I WATCHED the Derry game in Smyths in Ranelagh with Sean Muldoon from the Loup. Three Englishmen were in the booth with us and were intrigued by the game. We explained the rules to them – three points for a goal, a point for a point, the solo, the bounce, the tackle. They could not understand the tackle rule. “Join the queue,” said Muldoon. At half time, one of them said, “Why do they never try to score a goal?”
Dion Fanning, my podcast co-host, went on a Blackrock parents and kids trip to Croke Park that night to see Dublin and Monaghan. “Do they sing the Fields of Athenry?” asked one of the parents. I rang him the next day to see how he got on. “Monaghan are good,” he said. “They are exciting and want to play. Dublin are so boring. Why do they never go for goal?”
Earlier on Saturday, I was on the Gaza peace walk to the Dail and bumped into Maurice O’Callaghan and his wife (Con’s father and mother). “Why will they not kick him the ball?” I said. “Don’t talk to me Joe. Now they have him dropping into the defence. I don’t understand it.” Boring, boring Dublin.
Pat Gilroy’s arrival as water boy mid season last year transformed them. Since his departure, they have gone back to the dull, formulaic, risk-free stuff that had become their hallmark since Dessie’s arrival. Process v initiative. System v adventure. Conformity v expression. Statistics v glory.
In Con O’Callaghan’s debut year (2017), his introductory acts in Croke Park were two brilliant solo goals in the All-Ireland semi-final and final, scything through seasoned, expert defences like a young George Best. In 2019, he scored two more classics in an epic semi-final against Mayo. Nowadays, he hardly gets the ball. When he does he is way outfield. He used to be Diego Maradona. Now he is James Milner.
Tony McEntee used to invite me to Crossmaglen training during their 2010-2012 run, perhaps the greatest club team to play the game. Once he invited me to stand beside him in the middle of the park during one of their electrifying in-house training games. He was refereeing, but as Tomás Ó Sé said once after watching Cody reffing a Kilkenny game, “the whistle would do him a good long time.”
The goalie took possession and immediately hit the half-forward line with long raking passes, all of whom were motoring before he kicked them. In turn, the half-backs and half-forwards hit the full-forwards, who were sprinting in different directions towards the goal. Jamie Clarke was scoring freely. He was a constant goal threat. The most striking thing was that he was always getting the ball in a scoring area, close to goal, running towards goal.
Drinking tea in their primitive club room afterwards, warming ourselves in front of a two bar electric heater, I asked Tony how he had designed this revolutionary game plan. “Simple Joe. We sat down and asked ourselves, where do we want Jamie to get the ball. Then, we worked back from there.”
On Sunday, I watched the three games on TG4. David Clifford sat out the Derry game the day before so there was nothing to see there. Without him, Kerry is half a team. A team with no All-Ireland ambition. A team without joy. Roscommon with green and yellow jerseys. They were very lucky to end up so close to Derry, as we were by far the better team. But for another tragic error by the ‘keeper gifting them a goal to the empty net (identical to the goal he gifted Galway in the 2022 semi-final) followed by a goal from nothing, we would have won easily.
Mickey being Mickey, he picked all of the Watty Grahams players to start, then kept them on throughout the game, substituting Ethan Doherty late on after he had put in his normal lung-bursting effort. Didn’t matter that they won the club All-Ireland six days earlier. Didn’t matter they have had a punishing schedule for two years now, going from county (two All-Ireland semi-finals) straight to club (straight through to two All-Ireland finals) back to county. Didn’t matter that they had celebrated for two days. What matters is Mickey. Everyone and everything else is expendable. Including Tyrone, Louth and Derry. None of the St Brigid’s players were even on the Roscommon squad the following day. The Cliffords were rested, yawning and chatting in the stand.
Donegal meanwhile are already at an advanced stage of their McGuinness hypnosis. Jimmy is working on a Jurgen Klopp/Guardiola style high press that devastated Cork. Even though this work is at an early stage, it looks scarily efficient.
Cork simply could not get out of their defence, Donegal forcing them to the sidelines, trapping them, then – another Jimmy hallmark -ferocious tackling without fouling. The final piece of the strategy – the counter attack – will take more time. Often, the Donegal boys were dispossessing Cork men, then giving a stray handpass or the wrong pass when everything opened up. Also, they are not yet making the right runs through the spread-eagled. These are sophisticated matters that take time.
As we saw in the 2014 semi-final ambush over the unbeatable Dubs, Jimmy will get there. The 1-19 to 2-6 demolition of Cork signals to the group that they can trust Jimmy. It inspires them to lock into his intensive, all-consuming crusade to win Ulster and then Sam. They were electrifying in the purity and courage of their effort on Sunday. Jimmy will see this only as a start. The league is merely his laboratory. He is only interested in Celtic Park in May.
It was left to the Son of God to rescue the weekend’s football. To give us something to chuckle about. Something to surprise and delight us. To make us ring a friend as we were watching TG4 and say, “Did you see what he did there?” Roscommon are a thoroughly modern, thoroughly boring team, like all the rest of them. Tyrone are the same, except for Canavan. On Sunday, he was terrific fun. More than that, he is having fun. His aura is “Let’s see what you are made of” and, “I am going to show you what I am made of brother, let’s get it on.”
He bewildered Roscommon and the crowd with his invention. He winked at the ref. He trash talked his man, then turned him inside out. He tumbled over on the ground, then sprang up, soloed with his left before kicking a point with his right. He laughed. He shook his head. He glowed with mischief.
Afterwards, God the Father took the loud hailer and said to the Omagh crowd, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased. Now go away and don’t sin any more” And the thousands in attendance ate their loaves and fishes and went away filled with the holy spirit.