Monday 16 September 2019

Colm O'Rourke: 'Dublin still main act as show nears the final curtain'

Con O'Callaghan is one of many Dublin players who have improved on their already strong form of 2017. Photo: Sportsfile
Con O'Callaghan is one of many Dublin players who have improved on their already strong form of 2017. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

Now is a time for calm reflection before the final. For two counties, it's a rest period of two weeks; for the others, the long dark winter must be negotiated before hostilities resume.

In Mayo, that winter of discontent has probably started early, although club football will take priority when the championship resumes next weekend. Most of the Mayo team will probably have played only a couple of games with their clubs this year so far. They needed this week off to recover in body and soul after a gruelling few months while their clubs can at least take their mugshots off the dressing room walls. 'Have you seen this man?' Now at last the club get their men back.

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Tommy Walsh shone against Tyrone. Photo: Sportsfile
Tommy Walsh shone against Tyrone. Photo: Sportsfile

County players need to be cut a bit of slack too when they go back to their clubs. There is the initial disappointment for them to overcome, so getting enthusiasm back for another campaign with a different team is quite difficult. It takes a while, but good club men will be back at full throttle within a fortnight.

Too often, though, we see county players who would not be alowed to play with their clubs a week before a county match, being expected to play in vital club championship games within days of their biggest let down at county level. So much for player welfare. It only seems to work one way.

In theory these young men were available to their clubs in April. In practice it does not work like that and it would be much better if there were fewer games in the summer for counties and set windows for clubs. If there was no Super 8, for instance, then there would be no need for this artificial April slot which may sound good in theory but does not work. It would be very interesting to have a poll of county players to see how many club matches they played from the beginning of the year until their county departed the championship. I would be very surprised if the average was any more than two games.

Anyway, the show nears the final curtain and the main act was always going to be Dublin. They are like the avenging angel as they bring total destruction to all who stand in their way. Since last getting a proper test, by Mayo in the 2017 final, they have improved while most others have regressed. Paul Mannion, Brian Howard, Niall Scully, Con O'Callaghan and Jack McCaffrey are much better now while some have been seamlessly replaced and the rest have held their form at a very high level.

If Dublin win in a fortnight then the player of the year will take some picking. Mannion, the best point scorer in the country, or Brian Fenton, or Ciaran Kilkenny, or Howard, or a few others. The riches are embarrassing. Perhaps AIG could sponsor Dublin to go to Australia and play in the AFL - with the help of all the other Irish out there. It would be an interesting experiment for a couple of years. The big benefit here would be a competitive championship but the danger of course would be that the Dublin B team might still be too good.

For Mayo, the immediate future is not bright. There was a transition in process anyway and a lot of new players have emerged, but those who will depart now will leave a big hole. Things are not going to get better quickly. Mayo will still be competitive in Connacht, but the ship has sailed as far as an All-Ireland is concerned and with it the dreams and hopes of many great players.

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It is a moot point whether the love and genuine affection of the Mayo supporters has softened the blows of defeat when harsher judgement from within could have spurred them on more. Tough love if you like. Yet that group of players would probably have won at least one All-Ireland at any other time in the last 135 years. They ran into the greatest team ever and paid a heavy price for it. Those of us who were fortunate to win a gold medal can easily say that winning is not that important in the whole scheme of things, but it is not so easily understood by those who have invested a big part of their life and emotions in this quest and then ultimately failed. It can, and does, haunt a man.

For a long time, the second semi-final last Sunday was a rather turgid affair. The quality was not great either for much of it and Tyrone must still be wondering how they let a game slip away so easily when they seemed in control.

Yet, for all that, the final offers some promise of a contest. Who would have given Tyrone a chance against Dublin after they had been so easily dismantled in the big matches of the last two years?

Last week I wrote that Tyrone more or less threw the match in Omagh by putting out a very weak team which the management surely knew had little chance of beating even a second string Dublin outfit. It was a serious mistake to adopt this approach. Surely Tyrone should have been trying to beat Dublin to give themselves a lift going into the semi-final. What they were saying in practice was that they were happy to play Kerry. It backfired spectacularly.

Any objective assessment surely would have indicated that Mayo were the team to play. They had injuries, a campaign which had to have drained them physically and mentally, and they were coming off the back of a massive game against Donegal which required a huge effort. No team can recover from the high of that battle and build up again within a week. The planning department in Tyrone got it badly wrong.

As it was, Kerry did not impress me in the first-half. The Dart could have driven through the Kingdom defence without anyone laying a hand on it, while there was little shape to the forward line. There were times in the first-half when Paul Geaney and David Clifford were operating too far outfield. Tyrone must have been delighted to see the opposition's main scorers in positions where they could not score. Tyrone could easily have been out of sight by half-time. If Cathal McShane was as ruthless as Con O'Callaghan he could have gone for goals and finished the game.

Whether through inspiration or desperation Peter Keane saved his season with his substitutions. In particular, Jack Sherwood had a big impact at midfield and if his introduction was the inspired side of things, then bringing on Tommy Walsh, who had not featured much in earlier games was born out of desperation as little ball was sticking inside. Walsh brought calmness. He showed for ball, won it and laid it off to the right player in the right place. Geaney and Clifford got space and then showed their class.

The goal completely changed the game. Stephen O'Brien was the player who made the interception in his own half-back line, got on his motorbike and finished at the other end. It was a brilliant piece of hard, honest effort with a bit of genius thrown in.

He had been in trouble over the black cards issue but has now avoided a ban. I was watching from the terrace in Navan when, straight in front of me, he got a black card. I wrote the following day it was another stupid black card. He did not deliberately foul anyone and how he got it at all is one of the sorrowful mysteries. Another black card cock-up to go with the rest.

Finally, I am delighted that David Gough will referee this year's final for the simple reason that he deserved it on his performances this year.

To those Kerry people who are slightly concerned about where he works and also their view on his performance in a previous Dublin-Kerry semi-final I would say you need have no concerns. I know David very well. I had him for five years in our school and he has always been available, if at all possible, to referee challenge matches whenever I would ring him.

Yet despite being very friendly with him for a long time, we couldn't get a free to save our lives from him in big championship matches in Meath when I was manager of Simonstown. So Kerry need not worry in the least, they will get all they deserve and nothing more.

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