mercifully, dramatic telly DID arrive, as Donegal and Derry, counties either side of Ireland’s ‘border,’ thrilled (some of) both nations.
Cavan were competitive in Tyrone…for a bit. The sides were enjoyably level at 0-7 each on 26 minutes. But the future-ex-Ulster champions couldn’t handle Tyrone’s Darren McCurry, who scored seven himself, as Tyrone led by four at half-time. McCurry also had a hand(pass) in Brian Kennedy’s 40th-minute goal, which put Tyrone eight ahead. But McCurry was bopped on the head as he released the ball, which seemed to reduce his influence.
And after the second-half water break, with 14 minutes left and the lead only seven, Tyrone’s Ronan McNamee suggested there was gin in his ‘water’ bottle when he slapped Cavan’s Conor Brady in the face. Twice. Both behind ref David Gough’s back but pushing Brady INTO Gough’s back. And, curious as to why Brady would do this, Gough consulted a linesman, who told him. A red card duly followed. But Cavan never reduced the seven-point gap, and lost by eight.
Tipp were competitive against Kerry…for a bit. The sides were cagily level at 0-1 each on 10 minutes. But the future ex-Munster champions couldn’t handle Kerry’s…team. David Clifford netted on 14 minutes, catching Gavin White’s possibly foul handpass and rifling a left-foot shot past keeper Evan Comerford, who could only have heard or smelt it. But Tipp got an unexpected lifeline on 26 minutes when Jack Kennedy was felled outside the penalty area but referee Niall Cullen gave the penalty. Not for a goalscoring opportunity denial inside the 20-metre line. Just a mistake. Conor Sweeney’s goal cut Kerry’s lead to four. However, this was a blip. And Kerry’s interval lead was eight.
The second-half was frustrating. Clifford, though not looking 100% fit after his injury against Clare two weeks ago, landed a delightful point from the right flank. And Steven O’Brien blasted a goal chance at Comerford’s head. Then, on 49 minutes, Tipp’s Michael Quinlivan landed what looked like a firm right hook to Gavin Crowley’s ribcage as the two players handbagged near the touchline. Crowley crumpled in a heap, like someone who’d received a firm right hook to the ribcage. And Cullen produced a red card, like he’d just seen someone receive a firm…etc…
TV replays were inconclusive. And Tipp’s frustration grew four minutes later when Jason Lonergan was sin-binned for ten minutes for a demonstrable yellow card offence…or no offence at all. But Kerry failed to take any advantage of this two-man advantage, ‘drawing’ the ten-minute, 15 v 13 spell 0-1 each. Kerry eventually stretched their lead, to 11 points with the game’s last kick. And they were great in the first half. But that second half? Honking.
Cork await Kerry in what was once always the Munster Football final. “What’s old is new again,” RTE noted wistfully. Cork reversed Limerick’s eight-point Munster hurling semi-final winning margin over Cork. But it was a sticky match made to seem worse by GAAGO analyst Pat Spillane’s incessant mewling. “No tempo, no energy, no pace, no movement in attack, ponderous”; “if you look at the stats, we’re 56 minutes in, and one Cork forward, ONE CORK FORWARD, has scored from play.” And so on…and on… And Cork were WINNING. Spillane will mention his eight All-Irelands with Kerry as soon as look at you. But you sometimes wonder if even likes football.
Back in Connacht, Leitrim managed to keep Mayo’s lead to 24. But the last 27 minutes, during which the sides traded six points to pass the time, was unwatchable. I think…I didn’t watch them. Mercifully, things improved.
Donegal’s warm favouritism against Derry was based on an impressive record at their Ballybofey ground (they are less good in Letterkenny, according to what should be a song) and on their Division One status, while Derry won Division Three. “If you look at the stats,” (yep, Spillane again), in 15 previous championship games, only one team had beaten higher-division opposition. But Derry won Division Three like a side already ready for Division One. And RTE pundit Sean Cavanagh said the game would be closer than predicted, which was translated by presenter Joanne Cantwell as tipping Derry…which was kind of right.
That there was no score after five minutes called into question the laws of physics. Shots and scrambles abounded, with Derry rightly aggrieved at not getting a penalty when Shane McGuigan’s penalty-box fall looked more than wind-assisted. Indeed, they could have been two goals up, a significant advantage in a far better game than its low scoring rate suggested. They landed two early points and played superbly, with Donegal needing two late, brilliant Michael Langan scores to be only a point behind at half-time.
There was much channelling of inner Roy Keanes in BBC Northern Ireland’s memorable half-time analysis. Donegal’s 1992 All-Ireland winning manager Martin McHugh insisted that “certain” Donegal players were “not up to it” and that “we need players on the field who are inter-county standard,” which had flustered presenter Mark Sidebottom checking that he wasn’t hearing things.
Then ex-Armagh forward Oisin McConville and current Louth and ex-Tyrone manager Micky Harte had a pantomimic exchange about McConville ‘accusing’ Derry of defensive tactics: “I didn’t say it was defensive”; “Oh you did”; “No, I didn’t”; “You did.” They said other things in-between but those were submerged by the noise of viewers shouting “behind you” at TV screens across Ulster.
McConville actually said “OK, its defensive football,” while praising Derry’s tactics. And Harte accepted this. But the teacher-by-profession couldn’t resist scolding McConville like he was an errant pupil: “I’m just telling you to mind the language.” It was barely an argument. Bloody funny, though. And likely more competitive than most of this year’s football championship.
