But if heroes are what you’re after, then the 71,000 hardy souls who turned their backs on their hearths and fetched up at Jones’ Road should be as far as you look. This was the biggest crowd ever to watch an Irish team compete in any sport anywhere in Ireland and each one of them deserves to be given a free ticket to an All-Ireland final some time in the next decade. OK, so the players were doing all the hard work, but at least they had the warm glow of glory to look forward to if they did their duty. The punters rolled through the turnstiles with nothing more than the faint hope of a half decent game as their putative reward.
And whaddaya know? They got it. A more honest, ferocious, keenly fought battle you couldn’t wish to see. Somehow, some way, as these two sides hurtled into each other and locked antlers like stags on a hillside, a thing of beauty was fashioned for the viewing pleasure of those who had shelled out their euro 25. There may have been 71,000 seats sold, but by the end, only their edges were being put to any use.
It’s really impossible to overstate the farcical nature of the conditions in which the game was played. Had the Aussies not had plane tickets with this week’s date on them, there’s a decent chance everyone would have been told to go home to their hot whiskeys and to come back in a week. As it was, the skills of the game were forgotten and no talent mattered outside of heart and guts.
The ball was rarely caught. It couldn’t bounce. Behinds were rare, overs even more so. Unders were a mere rumor. The wind howled relentlessly from the Hill down the pitch, making every second quarter a turkey shoot for whichever side was playing into the Canal End. Ireland scored 12 points in the first quarter, five in the second, 20 in the third and five in the last. Australia score four in the first quarter, 14 in the second, none at all in the third and 24 in the last. Statistics can tell many lies, but most of what you need to know about this game is reflected in those figures.
For Ireland, it was a mixed bag kind of day. Ciaran McManus, Cormac McAnallen and Anthony Lynch shone brightest through the gloom and they had to, as some of the more gleaming lights faded. Both Kieran McGeeney and Seamus Moynihan have walked much, much taller than this on Croker afternoons; Trevor Giles and Graham Geraghty have had happier experiences also.
The result was very much in doubt right up until the final hooter sounded and it was only a bewildering decision by Aussie referee Scott McLaren that left a sour taste in the mouth as the clock ticked dead. For the first time in the series, a player was penalized for overcarrying. The fact that it was an Irish player (Eamonn O’Hara) who was beginning an Irish attack left many supporters and players less than happy. As howls of derision rained down, Craig Johnson stepped up and popped the free over the bar to draw the sides level on the day and to put Australia seven ahead overall. The klaxon sounded as Stephen Cluxton’s kick-out was in the air.
A series win for the Aussies. A serious win for the series.