The players who had battled through to the last four deserved their moment at Croke Park. As paid-up investors in the stadium project by dint of their talent and commitment, they were entitled to walk out on the big stage.
That said, a paltry 23,000 spectators turned up to watch them. Instead of turning the place into the atmospheric bowl it was designed to be, the shouts of the players frequently drowned out those of the observers.
With Mayo pitted against Connacht rivals Galway in one of the semi-finals, wouldn’t it have made more sense – for the teams and for their supporters – if the game had been staged somewhere in the west of the country?
Equally, was it not asking too much of the Donegal faithful to make the long journey to Dublin when their match against Kildare could have been played at some more convenient halfway house?
Once more, there was talk about the state of the pitch as players on occasions struggled to keep their footing. Kildare midfielder, Killian Brennan, had to be stretchered off after just six minutes with an ankle injury that could have been caused by the slippery surface.
At last weekend’s Congress in Kilkenny, GAA president Nickey Brennan explained that the pitch would need major reconstruction over the next four or five years. He also said that the recent levels of activity at Croke Park, which had hosted 37 separate events over a 21-day period, could not be sustained.
“That is why the program of events for next year must be finalized soon, and I expect the pitch will be most likely out of action for a period of 60 days in 2008,” added Brennan who stressed that a maintenance program would be undertaken after Sunday’s National Football League final to improve the surface in advance of the summer championship season.
That final will see Donegal and Mayo going head-to-head following their wins over Kildare and Galway respectively. While some of the cynics have already predicted that Donegal’s run of eight victories in succession is a case of peaking too soon, they appear to be a team on a mission in this league campaign.
In other words, the championship can wait as they set their sights on what would be a confidence-boosting national title. Not even the loss of Brendan Devenney with a knee injury in the first half could halt Donegal’s progress and with Neil Gallagher and Kevin Cassidy looking sharp in attack, there were deserved 1-13 to 1-11 winners.
If Mayo’s narrow 2-10 to 1-12 success against Galway was an equally undistinguished encounter, it still marked Mayo’s gradual rehabilitation since last year’s All Ireland final meltdown against Kerry. Admittedly, next Sunday’s decider won’t have anything like the same intensity as a championship clash, but thanks to goals from Ger Brady and Alan Dillon, Mayo have an opportunity to redeem themselves at a Croke Park which will presumably be fuller and more atmospheric.
Keane leads the way
IT was a reasonable bet that somewhere along the line in his first season as a manager Roy Keane would stumble and fall. Not when it came to knowing what he wanted in a soccer sense, but Keane would surely clash with someone, and he and his club Sunderland would suffer.
However, that was last year when the former Manchester United star and Ireland captain stepped out of the tracksuit and into the suit. At that time, Sunderland were at the bottom of England’s Championship – the division below the Premiership – and not looking like they were moving up in a hurry.
Today, on the back of a 17-match unbeaten run which has included 14 wins, Keane and his team are four points clear at the top of the table and within touching distance of a remarkable return to the Premiership.
And typically, Keane inherited nothing from his predecessor. He was given unfettered support by the club’s board as well as a small amount of money to spend, but essentially, he had to rebuild on a shoestring. Ten new players, and an inexorable rise up the division later, Sunderland are this season’s English soccer success story.
Last Saturday’s 2-1 victory over QPR moved Sunderland clear, and if they win two more of their three remaining games against Colchester, Burnley and Luton, promotion will have been secured. The club has just a lucrative new sponsorship deal, and there has also been speculation that Keane will extend his contract as manager.
Already, he has proved himself an astute tactician by juggling his players around. “I’ve driven it through to them that 11 wouldn’t be enough to get us promoted,” said Keane. “You need a big squad and all these lads have got to accept it. I know players are upset, but nobody has kicked my door in yet and I wouldn’t expect them to. Actions speak louder than words: that means training properly, being on time, not sulking and taking your chances.”
Attendances were down to 24,000 when he arrived to take charge, now they’re closing in on 40,000 for home games. The club’s chairman, and Keane’s former international teammate, Niall Quinn, must be planning for next season.
His manager has created a team of winners. A team in his own image.
O’Sullivan winds down
IF stories of Sonia O’Sullivan’s retirement are probably exaggerated, last Sunday’s road race might just have been her last competitive appearance in Dublin.
What is certain is that O’Sullivan is on the last lap of an illustrious career and there was more than a hint of emotion as she crossed the line in the BUPA Ireland 10k race in the Phoenix Park in 11th place in a slow time of 37 minutes and three seconds.
“The race was a bit nerve-wracking, I wish I’d run with the fun-runners,” she explained. “Trying to run hard and at the same time acknowledging all the people who have supported me down the years made it difficult to concentrate.
“I’ll go away from this and see what I want to do really. The only way I’ll get a good race out of myself is if I really want to do it. I’ll see how it goes.”
O’Sullivan might run in the Cork City Sports in July, and then could sign off with a marathon towards the end of the year.