Rossies and Dubs U-21s showdown will be fascinating clash of styles
We had two very different types of games in the U-21 semi-finals in Portlaoise on Saturday.
Roscommon and Cork played flamboyant football with no holds barred, no packed defences, lots of brilliant high catching and accurate footpassing and an exhibition of marvellous scores from play in a total of 35 (Roscommon 1-19, Cork 3-12).
Dublin and Cavan on the other hand played a much more conservative game, with crowded defences, plenty of hand-passing and a lot of wides when scores seemed easier to grab and just a total of 21 (Dublin 0-11, Cavan 0-10).
It was a fascinating package of football to contrast and compare, and the scorelines for each game said everything about the styles of football displayed by the four provincial champions.
The opening game really did leave the fans breathless and that is quite a rare occurrence these days.
Roscommon had Cork by the scruff of the neck for most of the match and yet ended up having to depend on a fabulous, high-pressure free-kick from Diarmuid Murtagh at the finish to get into the final.
Cork played like Cork footballers usually do: they showed they have loads of talent, several high-quality players but somehow seemed unable to make the most of their talents apart from some sporadic bursts.
There are some very young players on this Roscommon team but they showed no fear because of that.
In fact one of the youngest Roscommon players, last-gasp hero Murtagh from the St Faithleachs club in Lanesboro on the Roscommon-Longford border, was coolness personified all day as he rattled over 10 points, including four from play.
But the most important frees among the six he scored came in overtime when a Cork player committed the unusual foul of picking the ball up between his knees after he had fallen.
The position for the free was difficult, near the sideline outside the 21-yard line, but Murtagh struck it with confidence and sent Roscommon into their second All-Ireland final against Dublin in three years. The Rossies lost that narrowly and will be out for revenge.
The other outstanding score came from Cork's star forward Dan McEoin, who in the 61st minute scored an incredible goal from a free even though there were seven Roscommon players on the goal line. We have seen it in hurling by the Cork goalkeeper Anthony Nash, but it is very rare in football.
That piece of brilliance seemed to have paved the way for extra-time but then came Murtagh's equally daring score to snatch it from Cork and deservedly so as Roscommon were the better team for long parts of this game.
Cavan followers, out as usual in their thousands in Portlaoise, will be adamant that it is they rather than Dublin who should be in this All-Ireland final.
They can argue that with justification, but when the game was there to be won in the final quarter it was Dublin who got three points to Cavan's one and that is why they lost.
Two refereeing decisions were highly debatable near the finish and they both went against Cavan. After Cavan's Joe Dillon had been black-carded around the 45th minute, a few minutes later Dublin's Conor McHugh was seen to blatantly put his arms around an opponent and pull him down.
According to rule that should have been a black card for McHugh unless the foul was considered to be accidental rather than deliberate, but deliberate this foul most certainly was.
McHugh got a yellow card which meant he stayed on the field and scored the levelling point for Dublin shortly afterwards.
To rub salt in the Cavan wounds the winning score came from a free awarded when apparently the referee played the advantage rule in favour of Dublin forward Paul Ivory, who had failed with his score attempt. The ball was called back a free which Dublin's most valuable player Cormac Costello sailed over.
As with all new rules it is not just players or mentors who have to get accustomed to them but the referees also. Cavan have been proud of the fact that they have this year played five U-21 championship games and did not concede a single goal.
Their senior team also had the best defensive record in the entire National Football League.
This is admirable but as was evident in Portlaoise, Cavan will need to play a more open, expansive game if they hope to move into the top flight at senior level.
They certainly seem to have enough young talent to do just that if they are prepared to move with the times because massed defences will not win major senior championships anymore.
On Saturday, Cavan overplayed the short passing game and simply invited Dublin to tackle them, forcing them to pass diagonally or backwards.
Yet one of the best points scored by Cavan in the first half came from a long, well directed kick by midfielder Liam Buchanan to Dillon, who rattled over in the 24th minute.
Direct football. But you need more than a good defence to win games and Cavan scored just one point in the final 27 minutes, during which period Dublin notched five.
Dublin were far from impressive and shot a string of terrible efforts in both halves. Cavan are experts at this level in pulling players into their back line when danger lurks, but the Dubs managed to get one score more than their opponents despite that.
Despite being under severe pressure at times, the Dublin players retained their composure and made the best of what they had despite their wides. That will stand to them in the final.
If they match the style that Roscommon displayed against Cork we are in for a great game of football when this decider comes about on Saturday, May 3.
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