GAA Championships Week 11: football’s fights & final four

by | Jul 2, 2022

“If you live long enough, you’ll see everything,” RTE’s Kerry/Mayo co-commentator Kevin McStay reflected, on Galway’s nutcase penalty shoot-out victory over Armagh in their All-Ireland football quarter-final, during which everyone lived long enough.

The other three quarter-finals were a bit tumbleweed-y. Impressive Derry’s win was too easy. Dublin and Kerry won convincingly without stirring souls, thereby ensuring that all four provincial champions reached the semis. But Galway/Armagh compensated, although not everything they produced was commendable.

Sometimes, there is a disconnect between media commentators and fans over multi-player brawls, media folk piously insisting that “no-one wants to see” such things when many fans do. Indeed, fans nearly missed Sunday’s full-time whistle free-for-all live, as RTE were halfway to an ad break when it started. There shouldn’t be any disconnect over this, though.

A melee turned pernicious when the usual testosterone-fuelled nonsense incorporated an eye-gouge on Galway forward Damien Comer. The offender, Armagh’s Tiernan Kelly, narrowly avoided a right-hander. And most of the dozens of protagonists were, like Kelly, not even subs.

Dismissing the captains, Galway’s Sean Kelly and Armagh’s Aidan Nugent, was a demonstrable cop-out from officials who couldn’t determine precise events or culprits. However, the GAA preposterously claimed that both saw red for “contributing to a melee” when both demonstrably did not (and, as RTE Sunday Game pundit Colm Cooper noted, “ten or 12 could have walked” for their contributions). Thus Sean Kelly’s inevitable appeal inevitably succeeded and he can play in Galway’s semi-final, the GAA’s much-maligned Central Competitions Control Committee placing obvious justice above virtue-signalling.

Initial blame was attributed to two teams having to head for one players’ tunnel, when there are two dressing rooms under Croke Park’s two main stands. But that missed the point. Tiernan Kelly’s role, Armagh’s role in 2022’s two major melees and their over-physicality off-the-ball on Sunday (see below) directed considerable flak their way. But wherever blame lies, Galway manager Padraig Joyce summarised it perfectly: “It’s disgraceful that that had to happen.” Mind you, he meant the penalty shoot-out…that Galway won.

Ah yes…the football. Seven-each at half-time didn’t reflect the first half’s compelling ebb-and-flow. Armagh hit their stride early. But Galway surrounded half-time as the stronger side, going three-up on 40 minutes when the lively Rob Finnerty set up Johnny Heaney to palm the ball into the net.

Armagh were coat-tail hanging as Galway talisman Shane Walsh edged centre-stage in a game on which he’d been at the periphery. And, in a portent of physicalities to follow, Armagh responded by twice decking Walsh after off-the-ball ‘comings together.’ Galway were, literally and metaphorically, knocked off course. And Armagh were two behind on 61 minutes when Greg McCabe’s ‘vigorous’ shoulder-charge on Galway’s Matthew Tierney caused a clash of heads. Tierney saw stars. McCabe saw red. And Galway assumed control.

“That surely is that,” declared RTE commentator Darragh Maloney, when Kieran Molloy’s magnificent 71st-minute point put Galway six-up. Eight minutes’ repairing-flattened-Galway-players time, was announced. But 81 seconds had already elapsed. That, surely, was… Then Stefan Campbell’s underhit shot for a point was punched out by Galway keeper Connor Gleeson and palmed back past him into the net by Nugent, as Galway defenders fell in after it. But Comer put Galway four up with four minutes left, as Walsh and the just-booked James Morgan ‘came together,’ about which only the nearest linesman gave a monkeys. So, that, assuredly, was…

“They want a bit of chaos,” Maloney opined, as Armagh’s midfielder-turned-keeper Ethan Rafferty pinged a sensational 70-yard pass to O’Neill, on the edge of the square, with three minutes left. O’Neill could have called for a mark and tapped over a point to leave Armagh three-down again. Instead, his palmed ball across goal was collected by Gleeson, who shovelled it to assumed safety, only for it to be hammered back first-time past him by Turbitt, as Galway defenders parted like the red sea.

The chaos continued (“a fair bit of shielding and holding and whatever you’re having yourself” – Maloney, on commentary fire). Still, with 30 seconds left, Walsh took possession unchallenged near the touchline, 20 metres from Armagh’s goal. And that DEFINITELY was… Walsh tried to pick out a very unmarked Tierney, which made (a little) sense, only to slice his kick horribly. Armagh won a free, near the touchline, 55 metres out, with only enough time left for O’Neill to…bop it straight over the bar, with outrageous ease.

Extra-time was fab. Galway were more than one point better in its first half. Yet even that lead dissolved a minute after half-time when (yet) another high ball into their square caused paralysing panic among only their players, Rory Grugan fending off team-mate Turbitt’s challenge to palm into the net. By now, though, we knew that WASN’T that. And three minutes later, Galway’s Cillian McDaid netted so athletically that I cramped up watching it.

Armagh levelled again because, by now, of course they did. And with a minute left, Rafferty (goalie, remember?) frolicked 50 metres downfield, fell over on the 20-metre line, and somehow slid a pass to sub Jamal Hall, who wrong-footed two defenders and side-footed over. It was a score worthy of winning such a match. But McDaid stylishly took the game to penalties in extra-time second-half stoppage time. Which was fair.

