Joe Brolly

JOE BROLLY: Ulster fun

WHAT has happened to Cavan? Their vibrant Ulster Championship, all courage and togetherness, men chasing after lost causes and diving into danger like lunatics, has disappeared from memory quicker than Donald Trump.

If they keep going the way they are at the moment, this time next year they will be in Division Five with Kilkenny, the Aran islands, Siberian Gaels, Warwickshire over 40s and the PSNI.

When I’m on this theme, what has happened to Tyrone? It is 35 years since Tyrone seniors conceded five goals in a game and by half time in Killarney at the weekend, Kerry already had five. In fairness to Tyrone, Kerry are not Wicklow.


Having abandoned their disastrous experiment with zonal defending, Kerry have adopted Dublin’s track defence and with their forwards a) in position and b) no longer isolated, the results have been predictably outstanding.

Four games. 13 goals and 69 points. That is an average of 27 points per game. Of that, Clifford, who was left twiddling his thumbs against Cork last year as Kerry played a 12-man zonal defence, has scored 6-20, an average of almost 10 points per game. Which is 56 percent of Tyrone’s entire scores in the National League. Tyrone got a total of 68 points. Clifford has 38. Scary.

The terminator had scored 5-16 in Kerry’s three league games prior to Tyrone and he was up and running in Killarney after four minutes, winning, then despatching a penalty to the net in the manner of Cantona. Shortly afterwards the brother Paudie botched a goal chance, proving that genes only take you so far.

Then, the slaughter began in earnest. Morgan’s long kick-out was intercepted and transferred quickly to Gavin White who, from 45 metres on the left, lobbed the Tyrone goalie. Morgan did not do much wrong. It was a simply awe-inspiring finish in the manner of Beckham from the halfway line. 2-1 to 0-3.

From the kick out, Kerry intercepted again. This time, it went from David Clifford to Sean O’Shea back to Clifford, who sold the Tyrone ’keeper and full-back with one of his bewildering dummy bounces, then to Dara Moynihan to tap to the empty net. 3-1 to 0-3.

Then, it was Geaney (4-4 to 0-5). Then Geaney again (5-6 to 0-6) from a 20-metre David Clifford hand-pass that flummoxed the Tyrone defenders, reminiscent of Maradona in the 86 World Cup final luring in the entire German midfield before releasing Valdano to score the killer goals.

Tyrone men were running, then changing direction, diving to block a shot that never came, back-pedalling, bumping into each other and grasping for thin air, as though they were playing invisible opponents.

The pace of the annihilation slowed a little in the second half when Kerry ran the bench and Tyrone dropped off into a deeper defensive position. The most interesting incident of the second half was when Clifford – clean through on goal – kicked the ball straight at Morgan, then stood there open-mouthed, surprised, looking down at his legs and feet as if to make sure everything was still there. Clifford’s expression reminded me of Heaney’s line about the God Thor: “surprised in his empty arms, like some fabulous high catcher coming down without the ball.”

Soon after, he nudged Tyrone’s All-Star full-back Ronan McNamee out of his way as though he were a small child, then swept the ball over the bar with his right foot. The malfunction was clearly temporary. A glitch that will probably never be explained.

Kerry were awesome. So much chemistry. So much skill and variation and finishing power. A forward line of two-footed players. Perfect dead-ball taking. Constant clever movement on and off the ball. Dummying, changing direction, kick-passing with both feet, hand-passing with both hands.

Tyrone meanwhile are a mess. They haven’t had much time to switch to the more attack-based system that management favours. Conor McKenna suddenly looks lost. Their greatest prospect Darragh Canavan is injured. Paul Donaghy is still adjusting to the lightning pace and hard power of top-line intercounty football. He was blocked down twice in Killarney, something that wouldn’t have happened playing against Killyclogher or Moortown. They need time. And in 2021 there isn’t any.

The reality is that the field for Sam is down to two. Donegal, our other best hope, were easily beaten by Dublin, reduced to giving the ball to Paddy McBrearty and hoping for the best. The scoreboard wasn’t bad at the final whistle but 1-2 of that were consolation scores when the cause was long since hopeless.

Declan Bonner was asked afterwards if he genuinely believed they could beat Dublin come the championship. He said, “Absolutely. I have no doubt about that,” with an impressive straight face. I would be interested to see that interview conducted with Declan hooked up to a lie detector machine.

The heavyweight champion George Foreman said boxing is like jazz. The better it is, the less people appreciate it. Like watching Floyd Mayweather diagnose and defeat 50 straight opponents. Or listening to Coltrane. Or watching the Dubs. “They are boring.” “They defend too well.” “They attack too well.” ‘Their games are no fun.” “They always win.” “Their players are too good.” “Their subs are too good.” “They don’t foul.”

I actually forgot Michael Murphy wasn’t playing, probably because it wouldn’t have mattered. With Dublin, like Mayweather, the opposition is irrelevant. They do not play any meaningful part in the proceedings. They are only there to make up the numbers.

Unlike Tyrone, Donegal took no chances. From the throw-in, they dropped back into their own half to defend and for the entire game they were content to play keep-the-scores-down football, with Paddy McBrearty happily blasting away on the left foot.

Which merely delayed the inevitable, for 30 minutes, to be precise. At which point another brilliant Dublin move sent John Small through. He performed the Con O’Callaghan bounce dummy perfectly, wrong-footing the defender and ’keeper and slipped the ball to the net. 1-8 to 0-6. Game over.

Dublin’s perfectionism was exemplified in the 32nd minute, when Mick Fitzsimmons miscued a long kick-pass and bellowed at himself in anger. In this Dublin group, eight All-Ireland medals does not permit complacency.

At the start of the second half, Dublin intercepted three Donegal kick-outs in-a-row and returned them for three points, to open a seven-point lead. Their movement of themselves and the ball through the 14-man Donegal defence at times looked like manoeuvres worked out by the All-Blacks in training camp.

In the 53rd minute, a breath-taking series of passes released Scully and had he not been pulled down it would have been a certain goal. Afterwards, the general feeling was that Dublin were at their boring best. Football this good is difficult to appreciate.

Meanwhile, Monaghan, with ‘Banty’ sitting in the stands looking like El Chapo, played with their trademark heart and togetherness to beat Galway in one of the most thrilling games we have seen in a long time. Ray McCarron’s young buck looking the picture of his famous dad as he swung over the magnificent winner. With plenty of good forwards and hard licks, Monaghan will be in the hunt for Ulster.

That said, Aaron Kernan told me a few weeks ago he fancies Derry. To the best of my knowledge he was sober at the time.

Receive quality journalism wherever you are, on any device. Keep up to date from the comfort of your own home with a digital subscription.
Any time | Any place | Anywhere


Gaelic Life is published by North West of Ireland Printing & Publishing Company Limited, trading as North-West News Group.
Registered in Northern Ireland, No. R0000576. 10-14 John Street, Omagh, Co. Tyrone, N. Ireland, BT781DW