Colm O'Rourke: 'McGeeney free at last as Armagh see the light'
If you want a great contest and are not too worried about great football, then last Sunday's game between Down and Armagh is the sort of championship match we need more of.
There was long kicking, high fielding, poor football, dreadful mistakes, bravery, stupidity, terrible shooting, plenty of mouthing and some fantastic scores. Maybe it was a fairly standard Ulster championship match, but if there had been a replay I think even more supporters would turn up the next day. This was entertainment, maybe on the raw side at times, but never less than enthralling.
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Kieran McGeeney must have wondered at the end of normal time if it was a case of those who the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad. His team was a man up and in control during the second half, yet they nearly let it slip. Now McGeeney is free at last and his team has won an Ulster championship match. For a man in management for ten years without a provincial win in either Leinster or Ulster he still seems to command greater loyalty than much more successful managers. It is extraordinary in an environment where managers - irrespective of their ability - have a short shelf life if they don't get wins.
McGeeney is also very fortunate that the authorities have given him a free pass for his shoulder on Down's Kevin McKernan. It was harmless but if McKernan had decked him in return there probably would have been all out war. Whose fault would it have been? McGeeney should leave the hitting to the players.
Armagh now face Cavan and both will fancy their chances of reaching the Ulster final where they will be outsiders, no matter who comes through the other side of the bear pit. Armagh look to have a future. Two of the best players last Sunday were Rian O Neill and Jarlath Óg Burns. They will be around for a while and will get better.
The sending off of Caolan Mooney was a pivotal moment. I am somewhat surprised at some commentators using the word 'dangerous' and then seeing the incident as a yellow card rather than red. If it is dangerous to a player then it is red - the words 'dangerous' and 'yellow' are not compatible. It was certainly bad timing and the Armagh player was going down so it looked pretty bad, but lack of intent is not a defence. There could hardly be much complaint with the referee's decision.
The game the night before in Cavan was also a very good contest. Maybe it took a while to get going or perhaps it took Monaghan a while to get going.
Monaghan actually reminded me of one of those old tractors you would try to start on a frosty morning. They would do a lot of chugging and spluttering, lots of black smoke but when warmed up well, it could do most things. Monaghan did not get to the pitch of the game for a long time and when they did the gap proved beyond them. In fairness, Cavan set out their stall straightaway and went at it hammer and tongs. They were helped by the phantom penalty early on.
New manager Mickey Graham has his team playing with a bit of confidence and direction. They also had the two best players on the pitch in Dara McVeety and Martin Reilly. Neither are big enough to pull an ass out of a sand pit but they are brave, hungry, honest and skilful. That trumps brawn every time.
This was not a result out of the blue. Cavan played quite well in a lot of League games and were somewhat unfortunate to go down from the top division. This is at a time when their manager was trying to ride two horses - Mullinalaghta and Cavan - which must have put huge pressure on him physically and mentally. It is hard to run one team properly but attempting it with a top club side and an ambitious county team is hard to juggle, not to mention having some sort of normal life and work as well.
The demise of Monaghan has been greatly exaggerated, but this was no shock. The latter rounds of the League saw them in a bit of a spin and the loss of Darren Hughes was a huge blow, especially as there is a shortage of midfielders with Niall Kearns only on the early part of a comeback to full fitness. Yet they had lots of chances and lots of very bad wides. Some of their greatest warriors are not what they once were and they were light on impact subs.
Like Robert Frost in the poem, they have to now make the best of the road less travelled and it has not been their friend in the past. For Frost it made all the difference, in Monaghan's case I would not be too sure. It must seem a long way back to where they were in August last year and there is a feeling that the boat has sailed for a lot of this present Monaghan team. Getting to last year's final would have been great for the county - they would never have beaten Dublin but being there would have been a triumph in itself.
The entertainment value of these games should not be used anywhere as an excuse that the championship is working well or that a lot of teams have no chance. It is worth stating again that games between counties of similar standing will produce great contests, leaving aside the quality.
Both Ulster matches last weekend had all that - two Division 1 teams playing each other, and one from the second, Armagh, playing another, Down, who narrowly failed to get promotion from Division 3.
We should get similarly intense, close, competitive games today in the Leinster championship between Kildare and Longford and more especially a repeat of the Division 3 League final in Laois v Westmeath.
It won't be the same in Ulster this weekend. We saw it last night when Tyrone, one of the best teams in the country, played Antrim, who could not get promoted from the bottom division. In fact, Antrim won only three games so this was a mis-match. How do they feel about the Ulster championship and what does it do for them?
The same could be asked of Fermanagh today, even though they were in last year's final and have performed with great credit in Division 2. This is leaving playing style out of it, that is a completely different debate. Nobody can remember Antrim winning an Ulster title and Fermanagh have never won one.
They cling to the hope and aspiration of winning the Ulster championship, but I often wonder if they played in a competition which they actually won, would it have greater benefit for the promotion of football in the county?
For Fermanagh I am conscious of William Butler Yeats and his lines in He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven: "But I, being poor, have only my dreams, . . . tread softly because you tread on my dreams". Would some other type of competition tread on everyone's dreams or would it liberate counties who have been weighed down by the force of provincial failure? Answers on a postcard to the new fixtures committee in Croke Park.
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