Derry assumed control again after the restart but a key moment came on 39 minutes. “That’s a lovely score,” suggested RTE commentator Ger Canning, assuming that a goalbound Padraig Cassidy would fist the ball over the bar. Instead, Cassidy fisted the ball over to Benny Heron, who, from three yards, punched the ball…off the underside of the bar and down onto the line. “I thought there was a point for the taking,” continued a still-confused Canning continued.
This didn’t faze Derry, though. They went four points clear shortly after Donegal’s 47th-minute introduction of talisman Michael Murphy, who started in the previous round and was hauled off injured before half-time but was far more wisely kept on the bench here unless or until Donegal were in crisis. And they were.
Murphy’s direct influence wasn’t initially huge, although he won and pointed a free three minutes after arriving. But Donegal halved Derry’s four-point lead by the water break and levelled with eight minutes left. Then McGuigan, excellent otherwise, missed a gilt-edged opportunity, blasting wide from eight yards with his ‘favoured’ left foot rather than using a right foot whose job at that precise moment was unclear.
A minute into four minutes’ stoppage-time, Donegal led for the first time. Then Murphy had his most direct influence, fouling another of Derry’s many best players, Gareth McKinless. And McGuigan nailed the difficult free with all the composure he’d lacked ten minutes earlier. But cometh the 74th minute and first second cometh the man. Derry’s defence kept Donegal at bay until giving Paddy McBrearty a millimetre and a millisecond to ping one over from out near the border. And only my Dad being in the room stopped me screaming “f***ing hell!”
Referee David Coldrick pulled another minute’s stoppage-time out of his arse. But Derry would have needed their own McBrearty to fashion a score. And while Benny Heron, Conor Glass, Ciaran McFaul et al had their shooting boots tightly laced during normal time, no-one felt able to take a pot-shot. And Derry’s chance to win their first Ulster Championship match since 2015 (!) vanished.
Where Mayo’s evisceration of Leitrim had pundits killing off the provincial championships, this match reignited complaints about the lack of a second chance for defeated teams (the ‘back door’) in last and this year’s truncated football championships. Because Derry played better than every other defeated team, put together, and better than a fair few who won (hello Dublin). Best match of the day, though. In any sport. And, yes, it WAS on Sunday.
In the weekend’s one senior hurling championship match, Laois withstood a stirring third-quarter comeback to stay in the championship and relegate Antrim from it. Laois led by ten points at half-time, with Paddy Purcell powering home a late goal to put them in control. Yet Antrim should have led midway through the second-half.
In a fraught five minutes, just-introduced sub Eoin O’Neill’s laser-like low finish reduced the gap to six. Antrim got a penalty when Sean Downey dragged down Conor Johnston outside the penalty area but inside the 20-metre line, although there wasn’t a goalscoring opportunity in view (hello new rule, my old friend). Downey was sin-binned for 10 minutes but Laois keeper Enda Rowland saved Neil McManus’s penalty. Two minutes later, Laois were down to 13 when Ross King’s late tackle on Aaron Crawford earned him a second booking. And two minutes later still, O’Neill drilled in his second goal.
With Antrim two points behind but two men up for eight minutes, one man up for eternity and with a metaphorical and meteorological wind behind them, only the mysterious, momentum-shifting powers of a water-break could stop them now. So the sides took one. Moments later, Purcell was gifted his and Laois’s second goal when Antrim’s Gerard Walsh lost possession yards from goal. And they held on as Antrim went for late goals when points might still have retrieved the situation.
Laois’s first championship win since 2019 has reignited their potentially disastrous year. Antrim’s loss sends them back to the Joe McDonagh Cup, the second-tier competition they ‘escaped’ only last December, which plays the same “mad division” role as English soccer’s Championship.
Westmeath and Kerry will contest this year’s/Saturday’s final after last-puck dramatics last Saturday. Westmeath beat Kildare by/with a late wonder point. While Kerry’s late free sealed a four-point…erm…loss in Meath and a final place on goals scored, as Meath, Kerry and Down all won and lost one game and had identical points differences. The free also knocked Meath out of the final and into a relegation play-off with Kildare. See? Mad.
The Leinster and Munster hurling finals are on Saturday and Sunday respectively, Kilkenny/Dublin and Limerick/Tipperary respectively. And the “qualifiers” start on Saturday with a Sky Sports Arena offering which could be livelier off-the-pitch, given the personal history between Clare boss Brian Lohan and former Clare team “mate” and current Wexford chief Davy Fitzgerald. Meanwhile, Waterford/Laois could be as one-sided as the football. Although the weekend’s football, Leinster’s and Munster’s semi-finals, SHOULD be less one-sided.
Dublin are in complex disarray ahead of meeting Meath, the Dubs’ arch-rivals when Dublin last HAD Leinster rivals. They have players missing, injured, retired or about to retire, but should still win, having lapped Meath in 2020’s Leinster final, although the scale is unpredictable. Kildare could even beat Westmeath by more, as the sides left Division Two in opposite directions. And Ulster could produce two Donegal/Derry replicas, in Armagh/Monaghan (Sky Sports Arena’s second Saturday offering) and Donegal/Tyrone, which fascinates on 19 different levels. We can but hope.