So it’s Cork and Meath that have emerged from the Connacht/Ulster half of the All-Ireland series, with both qualifiers dumping out provincial champions to reach the penultimate stage. In doing so, they get to reactivate a significant rivalry of Gaelic football’s recent past, one that gave us two All-Ireland finals in the Eighties and another two at either end of the Nineties. This time the battle will be for a place in the final rather than for Sam itself, but, make no mistake, whoever emerges victorious from this scrap will be strong contenders in the final.
Poor old Sligo never showed up yesterday, which was a pity because their support certainly did. This being the holiday weekend and all that, I was on my way into town on de One-Tew-Tree with the wife and chisellers in the early afternoon and a good 80% of the colour around Croker was of the black and white variety. Sadly, once they got inside the ground, they had little to cheer about.
Sligo needed a good start if they were to have any chance but they left at home their Connacht championship form which had seen off Roscommon and Galway in style and, once John Miskella goaled for the Rebels, the game was up. A rally of sorts seemed to be on the point of bubbling up in the second half but Sligo really needed a goal at that stage to get back into it and that was never going to happen. In the end, Cork won with ease without playing at all well and Sligo’s championship campaign fizzled out far more tamely than their cracking Connacht form suggested it would.
Tame is not a word you could use to describe the day’s second quarter-final, between Ulster champions Tyrone and Colm Coyle’s born-again Meath. I was licking my chops in anticipation of this one from the moment the draw was made last Sunday and I wasn’t disappointed with the action. It was a cracking match and I was delighted that Meath – as I said they would – made nonsense of the ridiculous odds they were being quoted at to win this one (5/2, to be precise). This was always a match likely to produce an upset, with Tyrone lacking a few key players and Meath clearly a side on the up.
In the end, the surprise was that Meath didn’t win by more as Tyrone found themselves completely outplayed at Croker for the first time since we ambushed them at the same stage back in 2004. (They were down a few of their main men that day too). The goals from Canavan and Mulligan kept them in the game but their inability to keep a steady supply of points up meant that, faced with Meath’s free-scoring forward line, they were always going to struggle to make a match of it.
While it was the young guns such as Bray, Farrell, O’Rourke and Byrne that caught the eye in the first half, it was the two ould fellas, Geraghty and Fay, who shone in the second. Fay was almost able to repel on his own Tyrone’s offensive efforts in the second half and Geraghty struck the game’s decisive score when, put through with only John Devine to beat, he nonchalantly lifted the ball over the keeper’s head and watched it sail gently into the net. That ended, at a stroke, Tyrone’s comeback and put Meath back on the road towards what could be their first All-Ireland final since 2001.
I suppose they’ll now be favourites to beat Cork, given that their respective form appears to be heading in opposite directions. I’ve been disappointed with Cork since the Munster final and, if they play with the same leaden style as they’ve now done in their last two outings, Meath could well paste them. I read before yesterday’s match that, in this new post-2000 All-Ireland structure, Cork have yet to lose a quarter-final and that record still holds today but it’s also the case that they have yet to win a semi-final in this brave new world. (Okay, all three losses were to Kerry). More relevant, perhaps, is the fact that that old rivalry with Meath isn’t one that has always gone their way: over the course of those four finals they contested in the Eighties and Nineties (1987, 1988, 1990 and 1999), the Royals came out on top on three occasions. They could well do so on Sunday week as well.
One of the biggest cheers raised yesterday for Meath’s victory will surely have come from Cork’s near neighbours. Those cute Kerry hoors will now, with their Northern nemesis slain, be confidently anticipating their first back-to-back All-Irelands in over twenty years. They might well be right to do so but they still have a few hurdles to get over first and if it is Meath that lines up against them next month, they’ll certainly face a much tougher seventy minutes than we gave them last September.