'A hot day in June. Place hopping. The tar melting on the road. And you know that this is it' - Independent.ie
'A hot day in June. Place hopping. The tar melting on the road. And you know that this is it'
For the first time in 20 years, the race for Sam Maguire will have no back door. Will do-or-die encourage a close-fought repeat of 2000 ... or has the game changed so fundamentally that Dublin and their chief rivals are no longer vulnerable to an ambush? We talk to Dara Ó Cinnéide and John O'Mahony, two key personalities in the last straight knockout championship
7 October 2000; Dara O'Cinneide of Kerry in the 2000 All-Ireland final replay. Picture credit; Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE
Except that sometimes, in do-or-die knockout, strange things happened. For Cork, there would be no second chance, no next day consolation. Colin Corkery grabbed a goal to ignite a comeback that shredded Kerry's lead to just two points.
But then the hosts reawakened to kick the last three points. Relief, validation and victory – by 2-15 to 1-13. A man of the match performance from Ó Cinnéide, whose 2-5 haul included a brace of penalties, had ignited a summer which now opened up before them.
And it would end, in October of all months, with coronation at the second attempt against Galway.
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THE TRAP DOOR
Two decades later, Cork and Kerry will renew their time-honoured rivalry in another Munster SFC semi-final. Here is one foolproof prediction: the tar will not be melting on the roads around Páirc Uí Chaoimh because, well, the game has been refixed for the weekend of November 7/8.
On a planet convulsed by Covid, nothing is quite the same. That includes an inter-county football championship propelled via time machine back to the first year of the millennium, the last year without a back door – until now.
That Cork/Kerry collision stands out as one of those early fixtures that scream ‘potential ambush'. With the qualifiers impounded by a pandemic, no one is quite sure what to expect when (virus permitting) the 2020 sprint for Sam begins.
One flat performance from Peter Keane's young pretenders and it could be over for the team most likely to challenge Dublin's search for six.
Therein lies the perverse beauty of straight knockout. "You had to throw the kitchen sink at everything all the time," remembers John O'Mahony, the former Galway manager uniquely positioned to discuss the merits of both formats.
O'Mahony came tantalisingly close in the last knockout championship, his team finishing runners-up in a replay. Two years earlier he led his adopted Tribesmen out of the All-Ireland wilderness. And then, in the inaugural year of the qualifiers, Galway recovered from the early June jitters to become the first ‘back door' champions.
"I remember in 2001 that your mind was playing all kinds of tricks with you," he recounts. "You were down in the dumps, and all of the bad petrol – mentally – had to get out of the system. You were trying to do that in three weeks, whereas you had a year to do it previously."
Facing into the Aughrim unknown, O'Mahony now admits: "We were scared going to Wicklow, simple as that."
Over time, he reckons, the better teams became far better equipped to deal with the psychology of that second chance, to view the qualifiers more as a "long-term project", to realise that you didn't have to be at "full tilt" in every game.
Straight knockout was different. "The cliff face that faced you," according to O'Mahony, shaped your entire preparation and mental approach. He also reckons that, in 2000, "the do-or-die thing" had a part to play in a summer of high-profile deadlocks.
That year produced five replays: Kildare beat Offaly and Derry overcame Antrim in provincial semi-finals; Kildare leapfrogged an imploding Dublin in the Leinster final; Kerry squeezed past Armagh in extra-time of a semi-final epic; and then repeated the day-two trick against Galway, by 0-17 to 1-10.
There will be no sequels in 2020: instead, extra-time and even penalties will ensure a same-day winner.
It's a moot point how many games will go the distance. Two decades of the qualifier system, 12 years of a four-division league hierarchy and now two Super 8 summers have all played a role in tightening the elite's vice-grip. Dublin have won nine on the spin in Leinster. Kerry have won seven Munsters in succession.
Back in 2000 the field was less lopsided, the outcomes less predictable. Just one defending provincial champion, Armagh, retained their crown. All-Ireland holders Meath fell at the first fence, to Offaly.
