Monday 20 November 2017

New blood fires football to top of summer charts

For sheer quality and drama, the football championship left hurling in the shade, says Damian Lawlor

L AST week, after signalling his retirement from commentating, Micheál ó Muircheartaigh selected his 50 top championship moments across 62 years of broadcasting. His greatest was Wexford's 1956 All-Ireland hurling final win.

But it was his second choice that really caught the eye. A contemporary choice: Tipperary's recent success over Kilkenny.

"Tipp took up the challenge," he wrote. "Swarming towards Tommy Walsh from the throw-in to lay down a marker. It was a terrific game played with honour, great scores and great personal displays. It was as good a championship as Tipp ever won. Lar Corbett's three goals were very special -- each of them a crashing blow to Kilkenny, as their five-in-a-row dream was no more."

And yet, while the football final paled in comparison to the hurling decider, the small ball game was totally eclipsed this season. At the very least, this was the best football campaign since 2005 when there were two pulsating Dublin-Tyrone games and the Kerry-Tyrone drama to enthuse over. Remember Eoin Mulligan's wonder goal against the Dubs and the Tyrone/Armagh rivalry in a season that saw 104 goals scored?

This year, eight games went to replays or extra-time; the final was won by just a point, as was one of the semi-finals. The other was won by two points.

There are plenty of reasons, of course, why Gaelic football thrived this season. Firstly, the usual one; 32 counties compete for Sam Maguire and only 12 for the Liam MacCarthy Cup.

More counties are capable of actually winning the football championship while only three, maybe sometimes four, can feasibly land a hurling title in a given year -- the 1990s may have been the exception to that rule, but these past 10 years it's been Kilkenny, Cork and Tipp.

Also, counties emerged from nowhere this summer in football. And once the fussy old handpass directives were eased out, the championship opened up.

We ended up with four All-Ireland semi-finalists, all of whom were capable of landing the title, none of whom had won one in recent times, and the crowds came back in droves after disappointing early attendances.

There was huge value placed in landing a provincial crown; Limerick went all out in Munster, Louth were wrongfully denied the Delaney Cup. Roscommon, now slumming it in Division 4, took the Connacht crown from Sligo's grasp.

But, funnily enough, just a few weeks later, the provincial championships came under fierce scrutiny, as not one of the four defeated finalists progressed to the All-Ireland quarter-finals. And each of the regional champions was knocked out in their next contest. It only added to the intrigue.

Amidst all this, hurling slipped into the back seat. Limerick disintegrated after their strike and Cork, after an amazing start, struggled to recapture heights of the past. The usually dynamic Waterford went defensive with crowding tactics. Seeing Waterford pack their defence and spurn sporadic forward play was equally hard to take. Wexford bowed out of the qualifiers with a whimper and Offaly's development wasn't enough.

All the time, football was getting the headlines. Like Louth's breathtaking June defeat of Kildare, when both teams played a free-flowing, uninhibited game; and Meath smashing five goals past Dublin in the Leinster semi-final and then taking the crown in a blaze of controversy against Peter Fitzpatrick's side. The footage of that closing chaos will be shown as long as there are archives in Montrose.

It was a year of goals, 101 in total, many of them great. But it was also the season which saw the return of long-range point scoring with the likes of Paudie Kissane, Alan Costello, Hugh Lynch, Donie Shine and Joe Sheridan all excelling.

Early summer, indeed, brought much promise in the championship. Armagh's performance against Donegal in Crossmaglen, then Monaghan's against Armagh; the Cork-Kerry clashes, as usual, caused a stir, as did another near-miss from Limerick.

Or what about Kildare's back-door resurgence and the emotion running through Dermot Earley junior on the night he played against Antrim, having buried his father earlier that day? Or Longford catching Mayo on the hop?

As the qualifiers progressed, James McCartan's Down team began to emerge. They showed no mercy to an emotionally fragile Sligo team and then went a step further in the All-Ireland quarter-final when they got off to a flying goal-scoring start against Kerry. Another seismic shock that Saturday afternoon in Croke Park.

We didn't have to wait too long for the next bolt from the blue. A heavily criticised Dublin outfit, struggling all through the summer, blew Tyrone off the field. They had Bernard Brogan, the player of the year-elect, firing pistols all over the place. If one guy summarised what this year's championship was all about, it was him and his haul of 3-42.

"I went to games everywhere and Brogan was the best thing about the 2010 championship," says former Waterford manager John Kiely. "He was like a hero playing the lead role in one of those movies; he single-handedly took on mass defences and almost shot Dublin into an All-Ireland final. It was a great year for football and Bernard was the symbol for it."

As we got down to the final four, with tensions rising and the stakes increasing, we assumed there wouldn't be much more palaver. Defences would surely be shored up and fewer chances taken. We were wrong.

The Down-Kildare semi-final was a gallant tussle, finishing, fittingly, with Rob Kelly crashing the ball past a clutch of Down defenders and off the upright from the most impossible of positions. Earlier, the game was influenced by a square ball that wasn't given. More drama, more talking points.

The Dublin-Cork semi-final didn't disappoint either. The Dubs had it wrapped up and Brogan was on the way to beatification until he ran out of steam and kicked a few wides, as did Eoghan O'Gara. Cork bounced back off the ropes, used their burgeoning bench, and stole the game.

So, while the final itself might have not been the stuff of drama and legend, it didn't need to be. We were simply spoiled by the football before it.

Hurling will always command massive respect because it's more skilful and faster. And over 118,000 attended the five Munster championship fixtures; an impressive turn-out.

This year's final was the rebirth of a great rivalry, a five-in-a-row bid was derailed and new champions were installed. A whopping TV audience peaking at 1,236,000, tuned in on final day. It was the biggest rating ever enjoyed by a hurling decider. But away from the glamour of the first Sunday in September, the same problems exist as they did way back -- there are too few teams capable of challenging for Liam MacCarthy.

Football was the real winner this summer. And with the likes of Louth, Down, Sligo and Roscommon bursting through, giving the media a new angle and supporters' new heroes, the game benefited. Paddy Keenan, Benny Coulter, Michael Darragh Macauley, Dan Hughes, Noel O'Leary, Fergie O'Donnell, Charlie Harrison and John Galvin; guys who lit up the summer. Guys who gave us our best football championship in years.

Sunday Independent

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