GAA Championships Week Three: The Derry Boys

by | May 6, 2022

All the All-Ireland football championship’s structural problems were exposed last Saturday night, for the edification of Sky Sports Arena viewers. Possibly all seven of them. The feared one-sided contests in Monaghan and Wexford materialised, as predicted in these pages (hey, I get so little right, I WILL boast when it happens), with non-event wins for Monaghan and Dublin. Meanwhile Roscommon became 2022’s first provincial football finalists, at a canter, in their first game, at 14-man Sligo.

Limerick’s Munster quarter-final win in Clare, via Championship’s first-ever penalty shoot-out, was therapeutically dramatic (their hurling encounter will do well to match it). But the cakewalks continued on Sunday, Derry had a facile 11-point win at All-Ireland champions Tyrone. While there were two cakewalks in Leinster (which I also predicted, although they were VERY predictable). Meath started their stroll against Wicklow with a goal after NINE seconds. And Kildare spanked Lout…wait…WHAT? Go back… Tyrone? TYRONE??

Tyrone’s dismantling by an outstanding Derry side, Derry’s first championship win since 2015, was the starkest contrast to the inevitabilities elsewhere. Tyrone haven’t lost their All-Ireland title. They now enter the ‘qualifiers,’ the mini knock-out competition for provincial championship losers. This decides Ireland’s four provincial champions’ All-Ireland quarter-final opponents. But Mayo and Armagh are already in the qualifiers. So maybe Tyrone have simply not lost their All-Ireland title…yet.

Derry supremo Rory Gallagher is ‘renowned’ (polite term) for his defensive outlook. And Sunday’s early stages were a strong sedative, until Derry awoke. They were three-up after 26 minutes when Tyrone’s Brian Kennedy interpreted kicking out at his ubiquitous marker, Gareth McKinless, as wisdom. Kennedy missed, typical of Tyrone’s shooting on the day. But the intent warranted the red card, about which no-one complained.

Derry soon won a penalty when Paul Cassidy was floored by Tyrone keeper Niall Morgan AND defender Peter Harte. Shane McGuigan sent Morgan to the shops from the spot. Derry led by seven at half-time. RTE pundit and ex-Tyrone talisman, Sean Cavanagh, was nearly blubbing at half-time. And Tyrone just got worse.

To offset their personnel deficit, Morgan over-used his standard ‘rush-goalie’ role and looked likelier to concede than create. Nonetheless, Derry chose to patiently work scores rather than try to embarrass an out-of-position Morgan. Meanwhile, Tyrone’s efforts to fashion a late goal were lunatic. As was Conor McKenna throwing the ball at a prone Ethan Doherty. Unlike Kennedy, he hit the target. But that left Tyrone with 13 men. And, as Tyrone could have finished many matches with 13 men over recent years, that made Derry’s thumping win marvellous on every level.

Derry now play Monaghan in the Ulster semi-finals. Apart from some crazy seconds straddling half-time, Monaghan steamrollered Down. Down’s Caolan Mooney’s and Pat Havern goaled seconds before and after the restart, leaving Down a logic-defying two points behind. But Monaghan quickly quintupled that lead. And eleven players scored Monaghan’s 23 points, for a team long over-reliant on star forward Conor McManus.

Co-incidentally, 11 players scored Roscommon’s 23 points, including all five substitutes, in their 12=-point Connacht semi-final win. Sligo were hampered by David Phillips’ 12th-minute dismissal for an off-the-ball incident, which left him genuinely bemused and horrified. However, Roscommon’s eye-catching forwards may well have sealed a routine win anyway, at Markievicz Park, where they have often struggled as much as I do spelling Markievicz.

Westmeath’s eight-point win over neighbours Longford was the tightest Leinster quarter-final, despite blood substitute Ronan Toole’s cameo including a goal which put Westmeath 12 ahead on 49 minutes. The loosest quarter-final was Wexford’s…ulp…23-point evisceration by Dublin. Wexford faced the wind in the first half, which looked a sound decision after eight scoreless minutes. Then Dublin played themselves back into long-lost form. Con O’Callaghan’s 40th-minute goal made the score a shameful 1-12 to 0-1. And Dublin’s laboured eight-point win in Wexford last July seemed worlds away.

Kildare gave Louth a 16-point chasing. Both teams are in Division Two next year. But if you’d asked a stranger to Gaelic Football who was in Division One this year, they’d have…told you straightaway. Meanwhile, Jack O’Connor was Meath’s nine-second history-maker, netting while Wicklow’s defence were still metaphorically lined-up for the national anthem. And only a stoppage-time Wicklow goal cut Meath’s winning margin to ten.

Provincial championships are usually pre-drawn. But RTE’s Sunday Game highlights show bizarrely included Leinster’s semi-final draw, possibly to pad out the programme, on a relatively quiet weekend. Refreshingly, Leinster GAA chairman Pat Teehan took just 80 seconds to conduct it (if it was Fifa or Uefa, we’d still be there now). Teehan drew a repeat of 2021’s pairings, maintaining the prospect of the most/only competitive final, Dublin/Kildare. Handy, that. Good job it WAS on telly.

Tipperary safely won their Munster quarter-final in Waterford. And they now face Limerick, whose win in Clare was a thriller before the shoot-out. Full-back Brian Fanning capped a scoring spree, which put Limerick five ahead on 28 minutes, with a goal-of-the-season contender, powering 80 yards downfield before cutely nutmegging Clare keeper Tristan O’Callaghan. Fanning turned villain before half-time, though, nearly ripping Gavin Cooney’s shirt off its moorings to concede a penalty.

