Eugene McGee: Down are tops in battle of traditional values
Published 30/08/2010 | 05:00
Do we GAA followers really appreciate how lucky we are? For the past two Sundays we have seen two absolutely magnificent sporting contests, full of immense skill, marvellous examples of individual brilliance and dramatic finishes which left audiences almost breathless.
Cork versus Dublin and Down versus Kildare -- unlikely pairings earlier in the year to be involved in All- Ireland semi-finals -- provided two truly memorable occasions that we should all be grateful for.
Yesterday's game was one of the most exciting matches I have ever seen. There were many other wonderful aspects to it as well, but the sheer drama and excitement of the final few minutes was incredible. The scene at the end, when Kildare's Rob Kelly had to beat about eight opponents on the goal-line from a free, was something we have rarely seen at Croke Park, and the fact that he went within inches of achieving the target will live forever with those who were lucky enough to be present.
Apart from that dramatic finish, this was a fabulous example of how Gaelic football can be so exciting, varied and ever-changing during a single game, and above all a vehicle for outstanding personal bravery of both mind and body -- as each team in turn had periods of domination as well as good luck and bad luck. The total package was one of the best games we have seen at Croke Park for decades and the pity is that there had to be a loser to this drama.
But Down are the winners and are on their way to their sixth All-Ireland final, having won all of their previous five. In my opinion, they did deserve to win, because they had more players of exceptional skill who dictated parts of the game than Kildare had.
At least half a dozen Down players are exceptionally talented, natural footballers and their contributions decided the course of the game. These included Marty Clarke, Benny Coulter, Kevin McKernan, Peter Fitzpatrick, Daniel Hughes and Kalum King. Between them, these players did terrible damage to Kildare's well-documented composure and Kieran McGeeney's meticulous pre-match preparations.
The only negative arising from this game was the wrong decision to allow Benny Coulter's goal in the 12th minute when it was clearly a square-ball infringement. That goal came at a crucial period when Down were struggling and behind by two, but in a flash they added two points after the goal to go ahead by three. That was essentially a game-changing score and Kildare are entitled to feel very aggrieved that none of the three officials involved saw fit to disallow it.
Indeed, that change of events seemed to seriously upset the entire Kildare defence, as in the second quarter they looked extremely ragged. In what was their worst period in the game, they allowed Down to score six points in the final 13 minutes of the first half.
The traditional aspect of this game is very interesting because we had been told that managers James McCartan and McGeeney were two of the new breed of manager, with all sorts of modern approaches to team preparation on and off the field. Yet in that most basic component of Gaelic football, the kick-out, it was ultra-traditional as practically every one -- of which there were about 55 in total -- were directed straight out the middle of the field, as has been the case for over a century
That style of kick-out is what really won the game for Down because they dominated that area of the field from not long after the start -- regardless of which goalkeeper was kicking out -- with Kalum King and the very talented Peter Fitzpatrick being the clear masters of possession, either from clean catches or from breaks. This was the vital supply line that allowed Marty Clarke to run the attacking set-up for Down to such good effect.
When we also remember that Down, in particular, and Kildare to a slightly lesser extent, were providing their forwards with some wonderful long foot-passes, we saw the power and majesty of this form of Gaelic football by comparison to the orgy of handpassing that has throttled so many big games in recent years. Thanks Down and Kildare!
So with midfield wrapped up -- until Kildare's Hugh Lynch almost won the game on his own with a mad burst of energy in the final 15 minutes -- and the Down forwards individually more skilful than Kildare's, their victory is well-earned, despite the vagaries of fortune that afflicted Kildare. Some of the scores from Clarke, Coulter, Hughes and Fitzpatrick were absolutely first-class and we look forward to watching them all in the final.
McGeeney's problem, like many managers before him, was that in recent matches a few key players failed to match their earlier achievements -- such as James Kavanagh, Alan Smith and Eamonn Callaghan -- and despite the latter's excellent goal, this upset the best-laid pre-match plans.
That is the wonder and the mystery of football but it must be said that Down knew the opponents to give special attention to and they achieved that. When the game was in danger of slipping away from Down in the final 15 minutes -- during which Kildare outscored them by seven points to four -- they had no hesitation in pulling Kildare men down to stop the action. But that was only a small blemish on this wonderful game.
Cork will fret a lot about the forthcoming final if only because Down have an impeccable record at that stage of the championship. But Down too will have more problems to confront in that game than Kildare were able to present to them yesterday, noticeably in the middle third of the field.
That's for another day though -- for now let us thank the wonderful players and their mentors who produced such a magnificent contest at Croke Park yesterday.
They deserve our gratitude on behalf of the old game.