7 October 2000; Kerry Manager Paidi O'Se shakes hands with Galway boss John O'Mahony at the All Ireland Senior Football Final in Croke Park. Picture credit; Brendan Moran/SPORTSFILE
Galway were playing Kerry at a pitch-opener that same day. "The result came through from the Meath match," O'Mahony recounts, "and I said to Páidí, ‘You're in clover now, Páidí.' And little did I think that both of us would be meeting in the final."
Even as recently as 2008, unheralded Wexford could use a Division 3 title as the springboard for a run to the All-Ireland semi-finals. That seems far less likely today. Contrary to the still-peddled cliché that any team could beat another, "the evidence doesn't back it up," says Ó Cinnéide.
"You look at the National League, which is as hierarchical as it can get, you've eight teams in Division 1. Is there even such a thing as a ‘super eight' there?
"Dublin are just streets ahead, and then you have a few teams frantically trying to grab onto them, and then you've a few more teams that are just struggling for survival.
"I suppose Donegal are the last team to bolt, to jump ten places in the rankings."
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It's a dubious consolation, but at least Galway could claim that their day of All-Ireland agony bequeathed one notional title – Goal of the Season. It came early in that October replay – too early. "It would have been a great goal with ten minutes to go rather than ten minutes in. Life is never perfect!" O'Mahony muses.
It was scored by Declan Meehan, a marauding wing-back pulling the trigger at the end of a spectacular pitch-length move.
A move that might never have happened.
"I have a ‘50' – and it's going over the bar but Kevin Walsh is on the line and his hands go above the crossbar, knocks it down," Ó Cinnéide explains.
"To this day I think about it. It was the old Croke Park, and I took the ‘50' maybe half a yard outside the ‘50' because it was a s**tty auld spot. And I said, ‘Ah look, I'll have length anyway and I'll just take it here, a nice little tuft of grass.' Jesus, the small things.
"A critical part of that goal," he adds, "and I include myself in this: we didn't tackle hard enough in the forwards, whereas all the modern forwards are now putting more pressure on that ball coming out from the ‘50'.
"I saw that goal lately on Twitter, and I was looking at myself and saying, ‘Jesus, will you f***ing tackle?' That's the way the modern thinking is. Deccie Meehan obviously took off; it was a great pass by Paul Clancy over the head, this Beautiful Game stuff. And we actually ribbed Declan O'Keeffe afterwards: ‘Did you see it going past you at all, Declan?'
"That Galway team were so creative anyway. They'd fierce angles of running and changes of direction."
As for Clancy's no-look "telepathic pass", O'Mahony suggests he "could have done it with a blindfold on." In hindsight, the manager wasn't too surprised: Clancy and Meehan were close mates who always roomed together.
But here's the thing: would such a goal happen today?
You might cite another pitch-length manoeuvre leading to Jack McCaffrey's brilliant goal for Dublin last September: another example of a Kerry defence being caught too high up the field and lacking bodies to block off a turbo-boosted No 5.
But, as a general rule, you don't get that space even in Croke Park anymore.
"The game has changed," O'Mahony says. "That time, you had very little alterations to the structure that was there for years … whereas nowadays the mantra is, when the team is defending, there's at least eight or nine or ten defenders. It's like a basketball court rather than the old-style GAA pitch."
Another thing that has changed: 2000 was the last time someone playing as an orthodox full-back was named Footballer of the Year. In the age of ‘the blanket', where zonal defence has tended to eclipse man-for-man combat, it's a lot harder to single out standout displays of marking. But, 20 years ago, this was not the case as Séamus Moynihan produced four consecutive Croke Park exhibitions of last-ditch heroics, two against Armagh, two against Galway.
Ó Cinnéide highlights one cameo from his ding-dong with Oisín McConville where he executed a "full-length dive, and he blocked it out towards the corner flag … and jumped to his feet again and picked up his own block before anybody else got to it. Jesus, is there anything this fella can't do?"
