Vincent Hogan: Stalemate and slaughter in 'split' Croker
The early pages of this hurling Championship turn like tablets of stone while, in football, a temptation grows to hand out ribbons for courage.
So Croker had a split personality yesterday. Days like this carry the feel of an arranged marriage, two sports cohabitating clumsily. There were 34 people on the Hill as Dublin's hurlers cantered out into the sunshine and, though the numbers climbed steadily thereafter, the big city audience palpably came only for a slaughter.
Hurling will always be the curtain-raiser in this climate as it amounts to a repertory company show sat next to Hollywood.
But it was the only game we got yesterday. Dublin-Galway may have been freighted with a small eternity of blemishes and insecurities but, at least, it held its audience. Dublin-Longford was just a mundane epigram, the bookmakers' handicap of 16 points left looking hopelessly compassionate as Jim Gavin's men were like kids sucking barley sugar in the sun, torqueing away to win by 27.
The city hurlers could have won and perhaps should have done given David Treacy's late wide from a scorable free. But, frankly, a Galway defeat would have been the product of rank carelessness.
For this was a performance flooded with all the quirky wrinkles we associate with them. There were times they looked like putting Dublin to the sword, others when they seemed to almost wilfully disengage. To lead by just a point at half-time after a performance illumined by aggression and high work-rate seemed scarcely believable given the goal opportunities spurned by Cyril Donnellan, Jason Flynn and, most surprisingly, Joe Canning.
The latter's involvement was peripheral throughout and, for a whole generation of Galway supporters, that seems to have become the headstone inscription on a great panoply of lost days. If Joe doesn't soar, Galway remain grounded with him.
Dublin took 20 minutes to raise their first flag from play, by which time they were six points adrift and seemingly in crisis. Yet Galway leaked 0-7 in the next 11 minutes. If Dublin deserved praise for the stomach summoned, they were playing a team inclined to offer opportunity.
So that was the tenor of an always interesting game. The collision of doubts and imperfections, the fleeting sparks of beauty set against the deep, deep troughs of self-doubt.
Ideally, the replay should go to Salthill now, but Galway still exist as unloved tenants in Leinster. Their underage teams are, seemingly, considered too impure for acceptance in the East and the idea of any home and away arrangement being open to the seniors seems to strike those in authority as some kind of blasphemous notion.
So they must resume in Tullamore next Saturday where Galway's recent record is enough to invoke Novenas for their protection.
Anthony Cunningham didn't exactly go to war on the issue after, but his smile was that of a man who believes his team is being handicapped by prejudice.
"Look, I'm not going to make an issue of it," he said. "But we need to have a home and away basis in Leinster. I suppose we need to be embraced properly.
"Galway need Championship hurling in Galway. It's something I thought might have happened by now. The Galway hurling public have always travelled to matches so, to be fair to the loyal supporters, I think they'd welcome that."
They will, we trust, desist from any suspension of air intake into their lungs while the wait continues.
Dublin had selected Alan Nolan in goals, reputedly on the basis of having a more precise puckout to Gary Maguire, Yet Galway's half-forwards pulled so deep, the routes to Danny Sutcliffe and Liam Rushe on either wing became so heavily mined they spent long periods virtually inaccessible.
When Dublin did get beyond that maroon wall, Mark Schutte was giving Johnny Coen an afternoon from Hell, his size and athleticism rendering the contest almost cruel to behold. Galway regrouped at half-time, putting Padraig Mannion on Schutte and this achieved two things. The Cuala man suddenly became human again. And Coen came alive.
In that first half, Donnellan had been giving Conal Keaney a torrid time at the Hill end, but his early flamboyance slowly tapered and, with Canning struggling for impact, it fell to Cathal Mannion and Flynn to carry the greatest attacking threat.
Still, Donnellan probably should have goaled in the third minute when his two mis-hit shots were both parried by Nolan and Flynn was then denied at the near-post in the 27th minute after a strangely out-of-sorts Peter Kelly spooned a ball into his hand.
Dublin, meanwhile, had been ticking along unconvincingly until Joe Cooney's 19th-minute goal, the Sarsfields man devouring Keaney as he bent to rise a ball and surging maybe 30 yards forward before snapping a smart finish to the Hill end net. Suddenly, faced with a six-point deficit, the Dubs seemed to remember that this was Championship.
Ger Cunningham talked of being pleased by their response (four points from play in the next three minutes) to Cooney's goal and he was certainly entitled to see positives in the character shown.
"In the first half, it looked like we could have been under pressure, we were being opened up a few times," he reflected. "You'd always be concerned when you look back and see how many chances they got.
"But Galway are a big, physical side, they have some big men around the place. It was that kind of game, it was a physical battle. We struggled on the breaking ball in the first half, but we improved in the second."
In his pomp, Canning would dominate this kind of a game, but the Portumna man never quite came in from the margins here. His last act was to attempt a free from his own '45' which, facing into a stiff breeze, might as well have been an attempted ascent of the Eiger without ropes. The ball dropped short and Joe was immediately substituted.
His manager offered a context, Canning having missed recent training through no fault of his own. "Well, he came into the game with a very serious hand injury," explained Anthony Cunningham.
"Probably affected his ability to catch and strike. But he'd have been personally disappointed with his contribution and I'm sure Joe will turn that around, knowing the professional that he is."
Treacy's late miss was inexplicable given the quality of his striking from more quarrelsome distances but, if anything, a draw seemed the only fair conclusion to a contest so riddled with unease.
As to the football, Longford manager Jack Sheedy wondered aloud if any Leinster team will get within 15 points this year of a Dublin side chasing its tenth provincial title in 11 seasons.
"Maybe Meath," he ventured.
But he didn't sound like a man who expected it.