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Joe Brolly

JOE BROLLY – Championship conviction

AT half time on the BBC on Sunday, Mickey Harte was asked about Rory Brennan’s black card and the penalty awarded to Donegal. He said it wasn’t a black card at all (If Mickey was still manager Brennan would have been awarded player of the week) and that he “wasn’t the last man back” so the penalty should not have been awarded.

Peter Canavan agreed with him and even Oisin McConville, both agreeing that Brennan wasn’t “the last man” back. They must have been talking about soccer. In our game, there is no requirement that the player who commits the cynical foul is the last man back.

Here is the rule: “If cynical behaviour is committed on an attacking player with a goal scoring opportunity, either inside the 20-metre line or the semi-circular arc, a penalty kick shall be awarded.”

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The issue was whether there was a goal-scoring opportunity. In this case, Tyrone were in emergency mode. Donegal had broken through. There were two Donegal men sprinting through to the attacking player’s right, one with his arm raised for the handpass to the far post.

Tyrone were running back towards their own goal. The defender behind Brennan was stranded. The cynical foul was committed by Brennan precisely because he saw the goal was on and was trying to prevent it. The rule does not require the goal to be a certainty. Merely, that there is an “opportunity” for a goal.

The Oxford English Dictionary (rarely used in Tyrone to be fair) defines ‘opportunity’ as ‘a set of circumstances that make it possible to do something’ or as ‘a time when a particular situation makes it possible to do or achieve something.’ Basically, the cynical foul only has to deprive the attacking team of the possibility of a goal for a penalty to be awarded. Here, there was a possibility of a goal. The referee’s decision was absolutely correct. The lads should consult the GAA rule book in future, not the soccer one.

I predicted a Tyrone win and in fairness, they were comfortably the better team, playing with ambition, adventure and spirit. For me, the only blotch was McKernan begging the ref to give Murphy a card. He is a very good defender but this sort of thing does him no honour and he has been here before. Diving, feigning injury and now trying to get an opponent carded.

This is a good Tyrone team that can really go places. Michael should take his cue from Ronan McNamee, Mattie Donnelly and co. and treat the game and his opponents with respect.

As usual, it is only the Ulster Championship that is putting any sort of a face on the championship. The live game the previous weekend was a disgrace to the GAA community and must never be allowed to happen again. The brutal, inevitable humiliation of Leitrim and its good GAA people (24-point defeat), played out in front of a live TV audience over 70 agonising minutes, should signal the death of the old GAA championship. No one will mourn it.

This annual farce is a triumph of fantasy over reality. The hullaballoo mirrors proper competitive sports. The journalists interview the Leitrim manager for a feature article. The headline writers do their thing. Marty Morrissey and the crew turn up to pour the sugar on.

For 90 per cent of the football championship, the pundits and commentators are forced into patronising mode. “Clare may be 15 points behind but they certainly aren’t giving up.” “Fermanagh are showing all their fighting spirit. They certainly aren’t going down without a fight.” “Wonderful score by Dolan, one of the most skilful forwards in the county, to bring Leitrim within 19 points of Mayo.” What else can they do? We all know it’s a pointless, humiliating waste of time, but we have to say something.

Three years ago, by contrast, I was in Gaelic Park in New York for the first round game between Leitrim and New York and was blown away.

Two well matched teams in front of a capacity crowd of 6,000 fought out an enthralling draw in normal time. In the second period of extra time, with New York two up and three minutes to go, Leitrim kicked three quick fire points to win by one. Thousands of Leitrim exiles had travelled from all over America for a wonderful celebration of community and our games and went away with their heads held high.

So far this year, aside from two games, it has been the usual slaughtering session. Tipperary (11-point defeat), Antrim (13-point defeat), Fermanagh (10-point defeat), Down (16-point defeat), Sligo (20-point defeat), Limerick (eight-point defeat), Longford (22-point defeat), Cavan (eight-point defeat), Laois (16-point defeat), Waterford (18-point defeat), Clare (17-point defeat).

The Gaelic Football Championship is the only competition in world sport where it is viewed as an achievement to keep the losing margin to under 10.