And to think, Moynihan was a makeshift No 3, only moving back after Barry O'Shea ruptured his cruciate that spring.
"That year, to me, no more than Maurice Fitzgerald in '97, it was all about Séamie. He was the best captain I ever played with," Ó Cinnéide declares. "Páidí Ó Sé said it in his book or somewhere I've seen quoted, ‘I never saw a man that wanted to lift Sam Maguire so much'."
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THE MOODY BLUES
ONE factor has altered, above all others, since 2000. Dublin have morphed from moody Blues, a team you could never fully trust, into a killing machine that doesn't know when it's beaten.
Maybe because of this, the rest of Leinster especially has shrivelled. They no longer believe; in the face of so much double-digit trauma, how could they?
Ó Cinnéide references the old Meath psyche, one that never fears Dublin. "But that's all been bravado for the last 20 years," he clarifies, while their five-goal outlier in 2010 was "the last great moment in Leinster".
A shorthand synopsis of the 2000 Dublin/Kildare replay underlines how much the Leinster landscape has changed.
The original stalemate had been a 0-14 apiece thriller; Dublin caught fire in the second quarter of the sequel to lead by 0-11 to 0-5 at the midpoint. But on the restart, they conceded goals to Dermot Earley and Tadhg Fennin within 90 seconds. They played out the remainder like dead men walking, mustering a token point, as Kildare won by 2-11 to 0-12.
12 August 2000; Dublin's Jim Gavin in action against Kildare's Brian Lacey in the Leinster Senior Football Final replay at Croke Park. Picture credit; Damien Eagers/SPORTSFILE
The losing forward line included Jim Gavin (pictured) and Dessie Farrell, two future managers unable to halt Dublin's slide into misfiring stereotype. The next day's Irish Independent gave it the full GUBU treatment, the match report quoting those four damning words from the Charles Haughey playbook: "Grotesque, unprecedented, bizarre, unbelievable."
All changed, changed utterly. Dublin's evolution is a matter of historical record; it's debatable how much the qualifier system has facilitated their relentless march given that all seven All-Irelands in the last decade were won through the front door.
On that yardstick, how could you even argue that a team now managed by Farrell could be vulnerable in Leinster, just because the back door is gone?
O'Mahony certainly isn't touting the idea of Dublin being blindsided in their own province but, with the return of straight knockout, he predicts: "You'll definitely have an ambush somewhere along the line. Where it will be is the question."
Then he expands: "Actually, my own view is that Dublin have a difficult year ahead of them … with the Jack McCaffrey thing and a change of management and all of that stuff. They have the quality, definitely, to overcome the loss of Jack McCaffrey – but it will be difficult for them.
"There's a lot of dynamics there. On the face of it, if they keep winning, it's an easier one – they're champions in a few weeks."
Ó Cinnéide has heard lots of recent talk about Séamus Darby's iconic goal to scupper Kerry's five-in-a-row, how their slayers were immortalised. But that Offaly team were hardened; they didn't materialise out of thin air.
"The prize now for all the teams out there is who's going to stop Dublin? It was the same last year. But it doesn't make Dublin a lesser team. It doesn't make them train differently or think differently," he stresses.
"What's optimum conditions for a giant-killing act? It's usually bad weather. A few queer referee's (decisions), a bit of luck of course. And an absolutely ravenous team that have no sense of inferiority to an obvious superpower."
All that, and maybe even some "skulduggery" or "dark arts". While not condoning such tactics, the Kerryman adds: "It's just going to take something strange. The last ‘strange' thing we saw was Dublin/Donegal in the semi-final in 2011."
But here's the rub. He says only a team with "absolute belief" has a chance, and even that may not be enough.
"The team that comes with that is the team that's going to catch Dublin – on a bad day. It's going to have to be a bad day for Dublin, unfortunately for everybody else."