Sunday 25 March 2018

Joe Brolly: Diving, stalling, mean-spiritedness - the Tyrone-Monaghan 'game' was depressing

Thank God for Aidan O'Shea - he rescued a sad day for football, says Joe Brolly

Monaghan players Kieran Hughes and Conor McManus in a tussle with Tyrone players Ronan McNamee and Tiernan McCann during yesterday’s All-Ireland SFC quarter-final at Croke Park
Monaghan players Kieran Hughes and Conor McManus in a tussle with Tyrone players Ronan McNamee and Tiernan McCann during yesterday’s All-Ireland SFC quarter-final at Croke Park

Joe Brolly

The only thing one can say about Martin Duffy is that he is not as bad as his brother.

The Tyrone-Monaghan game, if one could call it that, was won courtesy of a series of soft frees, mostly resulting from diving. The Invisible Man resumed his vendetta on the Cavanagh brothers, though only in the scoring area. It is remarkable how well balanced they are when they are out the field. There, breaking tackles is easy. Inside the opponent's half however, the Croke Park grass becomes an ice rink.

The match was everything that is bad about modern Gaelic football. Darren Hughes tousled Tiernan McCann's hair in the last quarter. McCann threw himself to the ground holding his face.

In the 39th minute Connor McAlliskey went down clutching his face, rolling on the ground. The crowd actually laughed. When the referee showed no interest, he sprang to his feet, joined the attack, received possession and kicked for a point, narrowly missing.

In the 53rd minute, Seán Cavanagh went to ground after minor contact and lay there for a full two minutes, apparently stricken. Eventually, he got slowly to his feet, checked his head again and within ten seconds was sprinting for a ball which he won.

In the 70th minute, brother Colm went down in identical fashion. He lay on the ground for two minutes (punctual boys the Cavanaghs). He then gingerly got to his feet holding his head. Then, miraculously, took off to receive a short pass. In fairness, they recover quickly.

Conor Meyler, the Croke Park debutant, provided the most hilarious moment of the day, throwing himself into a Monaghan player, then crumpling in a heap on the ground. In fairness to Marty, he got that one right. It should also be pointed out that he was in an almost impossible position, since the diving, stalling and mean-spiritedness was overwhelming and systematic. It was a depressing, soul-destroying 80 minutes (almost 10 minutes injury time for all the non-injuries) and a defeat for the human spirit.

Some of the really good Tyrone lads like Mattie Donnelly, Justin McMahon and Peter Harte must cringe at what is happening around them.

As for the football, it was dull and formulaic. A flock of pigeons settled in the Monaghan scoring zone, pecking for worms, as it was the safest place on the field. As the game wore on, they moved to the Tyrone scoring zone and feasted there. Not a human to bother them. Both teams shuffled up and down. Tyrone had more scoring threats and slightly better footballers.

But, in the end, Marty Duffy was the difference. The soft frees either side of half-time were critical and had the crowd shaking their heads.

As a Tyrone man beside me commented: "Fuck me."

Words you never thought you'd use in the same sentence: Mayo's tactics were spot on. For the first time in a big game in Croke Park, they didn't leave their full-back out to dry.

Instead, 6' 6" Barry Moran was stationed as the guardian of the square in front of Michael Murphy. It killed two birds with one stone. Firstly, there was no high ball threat and Donegal soon stopped even trying it. Secondly, it meant Mayo were guarding their square against goals. It must have given their full-back line an unusual warm feeling.

Even better, Colm Boyle came back and helped, so for once, when Mayo lost possession, they were not running back in a panic towards their own goal. It meant that the game was nowhere near the normal fever pitch of a Mayo game, where their supporters' hearts are in their mouths. But, it was winning football.

The other part of their strategy worked to perfection. For most of the first half, Mayo were unable to shake off bad habits. They held possession too long and dilly-dallied as Aidan O'Shea frantically waved and screamed for the long ball to the square.

Then his brother Seamus - used to this at club level (Big Aidan scored a first-half hat-trick from Seamus' assists in their recent club championship match), launched one. Aidan caught it over the McGees and was held for a tap-over free. Mayo were up and running.

Then, in the last minute of the first half, with Donegal only a point behind against a strong breeze and dreaming of the ambush to come, Seamus launched another one. This time, Aidan caught it, brushed the two markers off, daintily stepped through them and finished beautifully. It finished Donegal as well.

Their strategy - as we saw in last year's final - depends on being in touch. At four points behind, they were dead.

Another benefit of having the bull of Breaffy on the square was that, for another long ball, he crashed into the 'keeper Paul Durcan and Neil McGee. McGee stayed on his feet for a second, but like a boxer whose body reacts slower than his brain to the knock-down blow, he suddenly staggered and went to ground. He never recovered. Nor did Donegal.

I like Mayo. I like them a lot. Thank God for them yesterday, because there was nothing else. As the race to the bottom continues, the conversation in Croke Park was all about whether we'll have a game at all in a decade's time.

And about Aidan O'Shea, God bless him.

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