Having missed the action over the last few weeks while we were away it was good to get immersed in what was going on in the championship over the weekend. I was in Croke Park with the kids yesterday to see what ultimately turned out to be an entertaining and close enough Leinster final but there was action all over the place at the weekend and the biggest stories of the championship over the last few days didn’t emanate from HQ.
The Kerry-Tyrone clash at Killarney was probably the match of the weekend – even if the hottest prospects to lift Sam this year were arguably lining out at the other end of the country yesterday – and the Kingdom’s emphatic victory in that one has definitely re-ignited their championship campaign.
It was a nasty, ill-tempered clash, one that ref David Coldrick struggled to control – providing further proof when doing so that infractions which can lead to straight red cards in the league often don’t warrant even a booking in high summer – but Kerry clearly deserved their win over what ultimately looked like a very poor Tyrone side.
The Kerry lads celebrated the laying of a particularly painful bogey in a ludicrously over-the-top manner – I thought at the time that it looked for all the world like their All-Ireland – and poor old Paul Galvin barely made it through the post-match interview on TV3 without blubbering uncontrollably in front of the nation. When they calm down, though, they’ll surely realise that there are stiffer challenges – after their routine whipping of poor old Clare next weekend – up ahead if they’re to get close to a 38th All-Ireland title. That said, they’ll be a very tough nut for any of the provincial champions to crack at the quarter-final stage, ourselves included.
The other qualifier matches on Saturday went pretty much to form, even if the Fourth Best Team in the Country did have to endure yet another near-death experience. Limerick had them by the throat for much of the contest and, as the lads on The Sunday Game pointed out last night, a bit more cuteness right at the end – when Kildare were allowed to saunter from one end of the field to the other before Bolton rattled over the equaliser – would have seen the Shannonsiders home.
Instead, the Lillies march on to Round 4 where they face what could well be their Waterloo in the shape of Sligo. If Kevin Walsh has managed to get the Yeatmen’s heads sorted out following their narrow Connacht final defeat to our lads, then they have to have a great chance of taking down Kieran McGeeney’s muscular but ultimately quite limited Kildare.
It’d be great to see two Connacht teams in the last eight – the most recent time that happened was, I think, as far back as 2005 when ourselves and Galway both bowed out at the quarter-final stage – and with Leitrim’s heroic run coming to an end on Saturday night as well, it’s only the two of us left from the province now. Leitrim gave Laois a right good rattle up in Carrick but eventually got overhauled as the winning post came into view. They’ll take some heart from their backdoor run, however, which showed that there’s more to them than the lashing they suffered from us would perhaps suggest.
I didn’t see all of yesterday’s Ulster final but I saw enough of it to conclude that Donegal are now the form team in the country and are quite possibly the team to beat in this year’s championship. Yesterday’s emphatic win over Down sees them retain the Anglo-Celt Cup for the first ever time and their march to the Ulster title this year has seen them post a series of impressive tallies on the scoreboard. It was only in the semi-final slugfest against Tyrone that they managed a more modest return but in their other three matches they blitzed the opposition scoring a combined total of 5-47.
That’s some going for what last year was the most ultra-negative county team most of us had ever seen but it’s clear that Jimmy McGuinness has now added a potent attacking ability to their defensive armoury. The combination means that Donegal are now an incredibly difficult outfit to break down and you have to wonder who’ll be up to the task.
While the Kerry lads were euphoric at finally downing Tyrone’s colours on Saturday night, they surely won’t fancy jousting with the team that now appears to have taken up the Red Hand’s mantle. Such a contest would only, I reckon, go the one way and so the summer’s most shuddering contest looks like it could be one that’s likely to occur between Donegal and Cork at the semi-final stage. Whoever emerges from that one will be very short odds to lift Sam dish ear.
And so to yesterday’s Leinster final at Croke Park, the first Leinster decider between Dublin and Meath since back in 2001. It should, after those two injury time goals in the first half, have been been a canter for the All-Ireland champions but they dozed off at the point in the second half where they should have been sinking the knife in. Credit to Meath for making a contest of it but they never really looked capable of pulling it out of the fire.
With Laois up next for them this coming weekend, Meath are more than capable of turning things around – the six-day turnaround notwithstanding – and booking their place in the last eight. They could prove sticky enough customers at that stage too, as 2009 taught us to our cost.
Dublin, meanwhile, don’t look at all settled at the minute and the question about whether or not they really have the required appetite to defend their All-Ireland title remains an open one. Kerry would be the nightmare draw for them in the quarters, just as it would be the dream one for Jack O’Connor, but, if they avoid the Green and Gold and instead get the luxury of using the quarters to tune the engine a bit better, the champions will surely have a big shout in the destination of this year’s title. Sure, we might even run into them ourselves at the penultimate stage if all goes to plan.
The biggest talking point from Croke Park yesterday was, of course, Eoghan O’Gara’s disputed second half point, which was initially called as a wide before the decision was overturned by ref Marty Duffy following consultation with linesman Maurice Deegan. When contacted by The Sunday Game last night, the GAA apparently tried to claim that video evidence had nothing to do with the decision to allow the score but that’s obviously bullshit.
O’Gara’s shot was close to the right-hand upright but, in fairness to the umpire, he was perfectly placed behind the goal and must have seen that it was a point. Faced with a furious barracking from the Meath backs, however, he hesitated and then appeared to be instructed by Marty Duffy (who I thought handled the match well overall) to call it wide, which he duly did.
All hell broke loose then, however, as the incident was repeated in slo-mo on the big screen, the replay proving conclusively that it was a point. Pat Gilroy was going ape to Maurice Deegan on the sideline and HQ was filled with a cacophony of booing Dubs, which, in truth, sounded just like the din you hear when the opposition are about to take a free against them at Croke Park.
Joe Duffy must have thought that all his Christmases had come together but his raw material for a month’s Liveline disappeared in an instant when Maurice suddenly remembered that he had seen the ball go over the bar and Marty – despite the fact that he had apparently seen it go wide – instructed the umpire to raise the flag. Who needs Hawk-Eye, eh?