Sunday 22 April 2018

Boys in green emerge from the garbage smelling of roses

Tommy Conlon

When the outcome of a match is no longer in doubt but there are still some minutes left on the clock, this dead time is dubbed 'garbage time' in American sport.

The entire 70-plus minutes of Dublin v Fermanagh last Sunday could've been deemed garbage time, before even a ball was kicked. Because the outcome was never in doubt from the moment the fixture was made.

There wasn't even the glimmer of a chance of a miracle result. A Dublin win was as certain as death and taxes. The glimmer of an outside chance was thought to exist in the curtain-raiser between Kerry and Kildare. And Kerry fairly quenched the candle on that remote prospect with an utterly imperious display of their class.

And now Fermanagh were coming into a Croke Park that suddenly felt more like the Colosseum after Kildare's bloodbath. We were facing a definite non-contest that could become another slaughter of the innocents.

And if we weren't already in garbage time at the very throw-in, we certainly were when Bernard Brogan finished to the net on 13 minutes. But lo and behold, rarely has a game with so much garbage time been so enjoyable.

Fermanagh first and foremost refused to capitulate. They kept playing; they stayed running; they kicked points.

And their supporters caught perfectly the mood of the occasion. They knew in their bones that their team wasn't going to win. So instead of holding onto some desperate hope, they held onto their sense of humour instead. They came to praise their team, not to bury them. They reacted to every forlorn point like it was a game-changing goal. A pocket of them on Hill 16 cheered, laughed and pogoed in their own mosh pit, surrounded by a sea of blue. It was a thoroughly endearing display of gallows humour as the ship went down.

And it helped, too, that Dublin decided not to fill their boots. In previous eras, when it was more about swagger than substance, they'd have gone to town on small fry like this. But it was notable that on this occasion they eased off in their intensity and industry while Kerry, traditionally inclined to calibrate their output against weaker opponents, decided to go full metal jacket on Kildare.

If anything could be gleaned about Dublin from this somewhat artificial occasion, it was their tendency to hit the full-forward line with long, early deliveries. Time and again when they had plenty of space in which to carry the ball, they looked up for movement inside, and promptly let it fly instead.

Brogan was the chief beneficiary of this policy. Midfielder Brian Fenton picked him out with a marvellous 40-metre diagonal ball in the 10th; Jack McCaffrey drilled one in over the top of the last defender three minutes later; Diarmuid Connolly drove long to the endline which again left Brogan one-on-one with his marker. He picked up 1-2 from those three balls alone.

Dublin also at times ran with possession and short-passed their way through the lines, but the direct, early ball is presumably a tactic and a strategy against teams looking to flood their defences.

After the goal, Hill 16 found its voice and their old anthem was suddenly rolling around the ground. Fermanagh's players could've been forgiven for feeling a little bit lonely as 'Come on You Boys in Blue' came rumbling down onto the field.

But Pete McGrath has done a top-class job with this team and reminded everyone else, in passing, of his distinguished achievements with Down over 20 years ago. McGrath is a senior statesman of the game now and showed a bit of old-school courtesy in his warm exchange with Jim Gavin at the final whistle. The cold, cursory handshake among contemporary managers has become the norm, and it is not a heartening sight.

Meanwhile, Barry Mulrone, among others, is having a heroic match for the underdogs. He kicks two in two minutes late in the first half and Fermanagh are hanging on by their fingernails.

And now the cult figure du jour, one Seán Quigley, comes to the party with two banging long-range points either side of half-time.

Still, there's a worrying 13 points between them as the match peters into its final 10 minutes. Then Tomás Corrigan produces some dancing footwork in heavy traffic to keep the ball alive. This attack culminates in Stephen Cluxton catching the ball beneath his crossbar - and promptly getting hooshed over the goal line by Quigley. A veritable pizza-powered pushover goal.

Of course it's a free out. But Quigley argues with the umpires, and referees his way to a green flag. As Ronald Reagan once remarked in a slightly different context, the head says it was wrong but the heart says it was right. The sight of the green flag sends the Fermanagh Ultras into fresh raptures.

Like a goaded bear, Dublin slap down the impertinent guerrillas with a goal of their own. But we're freewheeling into comedy now and Corrigan pounces on a keystone cops mix-up in the Dublin square. If ever a player can be described as "gleefully" scoring a goal, this is he; Corrigan is loving his moment in the sun.

The Dubs come again with another point but fittingly it's Fermanagh who have the final say: Quigley's massive free with the last kick sails over. It's the cherry on top. They've emerged from the garbage smelling of roses.

Sunday Indo Sport

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