The GAA Championship, Week 14: The Final Five

by | Aug 9, 2018

And then there were five. Dublin, Monaghan, Tyrone in the football. Limerick in the hurling. Galway in both. Just.

Last weekend nearly ended both Galway’s hopes, though. They again proved that a nine-point lead is “nothing in hurling” before surviving by a point at the end of an error-strewn but dramatic semi-final replay against Clare. And while they qualified for the football semi-finals a fortnight ago, their crushing defeat to Monaghan last Saturday means they face Dublin at (neutral) Croke Park next Saturday.

Galway’s hurlers will face Limerick in August 19th’s hurling final, a repeat of the 1980 final, when Galway won their first All-Ireland hurling title since 1924. This time, Limerick have the multi-decade title drought to end, having last been champions in 1973.

Meanwhile, football’s superb-eight’s quarter-final format provided neither gripping drama nor ‘dead rubbers.’ (bar one painful personal watch).

Tyrone’s storming late recovery overcame Donegal’s Pairc Sean MacCumhail in Ballybofey (for the first time since Limerick were last All-Ireland hurling champions), a game they only needed draw to reach the semi-finals. Dublin had the group won, even if they lost to Roscommon. And not even 2018 could facilitate that, their reserves running the same lanes through Roscommon as Tyrone’s first-team did three weeks ago (though Roscommon scored four more points this time, he says, simultaneously ‘taking the positives’ and ‘clutching at straws’).

Tyrone will face Monaghan next Sunday, having started their summer with an Ulster Championship defeat at home to…Monaghan. If Kerry had beaten Kildare on Saturday and Monaghan had lost in Galway, the fourth semi-final spot would have been a matter of goal difference, or a schedule-busting play-off. Kerry won. Easily enough, eventually, to book a semi-final spot if Monaghan lost. However, Monaghan never looked like not winning. Easily.

Oh…and Sky v RTE in the TV coverage battle? Sky lost. Easily.

Galway took five minutes longer to rack up a nine-point lead in their replayed hurling semi against Clare. But their dominance was as all-encompassing as it was eight days earlier, with Clare’s first-half display just as error-strewn. Gargantuan Galway full-forward Jason Glynn’s first touches took 21 minutes to arrive. But they were sublime, decisive and a shock to observers who struggle to believe that ‘big’ players in sport can be quick or skillful.

Glynn’s goal gave Galway that nine-point lead. And after the traumas of the previous week, they weren’t losing THAT again. TV viewers could switch over before the end of the hurling to catch the start of the football. And not even 2018 could…wait…what? Oh…

Glynn’s goal was Galway’s last first-half score. Clare only reduced the interval deficit to six, with wildly off-beam shooting. But they drank some ‘spirit of 2018’ at half-time. Shane O’Donnell’s sensational goal was Ricky Villa with a hurley. Tony Duggan burst through two tackles and pinged one in the top corner from 20 yards.’ And, within 18 minutes of the restart, RTE commentator Ger Canning found himself saying: “there’s only a point in it and Galway are hanging on.”

But the ‘spirit of 2018’ bottle wasn’t empty. On 67 minutes, with Galway still a point up, O’Donnell fed Clare’s drawn-game goalscorer, Aron Shanagher. His shot hit on-rushing keeper James Skehill, the rebound…hit the post of the gaping goal, and seventy seconds later, Galway’s Joe Canning superbly pointed another line-ball. Ex-co-commentator and ex-Tipperary keeper Brendan Cummins just happened to mention that the same thing happened to Tipp AGAINST Clare, in June. Let it go, Bren, let it go… But the bottle of 2018 spirit STILL wasn’t empty.

Four times, Clare reduced two-point deficits to one. And Duggan had a good chance to equalise from a 73rd-minute free, which became a great chance when it was moved nearer goal to punish misplaced Galway dissent. But he drove it against an unsuspecting Galway body and Clare’s chance seemed, finally, gone. Tony Kelly launched the last puck of the game towards goal, from miles out. But, like 18 of its predecessors, it drifted wide.

Clare should have won. But Canning whined about Galway not getting “a lot of respect” for their “character” in the drawn game, “with people saying we didn’t perform.” Those ‘people’ weren’t entirely wrong, though. And unless they DO perform on All-Ireland final day, Limerick will be getting that ‘lot of respect.’

OK, let’s get this out of the way. Dublin’s second-string footballers hammered Roscommon by 14 points, with Roscommon’s wretched defence barely laying a hand, proverbial or actual, on them. Dublin boss Jim Gavin only had ‘something to think about’ or ‘a selection headache’ (‘nice problem to have’ division) ahead of the semi-final in the arena of journalistic cliché. Roscommon are a team of which to be proud. But only unforced errors stop the best teams scoring against them in every attack. Which has been horrible to watch.

Anyway…the ‘real’ football. Donegal/Tyrone was a ‘bruising’ encounter (cough). Tyrone games always are, with only their most blatant ‘bruising’ attracting due punishment. For instance, Michael McKiernan’s third-minute body-check on Ryan McHugh was so blatant you’d have seen it on radio.

It was a trademark Gaelic Football ‘black card’ offence, for which players are immediately substituted. And Tyrone would usually run out of subs if the card was brandished properly. Yet they are a demonstrably great team, even if they’ve only shown it eventually this season, and only showed it eventually in Ballybofey.

