My head is still fizzing and crackling after yesterday’s extraordinary events at Croke Park. While always a truly great event – All-Ireland final day has got to be up there with any other sporting occasion in the world in terms of atmosphere, colour and sheer, unadulterated excitement – the stuff on the pitch can often be a disappointment as we well know. Yesterday, however, those of us lucky enough to be there were privileged to witness two top-class contests, both of which were as competitive as they could possibly have been and both of which could easily have produced a different result.
I’ve already had my say about the minor match and there’s little to add now in the cold light of day except, perhaps, to note that yesterday we got to see a Mayo team performing to their potential on All-Ireland day for the first time since the seniors locked horns with Meath back in 1996 and what a joy it was to behold. Although vastly outnumbered in terms of support, I think those of us in the stands kept our part of the bargain too – I expect that my voice will return around Wednesday or so – and this time it’s only fair to salute the County Board (seeing as I gave them such a hard time about the location for the semi-final replay) for getting the replay fixed for Longford. This is a perfect location for Mayo supporters either heading from the West or from up here and it’s okay for the other lot too. I think we can expect a nice, cosy atmosphere at Pearse Park next Saturday.
What can one say about the senior match? It was certainly the best All-Ireland in years, far better than the 2005 version and such a refreshing change from the walkover victories that Kerry enjoyed in the last two years. And Kerry lost too – yahoo! And it meant no three-in-a-row – another yahoo! And they’re now as mad as hell and will be back next year like a bunch of Antichrists … oh well, let’s park that one for the moment and get back to yesterday’s action.
You could tell by the pre-match parade that this was going to be the real deal, with the Kingdom ready to enjoy their first three-in-a-row in over twenty years but, in order to do so, having to face down their own nemesis, whose players and supporters looked supremely confident and ready for the fray. And what a battle it was – an utterly compelling and intense seventy minutes of action, with loads of drama and plenty of twists and turns. It wasn’t all high class stuff either, far from it, in fact, as Tyrone in particular were guilty of several unforced errors and misplaced passes and it looked as if this carelessness – committed against Kerry in an All-Ireland final for fuck’s sake – would cost them dearly.
But, set against these failings, was an incredible desire to win and they did this by nullifying Kerry’s vaunted Twin Towers – who, between them, contributed only a single point to the Kingdom’s total all day and little else in terms of assists – and working like demons all over the pitch. Dooher – Tyrone’s Duracell Bunny – started badly but once he got going, he ran and ran and ran … he’s probably still running now for all we know. Philip Jordan at half-back was immense, all of the beardy lads (it was difficult to tell them apart from my seat up in the gods) were everywhere, all the time and Sean Cavanagh was utterly magnificent.
I remember turning to a fellow neutral beside me ten minutes from time as I looked down on Tyrone’s two-man inside line of O’Neill and Mugsy and opining “how the fuck do they expect to win this with those lads in the full-forward line?” but win it they did and I’m not sure I know yet how this happened. I think it was a combination of Kerry’s midfield falling to pieces as Cavanagh really started to motor there and the rickety Kerry backline finally caving in.
I think Pat O’Shea will carry the can down South as well, as his team selection and his use of substitutes were open to question. What on earth does Darren O’Sullivan have to do to get a starting position and why was the ineffective Brosnan started ahead of him? Galvin raised the Kerry crowd briefly when he came on but O’Shea left it too long to bring him on and it’s open to opinion as to whether or not he should have been brought on at all as all he did was commit a succession of fouls and ended up getting booked. At least he didn’t slap the book out of the ref’s hands this time.
Mind you, Tyrone’s subs weren’t much better but Mickey Harte’s men kept plugging away and eventually their intensity and will to win broke Kerry’s resolve. It’s amazing that the team we narrowly lost to back in early August – and we all know we blew that one – could develop into such an elemental, unstoppable force by the third Sunday in September. There’s a lesson there for us.
Tyrone’s win does, of course, also add a little bit of lustre to our disappointing senior championship campaign as it means that for the third time in five years, we’ve ended up being beaten by the eventual champions. But we shouldn’t use this to mask our own shortcomings or to think that had we beaten Tyrone that day in August, we’d’ve done what they did to Kerry. In truth, it’s difficult to see us having got as far as the final.
But Tyrone did and yesterday they did Gaelic football a service by showing that Kerry are far from invincible and, in doing so, by making a late claim on the title of team of the decade. And, unlike many of the Kerry crowd who bolt for the exits well before Sam is presented to them, it looked as if every single Tyrone supporter was on the pitch to see Brian Dooher accept Sam for the third time this decade. It was a marvellous spectacle to witness and a fitting end to a truly exceptional All-Ireland final day.