Saturday 25 February 2017

Football rises from the dead

Eamonn Sweeney

Last Saturday was a very special day for Gaelic football. A day like it was long overdue. Because the defeats of Kerry and Tyrone brought to an end the second longest period of collective dominance in the history of the game.

Since 2003, the two counties have won all seven All-Ireland titles, a feat only surpassed by Kerry and Dublin who divided eight between them (1974-1981) and equalled by Kerry and Kildare (1926-1932). Kerry's epic victory over Cork in the Munster semi-final and Tyrone's untroubled cruise through Ulster suggested that the big two had the championship sewn up between them once more.

That wasn't good news for anyone outside Kerry and Tyrone. Because the football championship, whose democracy is its great strength, had become an oligarchy. Things were getting predictable. Things, to be honest, were getting boring.

But 140 minutes of football eight days ago changed all that. We will now have champions other than Kerry and Tyrone for the first time since 2002, a final without either of them for the first time since 2001 and semi-finals without Kerry for the first time since 1999. And Kildare's thrashing of Meath means we will have a last four without Kerry, Tyrone or the Royal County. You have to go back to 1994 for the last time that happened. The shift had been seismic. The footballing landscape has been completely redrawn. It's great, isn't it?

Because the last thing the GAA needs is the kind of cartel operated by the two undeniably great teams who have towered over all opposition for so long. The last time neither Kerry nor Tyrone won the All-Ireland, the euro had just been introduced, Roy Keane had walked out on Ireland in Saipan, John Kerry was running against George Bush in the American presidential election and Rio Ferdinand had just left Leeds United for Old Trafford. It seems a long time ago.

Hopefully these victories might herald the beginning of a new dispensation, an era like the one which began in 1991 and ended in 2003 and was, in retrospect, something of a golden age. In those 13 years, Donegal, Derry, Armagh and Tyrone won their first ever All-Irelands and three completely unfancied teams, Down (1991), Meath (1996) and Galway (1998), came out of nowhere to lift the Sam Maguire. There was a first final win for Dublin in 12 years and, unthinkable though this seems now, for Kerry in 11. It was a time when the championship seemed a thing of infinite and enthralling possibility.

And that's the kind of championship we've got this year. Down have certainly come from nowhere; it's only a few weeks since they were scraping past Offaly in the qualifiers having looked decidedly inferior to Tyrone when defeated by them in the Ulster semi-final.

Kildare suffered perhaps their most humiliating defeat in recent times when Louth destroyed them first time out. And Dublin looked to have their worst team in years when stumbling past Wexford before getting hockeyed by Meath.

Even Cork were being written off as perennial also-rans, somewhat unfairly, on the evidence of their two games against Kerry. Should the Lilywhites come through, it will be their first All-Ireland football title since 1928. It's 20 years since Cork have won one, 16 since Down's last victory, 15 since Dublin's. Whoever eventually prevails will have completed a remarkable journey.

Kildare and Dublin, after all, are the footballing equivalents of the undead, rising mischievously out of the grave after we'd gone to the trouble of composing their obsequies. Their determination to keep plugging away amid the ridicule and derision flung their way is an object lesson to the likes of Galway and Mayo, whose eagerness to throw in the towel after one defeat looks pretty unforgivable now.

And Down's ability to come through after a series of gruesome debacles in recent years, last year's defeat by Fermanagh in the Ulster championship, the trouncing by Wexford in the qualifiers the year before that, the 1-7 to 0-4 back-door defeat by Sligo in 2006, should spur on those mid-level counties who might have felt that no matter how hard they worked the likes of Kerry and Tyrone represented an unattainable pinnacle. After last Saturday, the likes of Laois, Donegal, Louth, Roscommon and Antrim can dare to dream.

Of course there are two sides to the story and it is worth pondering why Kerry have just endured their worst championship season this millennium. I did say at the start of the championship that there would be something wrong if the Kingdom could retain the All-Ireland given the loss of Tommy Walsh, Tadhg Kennelly and Darragh ó Sé.

And from the start there seemed to be something not quite kosher this time around, from the atypical hype coming out of the county before their match against Cork about how well the team were going to the enormous deal made about their eventual victory over the Rebels. Never in the history of Kerry football had a Munster semi-final victory been greeted with such hullabaloo. It was almost as though the team were trying to convince themselves that they still had it. There was a slight air of desperation about it all.

Jack O'Connor's litany of complaints in the lead-up to the Down game also seemed very un-Kerry. At the very least it must have convinced the Mournemen that Kerry were feeling rattled and boosted their morale. It turned out, not for the first time, that paranoia and self-pity are a poor basis on which to build a championship challenge. Whereupon Jack let rip with the ochón agus ochón os, like a keener who'd got at the poitín.

In claiming that Kerry had lost because of their disallowed goal while overlooking the fact that

Down also had a goal wiped out in questionable circumstances, the implication that referees favour teams from their own province and suddenly discovering that the system is unfair to provincial champions after the same system had benefited Kerry over Cork in recent years, a normally rational man let himself down.

It was as though he was performing a public service for any connoisseurs of misery, depression and heartbreak who hadn't made it to the Leonard Cohen gig in Lissadell. All very un-Kerry and, in fairness, un-Jack O'Connor. Mickey Harte's complaints about championship structures also ring hollow given that Tyrone have benefited from them in the past.

He might be better advised to consider what part he played in the undermining of his star player's confidence, given that last Saturday presented a spectacle none of us thought we'd ever see: Sean Cavanagh having a really lousy game. And Meath's departure from the championship satisfied the demands of cosmic justice, their brattish insistence on holding on to the spoils of a victory dishonestly won making them unfit to grace the championship again this year. All in all, it was a deeply satisfying set of results.

Maybe this is just a false dawn. After all, Offaly's 1982 interruption of the Kerry-Dublin carve-up was followed immediately by a title for Dublin and three for Kerry. But it does show that even the greatest of teams will eventually get third-man tackled by time. Now what are those odds on the Cork hurlers again?

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