Friday 24 November 2017

Billy Keane: Ladies ride to Dublin's rescue as fatigue takes its toll on champions

Brian Fenton during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Dublin and Mayo at Croke Park in Dublin Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Brian Fenton during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Dublin and Mayo at Croke Park in Dublin Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

Dublin were saved by their women. The ladies football final will be held tomorrow between a feisty Dublin side and Cork, the team of the century so far, and probably for the next 84 years as well.

Some years back the GAA brought in an equality rule and it stated that the ladies should be given the day out all to themselves. In other words there would be no replay on the weekend of the ladies final if the men's final ended in a draw.

The reason for the rule was to ensure that a replay would not take from the build-up to the ladies final. The rule is an excellent one.

The Ladies GAA has almost 60,000 members now. We called for a ban on any GAA club who did not provide football for girls and women here a few years ago.

There are few if any clubs who do not have a ladies team, either on their own or by way of amalgamation.

Ladies president Marie Hickey from Laois reckons the previous record of 33,000 for a final will be beaten tomorrow. We might have the first ever 40,000-plus ladies final in Croke Park.

We watched the semi-finals, and the standard has improved year on year. The game is harder now and as we saw in the camogie final, ladies GAA has become more aggressive.

Cork are the most successful team in Irish sport. Dublin are going in as big underdogs but as we saw last Sunday, bookies make the odds, not the results.

Strange as it may seem, more men watch the games on TV than women, but the huge Lidl advertising campaign has greatly increased the profile of the ladies games. Ladies GAA was never stronger.

And why do we use the rather quaint and Victorian expression 'ladies', well, it's because the Ladies GAA so decided.

And who am I to argue with 60,000 women. In fact I have long since come to the conclusion that one good woman can do the work of ten men. And you wouldn't even know she was doing it.

In the men's final, the extra week will help Dublin to recover.

Dublin were clearly out of sorts last Sunday and I think I know why. Back a few years ago Kerry met Dublin in Thurles in a draw, and a replay. The two games were the usual mix of high-wire excitement and end-to-end thrills. I'll never forget the nervous exhaustion from just watching the matches.

A couple of weeks later Kerry played Meath in the semi-final. Kerry were annihilated. Meath's kicking was cybernetic on the day but Kerry played as if they had stones in their pockets.

The scene in a dressing-room after an All Ireland final resembles an emergency ward close to the front. Even the winners are wasted in the immediate aftermath of the game. It's down to the physical toil for sure but the mental tension takes as huge a toll.

Players are too tired to take off their boots. Some players lie flat out on the benches as if they were laid out for a removal. More can barely speak. Muscles are jelly and welts are turning purple.

Tim Kennelly couldn't put his legs under him after the 1978 final in the Kerry dressing-room. Kerry won. Tim told me afterwards it was a very scary feeling. Tim's close friend and toughest opponent Tony Hanahoe says it takes weeks to get over a Dublin Kerry game.

I was chatting with Billy Morgan at the launch of Donal Lenihan's superb autobiography in Cork Con on Thursday night. Billy managed Cork to win the two in a row back in 1989 and 1990.

"The mental strain makes players tired. Dublin's legs gave out near the end. You just don't know how much will be left in them until match day," he said.

Last Sunday's game was very tough physically. Dublin have a lot of mileage up and they only know how to play one way, which is at full tilt.

Remember, only one team has won two in a row in 26 years.

But for the ladies final replay rule, Dublin and Mayo would take place tonight. The six-day turnaround might well have finished off Dublin.

I'm not in any way taking away from Mayo. They were magnificent. Mayo would have beaten any team, including Kerry, on Sunday last. But this Dublin team, even when they play badly, are so difficult to beat. Someone drawing from some deep reserve of courage within somehow always seems to save the city. Last week it was Brian Fenton (pictured).

I had lost faith in Gaelic football. The game had been taken over by ball misers and was too tactical. Players were marionettes controlled by invisible strings but the last two Dublin games restored my faith. Gaelic football lives and breathes. But at what cost?

The top GAA teams are very professional and they train hard but we may overestimate that level of professionalism. I was guilty here of overstating just how much back up there was for Dublin. We had lunch with Jack McCaffrey lately and he told us that the oft repeated lie that Dublin were delivered their meals on wheels every day was just that, a lie.

Dublin are human and work for a living just like the rest of us. I'm sorry now for implying you can buy an All-Ireland. This is not true. Money helps, that's all. Mayo proved it's about skill and guts. And Dublin would never have won anything without those qualities.

So will Dublin win the replay and how much did the first final take out of them? Are mighty Mayo the fresher team, the improvers?

I'll let ye know next week, right here in this very spot.

Irish Independent

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