In Ulster we had five games before last weekend. Only one of these was competitive (Derry v Donegal). The other four were wipe outs. It is even worse in the other three provinces. The average losing margin in Ulster before this weekend was 9.6 points. In Leinster it was 11.7 points. In Munster 14 points. In Connacht, 16.4 points.

There is no argument in favour of this travesty. The GAA community deserves better.

Our players deserve better. Like the ladies, who have a bit of wit, we need three championships, with proper respect and rewards for all three, culminating in a three match All-Ireland finals day that we can be truly proud of.

The Paidi O’Sé, followed by the Kevin Heffernan, finishing with the Sam Maguire. A festival of football that doesn’t involve humiliating 70 per cent of our counties and that treats hard working GAA folk with a bit of respect.

The Monaghan-Armagh game quickly degenerated into entertaining, unplanned chaos. Just like it used to be when you went to a big Ulster game and hadn’t a clue what might happen, hair standing on your neck and the crowd going mental.

Game-plans and tactics are important but in the end, the game is about courage. It is about being fearless in the pursuit of victory. About taking responsibility. There is no safety net and conservatism will be punished.

Kieran McGeeney’s teams have a terrible record in championship. This is because they play to formulaic, rigid systems, with the players controlled by management. They therefore lack the confidence to adapt to the game, to go on a roll, to do the unexpected, which are the essential qualities of winning championship matches.

In the first half, they dropped off Monaghan, conceding the kick-outs, and keeping 13 men inside their own half. Monaghan spaced out up front and stayed on the flanks. Lacking initiative, the Armagh defenders followed them.

If Conor McManus had gone into the stand and had a cup of tea and a bun, James Morgan would have sat beside him. This left an empty motorway through the middle of the Armagh defence.

Monaghan scored four embarrassingly easy goals in the first 25 minutes, giving a masterclass in dummying, deft hand-passing and passing to the net. Derry seniors should watch the video. Or better still, watch the video of our minors.

In the second half, seven points behind, Armagh finally pushed up and went for it, just as Monaghan dropped off and tried to defend their lead. As Monaghan dawdled, overcarried, gave the ball away, and retreated into their shells, Armagh’s bravery was richly rewarded.

With the extraordinary Rian O’Neill inspiring them, they finally went into championship mode, taking every chance, devouring every ball and causing us to jump off our sofas and punch the air. Alas, as soon as they went two ahead with a classic Oisin O’Neill point in the 62nd minute, they stopped and retreated.

‘Star’ roared at them from the sideline to push on but to no avail. They had gone back into default mode and they were doomed. Monaghan kicked the last four points and the best team won an exhilarating old style shoot-out.

Donegal proved again that they are soft. They play formulaic football. They are not a serious team. Mayo humiliated them in Castlebar two years ago when they quit with half an hour to play. Last year, a poor Cavan team ripped into them in the Ulster final and again they fell apart, Cavan attacking with courage and adventure to the final whistle.

If Cavan had played safe they would have lost and people who don’t know anything about winning would have said it was “good progress”. Derry missed four goals against Donegal the previous weekend and only lost because we wimped out. Woe-betide the next person who tells me we have made “good progress.”

Martin Boyle said after the minor final that he knew as soon as we got the penalty that we had won it. That was because Henry’s lad is the penalty taker. Like his father, the boy is serious about the game. Like his father, he is a flat-track winner.

Jim’s lad Callum came on and made a decisive contribution. Barry McGonigle’s lad was superb at corner-back, emulating his Da who won a minor All-Ireland in 1989 at number six and soldiered with me for a dozen years at Dungiven.

Thankfully, Johnny McGurk’s boy takes his looks from his mother and his football from his father. They were better than Kerry. They are totally selfless, no one caring who gets credit. They are winners. That rare thing that we search for relentlessly and try to create but that cannot be manufactured. It is impossible to explain, but they were always going to win this championship.

When Kerry sucker-punched them with the goal with two minutes to go, it would have been a disaster for most teams, Not for these boys. They quickly, confidently worked the goal chance, then drove the penalty home. Losing after holding possession for two minutes without taking a shot is not in their DNA, nor in their manager’s. Doire abu.

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