GAA Championships 2022, Week 9: Football’s Fateful Eight

by | Jun 18, 2022

The All-Ireland football championship’s Round 2 qualifiers last weekend were unexpectedly brilliant. Clare’s magnificent last-gasp comeback victory over my team, Roscommon (sob!). Mayo’s Mayo-esque comeback victory over Kildare. Cork’s surprisingly entertaining win over Limerick. And Armagh dismantling Donegal after surviving a thrilling first half.

The first two qualifiers were ill-advisedly set for Croke Park on Saturday. But despite three sparsely-populated stands and one entirely unpopulated terrace, the four teams gave Sky Sports rare value for broadcast-deal money.

After Diarmuid Murtagh’s fifth-minute goal for Roscommon, punching Conor Cox’s mishit into the net, Clare dominated the first half in the first game. They fully merited their four-point 34th-minute lead and were surely dischuffed to be only two-up at half-time. Keelan Sexton’s late introduction looked masterful. And he was deservedly awarded Clare’s 19th-minute goal, to Diarmuid’s brother Ciaran’s likely relief, having shinned the ball home after showing more determination than his colleagues.

Roscommon brought their strong first-half finish into the second half. And between minutes 34 and 67, they outscored Clare 0-11 to 0-2, with an array of fine scores, as well as having a goal disallowed. Thus leading by five points, they had the game won. But instead of showing complacency, which might have run down the clock more effectively, they panicked.

Two pointed Clare frees sandwiched Sexton’s 69th-minute penalty, given when Gavin Cooney was impeded on the brink of a certain goal, and levelled proceedings a minute into five minutes’ stoppage-time. Half-back Jamie Malone’s expertly worked and taken 74th-minute point regained the lead, their only second-half point from open play. And when Roscommon sub Andrew Glennon’s ambitious last-kick effort drifted narrowly wide, Clare were quarter-finalists for only the second time, the first since 2016, when they beat Roscommon again to get there.

Roscommon have previous for such collapses, having lost a five-point, 67th-minute lead in Fermanagh in 2015. Clare, though, have previous for never giving up. And they were the best story on a number of different levels, from the loyal longevity of manager Colm Collins to the players who chose football over hurling in a ‘hurling county.’ Such as Colm’s son, Podge, an All-Ireland hurling champion in 2013.

Saturday was a hard watch for us Roscommon fans. And it is hard to see Clare progressing past the quarter-final. But it was very hard to see them progressing TO it with three minutes left. Yet there they are. Matching the hurlers. Fabulous match. Fabulous story.

Saturday was also, ultimately, a hard watch for Kildare fans. On xx minutes, Gaelic Football’s most watchable forward (for good or ill) Daniel Flynn weaved across Mayo’s 13-metre line and fired goalwards. But his shot was blocked by flying Mayo defender Enda Hession, when a goal would have put Kildare eight-up with 25 minutes left. And even Roscommon might have held on from there. Though, this was Mayo. So…

Sky pundit Paul Earley declared the opening quarter “high quality…apart from the shooting.” And Flynn personified this with a glorious first-minute mark followed by a hideous shot wide. Mayo’s James Carr caught a glorious sixth-minute mark. And he wasn’t about to fire wide. So he dropped the ball short instead. Even the keepers, Mayo’s Rob Hennelly and Kildare’s Aaron O’Neill, got the yips. But the shooting boots finally arrived (seven points in the first 28 minutes, six in the last eight). And Kildare were deservedly three-up at half-time, partly thanks to a wonderful O’Neill save from Eoghan McLoughlin’s 35th-minute pile-drive.

They doubled that lead seven minutes after the break. But Hession’s dramatic defending flicked a switch. Not that Mayo had broken in their shooting boots. They quickly halved Kildare’s lead again but were still three behind on 62 minutes. Kildare were almost audibly tiring, though. And Mayo’s substitutions were impactful, not least the eye-catching but sensible 60th-minute hooking of long-time talisman Aidan O’Shea, a peripheral figure for the umpteenth time.

Also for the umpteenth time, Mayo’s defenders masked their forwards’ inadequacies; veteran Lee Keegan scoring (yet) another inspirational point before full-back Oisin Mullin played a one-two with defender AND sub Padraig O’Hora and crashed the ball to the net. The sides were level. But the contest was over. Although Jordan Flynn’s late fluke goal, when his shot lobbed over a retreating O’Neill put an unfair gloss on the final score (and Flynn’s grin after he scored showed that it was a fluke, despite the puppyish insistence of RTE’s pundits that it was genius).

“Never fails to disappointment,” Sky presenter Grainne McElwain declared. That wasn’t remotely what she meant. But you knew what she meant. An day so exciting it could have been hurling.

RTE pundit Sean Cavanagh CAN’T…STAND…CORK. Last month, he accused them of gaming the system to get home advantage for their Munster semi-final (having been drawn…er…at home) and said they’d be “better off” in the second-tier Tailteann Cup. On Sunday, he said Cork could be quarter-finalists “by default,” having had an “incredibly fortunate” draw. Now, yes, Cork had the easiest possible qualifier route. But short of demanding re-draws, what could they do? They beat Limerick, who beat stars of the weekend Clare. No ‘default’ there.

