The rain never showed up at Croke Park today and, to a large extent, neither did Tyrone who, in the end, gave up their quest for a shot at back-to-back All-Irelands in a tame enough manner. The five-point margin of defeat flattered them a little, I thought, and, but for John Bannon’s latest (and, one hopes, last) shocking performance with the whistle, that margin would have been at least doubled.
I’m delighted Cork won today. That’s partly because, ever since the quarters, I’ve been touting such an outcome and I had them down to win by three today in my mini-league prediction. I could never understand all this hoopla about how invincible Tyrone supposedly were, given that they’d never come within an ass’s roar of retaining Sam before and in light of their extremely laboured win over a willing but callow Kildare in the quarters three weeks ago.
It was that same day that Cork ripped Donegal to pieces and they tore into Tyrone with the same abandon today. Losing Sean Cavanagh ahead of throw-in was a hammer blow for the champions (even if their captain had been less than influential against Kildare) but anyone who was in these parts today will confirm that the weather wasn’t any help to the Red Hand either. The rain that fell in torrents elsewhere around the country stayed away from here but the day was warm on the Northside and the air was so heavy it felt almost viscous. Not the kind of conditions, in other words, in which to play the kind of furiously swarming high pressure game that Tyrone have developed into such a fine art.
In today’s conditions, half an hour of that crack and they were guaranteed to be bollixed. But worse still for Tyrone was the fact that Cork – a younger and, by the looks of it, a fitter unit – came at them like an express train and, inside ten minutes, the All-Ireland champions were already back-pedalling all over the shop. When Daniel Goulding lashed in the game’s only goal after just seven minutes, Cork had already opened plenty of clear water between the sides and as the half wore on, that gap was starting to become a chasm.
But then John Bannon decided it was time to take centre stage. His sending-off of Alan O’Connor has to rank as one of the most stupid refereeing decisions in Gaelic football in recent times (and, boy, there’s a fair old list to choose from there). The first yellow card was debatable – there was contact between O’Connor and McGinley but, in true Tyrone tradition, McGinley went to ground far, far too easily and the yellow card looked harsh. The second was just plain idiotic: the Corkman simply collided with Mulligan (another Red Hand man who knows how to dive with effect) and how Bannon could have interpreted this as a foul, let alone one that should merit a yellow card and, by extension, a red, is simply beyond comprehension.
It was an utter travesty of a decision but that’s what you get when you put incompetent clowns in charge of high-profile matches such as this. After the Connacht final, I said that John Bannon should never again be allowed to ref any match of importance in the future but such is the seriousness with which refereeing matters are handled by the GAA that this dog’s breakfast of a performance was rewarded by Bannon being given today’s gig. At least he’s retiring at the end of the season and so, unless those bone-headed fools who decide who gets to ref these games give him the whistle for the final, that’s the last we’ll see of him.
You have to hand it to Conor Counihan and his colleagues on the line, though: they sussed Bannon to a tee and they knew that he’d let them away with everything short of decapitation in the second half. Which, of course, is exactly what he did, giving every debatable decision Cork’s way and letting all manner of belting and pucking by Cork go over the course of he second thirty-five minutes. Canty, Murphy and the rest of them kept piling in, even after they’d been yellow-carded because they knew Bannon wouldn’t dare send off another one of them. Even when one of his umpires told him that John Miskella had decked Brian McGuigan (a straight red offence), the ref chickened out and issued a truly laughable yellow.
What Bannon did succeed in doing, though, was to alter the contest, from one where Cork held all the aces and looked set to put Tyrone decisively to the sword to one where the Munster champions had to defend a five-point lead against the last team in the world that you’d want to face when playing with a man down. It could have become (unjustly, had this happened) a compelling contest but Cork somehow managed to up their workrate, frustrate Tyrone by fouling well out the field and by using their bench to good effect.
Tyrone looked a very tired team in the end and when Brian Dooher was withdrawn midway through the second half, it was in many ways a metaphor for the way that Tyrone were running out of gas all over the field. Well, if the Duracell Bunny goes flat on you, you’re pretty much buggered, aren’t you? It could well, I reckon, be the last time that Dooher graces the Croke Park pitch in a Tyrone jersey.
Spillane was out of the traps rapidly after the final whistle to dance on Tie-rone’s grave and, insufferable prick that he can often be, he did so with no little glee (which is just one more reason to hope that Meath do one on them next Sunday or, failing that, that Cork finally succeed in getting the Green and Gold monkey off their back next month). While I’m not weeping after Tyrone – what with their overly cynical approach, their blatant diving, their rugby league tackling and that maniacal loon Ryan McMenamin – if their demise makes Kerry’s job of lifting Sam easier (which, you’d have to say it does), I’m not exactly in celebratory mode either.
The other action that was of interest today – potentially of far more interest to us as well – was the minor semi-final between Armagh and Kerry. The Ulster champions ended up winning by a comfortable two-goal margin but trailing by three at half-time, mainly due to the excellent free-taking of Kerry’s Eanna O’Connor (son of Jack), they looked anything but comfortable at that stage. They’d fluffed two good goal chances in that opening thirty minutes but when they were presented with a third opportunity straight after the restart, they made no mistake with Gavin McPartland slotting the ball into the net. The Orchard County lads pushed on well from there and victory was sealed with a second McPartland goal late on.
We still have Down to deal with next Sunday before we can even start talking about how we’d fare in a potential minor final with Armagh so I’m not going to start doing so now. What I will say, though, is that Armagh don’t look anything as strong as Tyrone did at this time last year and so there’s every chance that the winner of next Sunday’s other semi-final could be the team that’ll go all the way in September.