A “perfect day for lovely, open football,” said RTE presenter Joanne Cantwell, mischievously. And when the studio panel stopped laughing, they agreed that proceedings would be ‘attritional.’ The latest ‘Conor Sketches’ skit by brilliant impressionist Conor Moore had RTE controversialist Joe Brolly begging to join the hurling panel. And with the score at five-all after half-an-hour’s bumper-car football, which was, let’s say, ‘quirkily” refereed by Joe McQuillan, Moore’s sketch seemed ‘based on a true story.’

Donegal benefited most from McQuillan dishing out soft frees and bookings while missing some blatant technical errors. They made a break for it just before the break, when talisman’s talisman, Michael Murphy, thumped the ball to the net after keeper Niall Morgan’s short kick-out was intercepted by McHugh, Donegal’s best player. And they kept going four ahead until the final quarter, when Tyrone’s physicality at last became the most significant part of the game within the rules.

Intermittently mercurial forward Leigh Brennan (“a wizard” – Brolly) was brought on early enough in the second half to leave you wondering why Tyrone’s misery-guts manager Mickey Harte didn’t bring him on immediately. And after Brennan scored points with each of his first two significant contributions to the play, leaving you wondering why he didn’t start the game, Tyrone attacked with a previously non-existent flair.

Donegal missed chances to go five ahead and Tyrone eventually cut the four-point lead to one. Then, on xx minutes, Brennan’s brilliant fist-pass/mishit effort for a point found fellow sub Harry Loughran, who bundled home Tyrone’s first goal. They then picked Donegal off as the hosts chased the game, scoring their second goal ELEVEN minutes into second-half stoppage-time (‘bruising’ encounter, remember?) to win by seven.

Tyrone personify/represent much of the worst of modern Gaelic Football…but much of the best too. And, after hobbling through the qualifiers, they deserve to be in the semi-finals.

So too their semi-final opponents Monaghan, who dismantled Galway’s defence with borderline-embarrassing ease in Pearse Stadium in suburban-Galway, Atlantic-coastal Salthill. Galway were backed by a strong first-half wind. And I know from raw personal experience how strong a wind that is. Yet they allowed Monaghan to dictate the play, which they did from second-minute-to-finish.

Galway became the first team to know they could lose a ‘quarter-final’ yet reach the semis anyway. But the prospect of avoiding Dublin in the semis should have eliminated any complacency. Maybe it did, and Galway were just sh*te, as meek with the wind behind them in the first half as they were in the Connacht final against Roscommon. They turned that around. But Monaghan were a different kettle of worms.

Monaghan have Ireland’s fifth-smallest county population and it seemed as if half of them invaded the Pearse Stadium pitch to celebrate their first All-Ireland semi-final since 1988, having lost four quarter-finals in the last five years. Not one neutral with their head on right will want them to lose to Tyrone.

Monaghan’s success rendered Kerry’s win over Kildare irrelevant. Sky commentator Dave McIntyre kept wondering aloud in the second half, as Kerry motored clear, whether they knew what was happening in Salthill. With fans streaming out of Killarney’s Fitzgerald Stadium long before the end, you suspect they didn’t need telling.

For 34 minutes, events in Salthill seemed irrelevant regardless, as Kildare outplayed the nerve-wracked hosts. They went three points clear on 31 minutes when Neill Flynn found the Kerry net with frightening ease. And they quickly stretched that lead to six. But the game changed just four minutes after Flynn’s goal when he became the second Kildare Flynn in a fortnight to see red at a crucial juncture. Kerry were also gifted a goal just after half-time and, inspired by teen sensation David Clifford and Kildare’s increasing disinterest, won by 12 points.

But if Kerry are ‘coming for Dublin,’ as Brolly proclaimed after they eviscerated Cork in the Munster Final, they’ll have to wait a while…and do so without manager Eamon Fitzmaurice, who resigned in the wake of the win. Fitzmaurice’s Kerry teams reached the semi-finals every year, won one All-Ireland and were losing finalists once. In Kerry, that’s vitriol-inducing failure. And it induced rather too much vitriol as Kerry struggled in the superb-eights. History should be kinder to him than that.

The superb-eights were not superb…and not only because Roscommon came twelfth. Th much-vaunted home advantage, for instance, produced only one home win. Sky TV will have been happy, though. And I suspect that’s what will matter most to the GAA, despite the weekend exposing just how second-rate and second-best Sky’s coverage is.

This was particularly, though not exclusively evident, in the presenters’ chairs. It is unfair to compare RTE’s ultra-experienced Michael Lyster with Sky’s less-experienced Rachel Wyse. But on Sunday, the even-less-experienced Cantwell, who replaces the retiring Lyster next season, showed embarrassingly greater class and competence than Wyse.

In four seasons, Wyse has offered little evidence of great interest in, or knowledge of, Gaelic Games. Her midweek highlights show clipboard has comparable charisma and serves as little practical purpose as Wyse herself presenting the live shows. All the pertinent questions there are asked by co-presenter Brian Carney. Cantwell shows huge interest and knowledge…and her knack of winding Brolly up would endear her to a nation anyway.

If football’s semi-finals even remotely approach the hurling semi-finals’…’everything, then much of the football championship to date will be forgiven. But if they do, I’ll have to buy a hat because I’ll have to eat one.