Colm O'Rourke: Regrets tend to linger if you fail to strike while the iron is hot
Big decisions and big mistakes will haunt Dublin and Kildare when the dust settles, says Colm O'Rourke
T his year's All-Ireland football semi-finals provided marvellous entertainment, and when you add in minor games of great attacking quality, the 145,000 supporters who paid in over the two Sundays would not have had as much enjoyment at another sports occasion anywhere in the world.
Perhaps enjoyment is the wrong word to use for close to 100,000 of those supporters who came from Dublin and Kildare. The disappointment of losing made the short trip home a sad affair. It also tempers the mood of the counties. Dublin after the semi-final defeat was a quiet town while Kildare was probably likewise last Sunday night.
It is this which makes football and hurling different. People take defeat for their county in a big match very badly. A big win is good for a county and it's good for business too; restaurants, hotels and pubs benefit from a win. When teams lose, people tend to go home quicker and socialise less.
The value of winning is best reflected by those who lose. The players of Dublin and Kildare looked absolutely shattered after the long whistle sounded. The picture of John Doyle after the game last week was worth more than a thousand words. A great man in every way who must have wondered in those moments if his chance of playing in the biggest game of all had gone. Those who the gods wish to destroy they first make mad.
On the previous Sunday, Bernard Brogan had given an exhibition but he has no big day coming up either. There is no justice in sport; that is what makes knock-out games like these so appealing. The winner takes all.
These were great sporting occasions in the true sense of the word. The conduct of the players was exemplary. These were games of honesty, there was no lying down, no feigning injury, no off-the-ball stuff. And when it was over the winners were careful not to rub it in, they were sensitive to the losers and understood what Wellington said after defeating Napoleon at Waterloo -- "it was a close-run thing". These games could have gone either way too.
In fact Dublin, of all the teams, must still be wondering how they lost. They played with great spirit and manly courage for all of the game, and in the end the most galling thing they must swallow is that most of the wounds were self-inflicted. Pat Gilroy got most things right this year in terms of changing the whole team's personality, but a consistent problem, which was not sorted out, was the amount of silly frees being given away in every game.
I thought beforehand that Dublin would win, but in the preview two weeks ago I drew attention to the number of frees and yellow cards Dublin were giving away. After playing most of the good football in the game, the lack of skill in one vital area (and tackling is a skill) really came back to bite them hard.
Some have questioned the serious imbalance in the free count. That is clutching at straws as there was no question about the majority of the frees that killed Dublin and the imbalance became much more pronounced near the finish. All that showed was that Cork had most of the ball and the discipline of tackling was breaking down. Dublin's game was based on hard running and players really putting their bodies on the line in contesting possession. It worked really well too, but they just crossed that thin line too often. It would be too easy to scapegoat Ross McConnell, but Ger Brennan, Kevin Nolan and Philly McMahon should also have been standing back instead of rushing in.
So after all the effort and huge progress, there is nothing to show for it. Gilroy spoke afterwards about the great leap forward but he, more than anyone else, knows this was a year to finish the job. In football, there is no next week, next month or next year for losers, there is only today. By next August, Kerry may be back and Tyrone have not gone away. Can Bernard Brogan ever be as good again? There may be injuries and a thousand other things which could go wrong too. This is the one that got away.
Meanwhile, Cork stagger on, and stagger is the right word. Their defensive strategy must have been made up on the bus going to the game or is it that they never heard of Bernard Brogan who was getting the better of two men in most games? Yet Cork decided to try and contain him with one and Ray Carey is not noted as a player for a specialist marking role. The forward play seemed to have no pattern either and obviously kicking of the ball was strictly banned. Cork are better than this, but have only one more day to sort it out. Maybe they are keeping the best wine till last, but it will need to be a vintage variety which has been well hidden so far.
Kildare could go down as the people's champions but there are no gold medals for that and you don't get to play in the final either. Again a team which got a lot of things right, and showed bravery in chasing games when it seemed they were going to get a right hiding, showed that when they looked within themselves they found all the right qualities.
When General MacArthur was forced to leave the Philippines to the Japanese in 1942, his famous words were "I shall return". He did too, but it took two and a half years. Dublin and Kildare probably feel the same but it is a long march back.
Kildare will point to all the big decisions going against them with more than a little validity. Alan Smith's shot certainly seemed a point and the combined efforts of three officials got it badly wrong for the Down goal. Most people watching said square ball straight away as it was so obvious. It is a great pity that Pat McEnaney, the best referee of his generation, should get this call wrong. Of course the solution to this whole problem was tried, tested and found to work really well in the league when a forward could be in the square before the ball so long as he was not in before the ball was kicked. It led to great goalmouth scrambles.
When it came up at Congress, a gentleman, who is not known for great relationships with his county players, said that there was nothing wrong with the old rule and it was duly voted down. I wonder does he still think that? There would be no need for video evidence in this case if the rule was amended in line with common sense.
And then there is the ridiculous stipulation that there can only be rule changes every five years. The sky was black last Sunday with chickens coming home to roost. Just another example of the disconnect between many administrators and the real world the players occupy.
In all of this discussion, there was no criticism of Kildare goalkeeper Shane McCormack, yet with Benny Coulter backing in and unable to jump, he got neither man nor ball. It was a serious error and many goalies of the past would have rewarded the bravery of Coulter with two knees in the back, an elbow in the ear and the ball punched 20 metres out the field.
So Kildare died with their boots on and Down have another chance to build on their unique record. They have the men to do it again too. There will be more time for closer analysis, but for me, Danny Hughes was the best player on the pitch. His workrate, speed and general play was top class.
Cork will have a problem to get someone to mark Martin Clarke and Benny Coulter is not far off a really big game. And the weak Down midfield is not turning out like that. Another great day in prospect in a brilliant year for the old game.