When the 'Gang of Four' go to war
Familiarity has bred contempt that seems to surface more often in spring
Published 08/03/2016 | 02:30
By comparison, Omagh was an oasis of calm on Saturday night.
Tyrone and Derry has an eternal X rating attached to it, as much for the distant as the recent past.
But it passed off peacefully, Derry full-back Chrissy McKaigue picking up two yellow cards to convert to a red with brother Karl taking a black card. All told, a quiet evening brimful of plenty of good football from Tyrone as they swept to a nine-point win, racking up 2-15 in the process. The expected confrontation just didn't materialise.
Much the same in Kingspan Breffni Park where Cavan gave Armagh such a pasting, machismo would have been so much out of sync.
Life in Division Two is just that little less frantic, where you're not constantly looking over your shoulder to see what's coming next.
Rise a division and it's altogether different. Here, you can't afford to take a step back.
And among the 'gang of four' who have taken the vast majority of provincial titles, 17 from 20 between them over the last five years, the eyeballing has become intense.
From February to April has become Gaelic football's 'rutting season,' where grown men lay down markers, set out territory and bank deposits for future months.
Pit Kerry, Mayo, Donegal and Dublin into any game these days and the simmering intolerance of each other is sure to manifest.
On Sunday Kerry and Donegal served up arguably the most embittered Division One league match in recent memory, so much so that referee Eddie Kinsella spoke to both managers at the interval in an effort to calm things down.
In the end the card audit was 11; two red, two black and seven yellow (four for Donegal and three for Kerry).
Had he taken a stricter approach those numbers could have soared. Perhaps the temperature was raised after Alan O'Sullivan's red card, Kerry players particularly incensed by Neil McGee's cynical 'hand grab' of the rookie full-forward that led to a reaction. But it was clear from the start that neither side was in the mood to yield.
A week earlier when Donegal faced Mayo, there were also 11 cards; one black (Donegal's Neil Gallagher) and 10 yellow but a very decent game of football in between.
Still, the enmity between these rivals surfaced just about everywhere, never more apparent than the four minutes and 11 seconds it took to take a penalty from the foul on Mayo's Evan Regan to Diarmuid O'Connor's conversion. In between was particularly boisterous pushing, shoving and grabbing, for which two players were booked.
Three weeks earlier Mayo responded to their opening-round defeat to Cork and their loss to Dublin at the same venue a year earlier with a feisty approach to the All-Ireland champions.
Again the cards flowed, nine in all with black for Dublin's Philly McMahon and Jonny Cooper and double yellows for John Small and Mayo's Colm Boyle.
Since the leagues were revamped to four straight divisions in 2008 a firm cartel has been established in the top flight.
It's a place a team has to be to have September genuinely on their minds. Mickey Harte has repeatedly suggested that teams lower than Division One can't expect to win an All-Ireland title but Donegal came so close in 2014 while his own Tyrone might be well placed in the year ahead to challenge that theory.
But with that competitive edge has come a familiarity. And a contempt. The stakes have risen even more over the last couple of seasons in the league.
In Killarney last year the edge to Dublin's visit was palpable as the home side sought to bring to an end a three-match losing sequence in league and championship.
Flashpoint after flashpoint ensued with Dublin's Mick Fitzsimons red-carded at the end after Kinsella, who was again the man in the middle, showed four black and seven yellow.
"Any hits that they got they got straight back up and played the game and didn't try to influence the referee," suggested Dublin manager Jim Gavin in a pointed reference.
In their second round Dublin had been involved in an equally brutal affair in Croke Park. This time the card count was lower but the sense that referee Maurice Deegan could yield little control was prevalent throughout.
Eventually Kevin McManamon walked and Michael Murphy, who had been the confluence of so much of the physical exchanges just as he was in Tralee last Sunday, followed him on a black.
"They're a physical side and we're a physical side. And when two physical sides come together, that's the outcome," said Gavin.
In April last year Mayo's desperation to preserve their lead and win a league semi-final place manifested in a red card for Donie Vaughan and black for O'Connor. Hugh McFadden also picked up black amidst the 10 yellow cards shown.
This quartet are equally capable of stoking it up in championship games too but in Croke Park by then the importance of the result completely overshadows the spring war-mongering.
Still there were the exchanges between Aidan O'Shea and Philly McMahon and Lee Keegan and Diarmuid Connolly in last year's semi-final.
Monaghan are earning the right for inclusion in that circle courtesy of their two Ulster titles and Division One league performances.
But for now it's the gang of four' who bring the best and worst out of each other in these stall-setting league games. No quarter asked or given.