A wind-backed Clare eventually wiped out their three-point interval deficit. And Limerick were uber-grateful to skipper/keeper Donal O’Sullivan for a wonder save to deny Cooney, as Clare seemed set to pull clear late on. They pulled one clear. Then Limerick supersub Robbie Bourke pointed a free to force extra-time. And his goal at the end of extra-time’s first half nosed Limerick ahead again, only for Eoin Cleary’s free to level matters for the last time from almost the same spot as Bourke’s regulation-time leveller.

The need for penalties exposed another problem with Championship’s early start. Even in Clare, in London’s time-zone but 400 miles west, darkness looms in May by half-eight, when the shoot-out began. And Clare’s ground lacks floodlights. Only their sight seemed effected, though. They missed two of their three kicks, while Limerick buried four-out-of-four.

With stoppage-time elapsed in Leinster hurling’s Galway/Kilkenny thriller, referee Colm Lyons awarded a free to…well…on his decision rested the game’s entire fate. Galway’s Tom Monaghan and Kilkenny’s Paddy Deegan leapt for a ball near the halfway line, well within modern inter-county hurling’s scoring zone. Deegan won possession. Monaghan fell flat on his face. After considerable faffing around, the free was pointed. And Lyons blew the final whistle on a…Galway victory.

They deserved to win. By more than a point too. But Lyons’ call looked very wrong on TV. And even if he’d given no free, Kilkenny’s wind-assisted, unmarked Tom Phelan would have gathered the loose ball, within shooting distance. Instead, Galway’s impressive Conor Cooney ice-coolly split the posts.

Kilkenny manager Brian Cody was visibly unimpressed. Much was made of his tense post-match handshake with Galway boss Henry Shefflin, who won a record ten All-Irelands for his native Kilkenny under Cody’s tutelage. Cody greeted Shefflin with stony-faced silence. And Shefflin looked shocked and upset at this apparent ill-grace in defeat. But Cody may have been piqued more by Lyons’ decision than any humiliation at losing to a former ‘pupil.’

Eoin Cody (Shefflin’s nephew, BTW, and no relation to Brian) was Kilkenny’s early star. His sixth-minute goal, slapped in with only one hand on his hurley from a tight angle, helped Kilkenny lead by 2-7 to 0-12 after 22 insanely high-scoring minutes, even for modern hurling. Then Galway hit an almost papal-purple patch, firing 1-5 from all parts, although Johnny Coen’s goal came from a rare blooper by Kilkenny keeper Eoin Murphy. They could probably have brokered peace in Ukraine, the form they were in. Meanwhile, Kilkenny talisman, TJ Reid, missed one free he’d normally land with his kno…er…nose. He was subbed at half-time.

In time-honoured Cody fashion, Kilkenny got the game in a third-quarter armlock, restricting Galway to one point and remorselessly grinding their six-point half-time deficit to dust. Galway were re-invigorated by sub Conor Whelan, and went three-up again. They should have scored more, though. And Kilkenny made them pay in time-honoured fashion, John Donnelly firing through Galway keeper Eanna Murphy into the net as the announced stoppage-time elapsed…which is where we came in.

Galway/Kilkenny looks a near-certain Leinster Final on current form. While Wexford put six goals past Laois in a 27-point trimming, five came after Fiachra Fannell’s second yellow card for Laois, on 50 minutes. And they were only six ahead at half-time. Mind you, keeper Mark Fanning finally nailed a penalty. Two, in fact. And Dublin were only four-up in Westmeath on the hour, before landing the last four points. Dublin and Wexford are Kilkenny’s two remaining opponents (both games live on Sky). Neither can afford to lose either.

Everyone in Munster has now played two games, And, after Clare’s convincing win over Cork, they and Limerick top the table, while Cork and Tipp tail it. Two points was a travesty of a winning margin. Clare led from the third minute until the end. And they were 0-15 to 0-4 ahead on 29 minutes after a patch so purple they could have given Galway a hand in Ukraine peace talks “As good a point as you will ever see. Anywhere. Ever.” GAA GO match commentator Garry MacDonncha drooled over one point by Clare’s Tony Kelly, although it wasn’t the best Clare point of the half by much.

Alan Connolly’s goal and Robbie O’Flynn’s point in 51 second-half seconds left a preposterous four between the sides on 48 minutes. And Clare were down to 14 men after Ian Galvin joined a 49th-minute melee and was wrongly adjudged to have hit Sean O’Donoghue in the nether regions with his hurley. Nonetheless, players such as Kelly, Shane O’Donnell, Rory Hayes…Christ, all of them…were just too good for that to matter. Clare hit the next three points and did exactly as required to hold off Cork thereafter, until another quickfire Cork goal and a point in stoppage-time made the final score a lie.

This Saturday’s Sky Sports Arena six o’clock show could be another football bloodbath. The Cork/Kerry Munster semi-final will be in Cork’s smaller venue, Pairc Ui Rinn, as their main Pairc Ui Chaoimh pitch won’t have recovered from last week’s staging of two…Ed Sheeran gigs. Pairc Ui Rinn was initially deemed too small. But Cork said they wouldn’t turn up at suggested alternative, Kerry’s Fitzgerald Stadium, prompting jokes about not turning up there last year either, when Kerry won by 23 points. Kerry recently topped Division One. Cork avoided Division Three by a point. Saturday may be grim.

Likewise Sunday’s Galway/Leitrim Connacht semi-final. While the RTE-televised Donegal/Cavan Ulster semi will more likely mirror Donegal’s easy win in 2019’s final than Cavan’s shock win in 2020’s. RTE are also showing Limerick hurlers’ hosting of Tipperary. It’s top-versus-bottom. Yet Tipp’s desperation to stay in the championship might knock some form into them. For spectacle’s sake, let’s hope so.