Cork caught a second-half break when Limerick’s Gordon Brown was black-carded on xx minutes for a ‘third-man tackle.’ The rules demand intent (sound familiar, soccer fans?). And there was clearly none here, as referee Jerome Henry could have seen from his front-row seat at the incident. He didn’t even give a foul. So a linesman must have had a word, which must have been as ill-chosen as Cavanagh’s.

With Brown off, Cork outscored Limerick by the five points by which they eventually won, including Cathal O’Mahony’s superb solo goal on 50 minutes. And Brown showed what Limerick had missed by pointing immediately his return. Nevertheless, Cork intermittently showed quality and class beyond Limerick’s reach. Steven Sherlock was the best forward by a street. Sean Powter was the best defender by the same street.

And Paul Walsh was the best…substitute to get two yellow cards after 86 SECONDS on the pitch, the second for the merest reaction to being shoved in the chest four times by Limerick’s Paul Maher; Henry again had a front-row seat, but loused up again.

Limerick, though, couldn’t take advantage as Cork did. Two minutes before Walsh’s cameo, Limerick’s Brian O’Donovan superbly found the net, RTE’s Colm Cooper putting a reverse (co-)commentator’s curse on them by noting how Cork’s “conditioning” was “showing” as the attack began. And Limerick were only two points back after Walsh’s red. But poetic justice was soon served on Maher when he clattered Cork’s Kevin O’Donovan to concede a penalty which Brian Hurley dispatched.

“It’s a decent win,” Cavanagh reluctantly admitted, adding that “2-10” from Cork’s forwards was “a serious return.” Fellow pundit Colm O’Rourke suggested, probably correctly, that “every provincial winner” would have been “hoping” to draw Cork. But at least Cork were IN the draw. Unlike Cavanagh’s Tyrone.

Peak Usain Bolt could only have run 110 metres in the time it took Armagh to near-burst the Donegal net, in the most eagerly-awaited qualifier. Of the four players contesting the throw-in, only Armagh’s Rian O’Neill followed the ball. And he launched it to the edge of the square where Rory Grugan caught it, turned and lashed it left-footed past Donegal keeper Shaun Patten. The most photogenic goal of the season.

And the most impactful, as Donegal responded by upending their game plan, suddenly producing a direct, kick-passing game and by-passing an Armagh defence which looked as shocked as the rest of us. Donegal rattled off six unanswered points in the next ten minutes and led by four after 22 minutes. It was to be the zenith of their afternoon.

Armagh had regained their composure and reduced the lead to one when Donegal’s composure dissolved. Patten gifted Armagh two glorious goal chances from two wretched short kick-outs. They butchered both. Caolan Ward made a physically unfeasible goal-line clearance from Stefan Campbell’s shot. And, after the increasingly dominant O’Neill pointed the resultant ’45, Aidan Nugent ran at goal rather than shoot for it and was lucky that Patten panicked and dragged him to the floor.

Patten was black-carded. And with ill-prepared sub keeper Michael Lynch scuttling to the dressing-room for his no.16 shirt, defender Caolan McGonagle had to face the penalty. He threw a cool goalkeeping shape. But O’Neill’s kick was too good. Donegal were now three points down and had to substitute a scowling Paddy McBrearty to facilitate Lynch’s introduction. And the TV cameras focused on his ‘lively’ discussions with Patten when he got to the bench.

Armagh led by four at half-time. And even curmudgeonly RTE pundit Colm O’Rourke called it “the best game I’ve seen in a long time” (“are you OK, Colm?” asked a confused Cavanagh). Alas, Donegal were clearly spent. They didn’t score for 17 second-half minutes. And Armagh’s 58th-minute goal summed up the way things were going, Stephen Sheridan given untrammelled access to side-step Patten before tapping into the net. Thereafter, the winning margin was Armagh’s to choose. And they settled on ten, which was arguably the least that they deserved.

Armagh will fancy their chances against Connacht champions Galway in the quarter-finals. And they will meet Derry in the semi-finals if the Ulster champions overcome Clare, as expected (just don’t go five points up with three minutes left lads). If Cork beat Dublin, Sean Cavanagh’s head might explode. They/it won’t, though. And Dublin will face Kerry or Mayo in the semis. Kerry/Dublin has been considered the ‘real’ All-Ireland final since folks realised that the Leinster and Munster champions would meet in the semis. It would surely be too Mayo for Mayo to spoil that party. Wouldn’t it?

Six counties are left in the hurling, after Wexford eased past Kerry and Cork far-from-eased past Antrim in the preliminary quarter-finals. Kerry were intermittently competitive in their first half, recovering from conceding six of the first seven points to trail by only one after 19 minutes. They never quite made it to plucky territory, though, Wexford stretching their lead to 21 with two late goals, after Kerry’s Michael Leane saw red on 63 minutes.

Antrim were competitive until Cork went 11 points clear with a stoppage-time flourish. Antrim even led 2-11 to 2-10 at half-time, James McNaughton’s sixth-minute solo goal the highlight score of the half. Despite facing a strong second-half wind, they withstood Cork’s early upstep in tempo, which produced a six-point turnaround in 12 minutes. They doggedly kept within two scores during the 70 minutes. And they are starting to belong in hurling’s top-flight.

The hurling quarter-finals are in Thurles on Saturday. Galway/Cork at 1.45 and Clare/Wexford, for the third consecutive championship, at 3.45. And football’s Tailteann Cup semis are on Sunday with another Croker double-bill, Sligo/Cavan at 1.45, Westmeath/Offaly at 4. All games on GAAGO in Britain.