Gaelic football scoring frequencies don’t facilitate shoot-out specific subs. But Rafferty got far closer to Galway’s kicks than Gleeson did to Armagh’s. Alas, Campbell sliced his kick towards O’Connell Street. And while Turbitt sent Gleeson off to Dublin Part with his effort, it thumped the post. Thus, when Tierney placed his kick just past Rafferty’s right hand, that REALLY was that.

RTE pundit Sean Cavanagh suggested bringing “the teams back to fill Croke Park again next weekend,” the All-Ireland hurling semi-finals having slipped his mind. But his main point, that penalties are not among Gaelic football’s “fundamental skills,” was…ahem…spot on (I’m here all week). Still. A fantastic match. I hope the players got Monday off work. Amateurs, remember?

Paul McCartney’s Glastonbury set would have been anti-climactic after that. It was therefore inevitable that Kerry’s eight-point win over Mayo became one. Mind you, both sides stank at times. And James Horan ended his second Mayo managerial spell on Monday, having failed to get a tune out of this team, beyond impenetrable squawks of modern jazz in front of goal.

The throw-in was so delayed that the weather moved from June to October. Rain upped the unforced error count. And one such error led Kerry star David Clifford to tread on the ball. Clifford, a perennial injury doubt, later needed treatment. Yet, on 29 minutes, he played a slick one-two with Stephen O’Brien, flew goalwards and planted a classy left-footer high into the net. Better on one leg than most players on two? You’d wonder after a goal like THAT.

Kerry led at half-time thanks only to Clifford’s momentary magic. Indeed, Kevin McLoughlin should have given Mayo that interval lead, but blazed over a semi-gaping goal. And Mayo looked a better side after Aidan O’Shea, who earlier landed a wonder point from distance, was black-carded for foul and abusive language towards another player.

So, despite struggling, Mayo were still only a point behind 12 minutes after the restart. But, again, they spurned chances (the unfeasible power of tradition…unconnected Mayo players have always done this. Are Mayo shooting boots made of Toblerone?). And once Kerry found some fluency, the game was theirs, Mayo scoring one point after the 50th minute and exiting the championship with their biggest whimper since 2010.

Derry controlled matters against Clare from the get-go, pouncing on Clare’s first mistake, when keeper Tristan O’Callaghan bopped a short kick-out over Cathal O’Connor’s head and Ethan Doherty quickly fed Benny Heron, who body-swerved his marker and guided the ball into the net. And they netted again six minutes later, Conor Glass playing a flowing one-two with Doherty and larruping the ball high past O’Callaghan.

Podge Collins bulldozed through Derry’s defence on 22 minutes, bringing a good save from keeper Odhran Lynch. But, having scored one pointed free in half-an-hour, Clare’s 1-2 late in the half was…unexpected, Pearce Lillis netting with an odd-looking shot from a tight angle past Lynch, who threw an odd shape himself trying to stop it.

Clare were now six points behind, remarkably. But in stoppage-time, Paul Cassidy tested the roof of the Davin End net again, from a tight angle again, to give the half-time score a look more reflective of events. And just after the restart, Niall Loughlin was denied by Clare defender Manus Doherty’s ankle. Then Gareth McKinless strolled up from centre-back and fired emphatically home.

Clare stemmed the tide, a little, when Cleary swept the ball soccer-style past a horribly misplaced Lynch. But there was barely time to work out that Derry’s lead was down to 11 when it was 14 again, Shane McGuigan becoming Derry’s fifth goalscorer, finishing off a sweeping counter-attack. “There was lots of devastating brilliance,” Derry boss Rory Gallagher said immodestly to Sky Sports’ Billy Joe Padden. But even he succumbed to the “must improve for the next game” cliché.

The liveliest thing about Dublin’s stroll over Cork was the flock of first-half seagulls which flitted back-and-forth across the pitch, as if Croke Park had moved to the coast. And the post-match Sky Sports studio debate about the quality, or otherwise, of Dublin’s display also outclassed the match itself.

Cork had their moments. Especially in the first half and especially from stocky forward Brian Hurley who favoured a twisty, turny approach to disorient his marker Eoin Murchan and landed a couple of fine points. They couldn’t, though, draw level with Dublin after the fifth minute. And they couldn’t score at all for the first 20 minutes of the second half, during which time the Dubs trebled their here-point interval lead, which became 11 by the end, as Dean Rock maintained his ridiculous 100% record from frees in this year’s championship.

So, as against Kerry in May, Cork were competitive for a bit, then weren’t. They did themselves justice, which wasn’t enough. Dublin’s attacking display “disappointed” Sky Sports pundit Peter Canavan, which amused fellow pundit Jim McGuinness (“they scored 21 points!”), and took no account of injured star forward Con O’Callaghan being replaced by the game but ordinary Paddy Small. And he claimed that Dublins of yore would have won by more than 11, even though they only won the counties’ previous last-eight meeting at Croker, in 2019, by 13, having only been three ahead after an hour. No pleasing some, I guess.

So, Sky definitely drew the scheduling short straw. However, they have exclusive UK rights to the remaining hurling and football. This weekend’s hurling semis are on Sky Sports Arena. Kilkenny/Clare throws-in at 5.30pm, Saturday, Limerick/Galway, 3.30pm Sunday. And its Clare and Limerick victories for me.