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Classic of the modern football era

I COULDN'T make it in time to join the thousands who say they were in the GPO in 1916. Nor was I one of about 500,000 who claim to have been in Croke Park in August 1977 for what is often called 'the greatest game of all time' between Kerry and Dublin.

But I definitely was there on Saturday for the Dublin-Tyrone spectacular and I reckon that more than compensates for missing the other two events.

I have often said that Gaelic football and hurling are great games to be as strong as they are despite all the messing that goes on with rules and regulations, referees, committees, sub-committees, GACs, CDCs, DRAs and God knows what else that the GAA comes up with to keep a lot of very important people busy by having meetings to go to.

But the GAA is primarily about games, not committees, and Saturday's encounter showed the world exactly why Gaelic games have no equal when matches are played in this manner.

This was a barnstorming match that gripped the 78,000 fans by the throat in the opening minutes and never let go until we had watched the whole 78 minutes that it lasted.

It transformed ordinary human beings into giants whose names will be indelibly linked with one of the greatest games of football of modern times, names like 'Mossy' Quinn, Stephen O'Neill, Jason Sherlock, Bryan Cullen, Brian McGuigan and many others.

All the players made their contribution to this incredible sporting spectacle and referee Aidan Mangan played as important a role as any of them with his sensible attitude.

But one player will be forever associated with Saturday August 13, 2005. Owen Mulligan scored what can definitely be called one of the greatest goals of all time when he glided past three Dublin defenders and sent a rocket of a shot from the ground up into the roof of Stephen Cluxton's net. The score will be the abiding memory of a momentous day in Croke Park for many who were there. For neutrals in the crowd the spectacular manner in which the game was unfolding completely took over from the question of who would win or lose.

The dramatic scores on both sides, particularly some astonishing points scored by O'Neill and Brian Dooher and the ruthless free-taking of Quinn when it really mattered at the finish showed that amateur players can have nerves of steel to match the greatest professional sportsmen.

And the fact that both O'Neill and Quinn also missed some fairly easy scoring chances but still played pivotal roles in their team's performances was further proof of that. As usual I have pages of notes taken but somehow it would be churlish to forensically analyse this match in the normal manner because to do so would reduce a classic sporting encounter to the level of the mundane stuff we see every week of the year.

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The game deserves a lot more than that. It deserves to be put on a pedestal as a shining example of Gaelic football, a tribute to the best of Irish sporting manliness which is in such stark contrast to the attempts at masquerading as sportsmen that we have seen from several county teams this season.

And the question must be asked: if Tyrone and Dublin could play a game of such ferocious intensity as this, for such high stakes, without a foul blow of any significance being struck in the 78 minutes why do some teams have to drag the great game, their county and themselves into the gutter so often?

Maybe some of the many sports psychologists now working in the GAA might apply themselves to answering that question because I am sure the GAA would like to know.

In particular they might try to work out why Tyrone could play such spectacular and sporting football last Saturday in contrast with some of their games earlier this year. Was it because they were playing non-Ulster opponents?

Part of the reason why we had such a great contest was that both teams had long barren spells as regards scoring which allowed their opponents to gain temporary control thereby forcing each other to stage a series of mini-rallies that added greatly to the excitement.

No doubt Mickey Harte and Paul Caffrey and their respective brains trusts will have a busy two weeks trying to work out why their players displayed such variable levels of performance throughout this game but for the neutral spectators this particular frailty added greatly to the drama that was unfolding.

How for example could O'Neill miss an easy free and a match-winning goal opportunity and still score some of the most magnificent points we have seen for years in Croker?

Likewise Quinn missed easier frees than he scored. And Dooher who had a vital role to play in the Tyrone revival, including a spectacular point to put them 1-13 to 1-12 ahead, later gave away the simplest possession change to Dublin which led to Quinn's second last point, Dublin's first in 15 minutes at that stage.

But thankfully sport is not an exact science and so far at least players cannot be programmed beforehand to perform in a certain way. The game on Saturday showed in a magnificent way the whole gamut of sporting ups and downs that one Gaelic football match can provide. Dublin at the close of the first half and Tyrone at the close of the second seemed to have the All-Ireland semi-final place wrapped up but it was not to be.

From a Dublin viewpoint the game confirmed a failing that has been there all year - players being unable to maintain first-half momentum throughout the second half. This was highlighted by them only scoring one point in the opening 15 minutes of the second half and just two in the first 34 minutes of that half.

And that second point from a free was handed to them gift-wrapped by Tyrone's Shane Sweeney over-carrying the ball. Tyrone will be most concerned about their failure to kill off Dublin in the final quarter despite being rampant in terms of possession.

O'Neill had a terrible miss from a free in the 63rd minute when they were one ahead and then at least three aimless kicks were dropped into Stephen Cluxton's hands in the final 10 minutes from one of which Dublin went directly upfield for a point.

Tyrone's backroom team played a crucial role in this game by their wholesale redrafting of the team at half-time. They put midfielder Conor Gormley to centre-back where he became the most influential player of the second half while Seán Cavanagh went into the half-forward line to good effect also which meant they had a new midfield pairing of Enda McGinley and Joe McMahon.

By contrast I felt Dublin could have replenished their team with second half subs earlier than they did. But these are mere minutiae when taken in the context of the game we were privileged to see. This was a game that will dwarf anything else we watch in 2005 and for many years past and many years into the future too I would imagine. And yes, I definitely was there!

Eugene McGee


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