Elsewhere, Kerry lost their Munster title to a resurgent Cork and will now have to tackle Longford in the qualifiers, while Conor Mortimer’s late free enabled Mayo to edge out Galway in the Connacht decider at Castlebar.
With All Ireland champions Tyrone’s season already at an end, and with Kerry just about treading water, Armagh are lurking in the shadows with designs on another title. But if the events of last Sunday are anything to go by, Dublin have emerged as favorites to lift the Sam Maguire cup for the first time since 1995.
If it took them some time to find their feet against Offaly, they finished the game in a blaze of scoring glory. Appropriately, Jason Sherlock, the only survivor from 11 years ago, thumped home a goal at the Hill 16 end three minutes from the end.
Soon, the Croke Park pitch was a sea of blue as the Dublin supporters swarmed towards the Hogan Stand where their team were crowned Leinster champions. In the recent past, there never seemed to be enough substance behind the hype as far as the Dubs were concerned. On current evidence, that has changed.
Dublin have always had enough talented players to make a run at the championship every year, it’s just that some of those players haven’t always been on the pitch. Spoiled for choice? Definitely, but also routinely burdened by expectation. No matter how good, mediocre or indifferent the team was, it was always going to be Dublin’s summer.
Various managers dithered over selection, and their indecision gnawed away at the players’ self-belief. With their strength in depth, they should have been ruling Leinster after ’95, but Kildare, Meath, Offaly, Westmeath and Laois all realized that the schoolyard bully would take a step back if someone squared up to him. Dublin became football’s serial underachievers.
But now they have held on to several players who have been hardened by disappointment. Ciaran Whelan is playing the football of his life, and goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton is a rock at the back of the defense. Add in Sherlock who continues to provide honest toil as well as the occasional spark of class, and the team has its leaders.
To complement the experience, Bryan Cullen, Conal Keaney, Shane Ryan and Alan Brogan are maturing into match-winners in their own right. They are far from perfect as they showed in earlier encounters with both Longford and Laois, and they were held with relative ease by Offaly during last Sunday’s first half.
Alan McNamee’s sending off for a second yellow card offense was a turning point, but Dublin still had to take advantage of the extra man, something which has proved beyond many good teams. But with Mossy Quinn, Brogan and Keaney suddenly finding the range, Dublin did more than just take advantage, they cut through Offaly with the sort of pace and determination that have marked them out as favorites to end a barren spell.
“The Longford game is a long time ago,” said manager Paul Caffrey. “Every match is different and the good thing about these guys is that they are learning to win.”
Caffrey’s players now await the winners of the Galway-Westmeath game in the quarter-finals. The first chords have been struck of what could be a rhapsody in blue.
Harrington wants to
emulate Daly at Hoylake
Royal Liverpol, aka Hoylake, is the venue for the British Open which starts on Thursday. None of the current players know too much about this austere piece of linksland wedged between the Mersey estuary and the Irish Sea, as the season’s third major championship hasn’t rolled into Liverpool since 1967.
Phil Mickelson might have done nearly 10 days of his by now routine reconnaissance, and Tiger Woods flew in last weekend to prepare with his own series of dawn patrols, but Hoylake has no history, and no reference points for golf’s elite of today.
The suggestion has been made strongly that Hoylake wasn’t erased from the British Open roster because the course wasn’t good enough – although Golf Digest magazine has already stuck the boot in calling it a links which “punishes only the weak and meek” as well as “visually disappointing,” “monotonous” – it was more that the site was too small to cater for a burgeoning major championship.
So, Hoylake bought an extra 10 acres of land, modified parts of the course which had become outdated, and won its place back on the list of Open venues. Not as rich in tradition as St Andrews, and not as majestic as Royal Birkdale, but it’s home for the British Open this week whether the players or Golf Digest like it or not, and someone has to win.
For living historians of the game, Hoylake in 1967 means Roberto de Vicenzo, the easy-going Argentine who won the Claret Jug at the age of 44, and then lost the Masters the following year in controversial circumstances. De Vicenzo held off the challenges of Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer and was so overcome with emotion as he played the final hole that he was barely able to hit his approach to the green.
But for the Irish, Hoylake goes back further to the monochrome world of Fred Daly because in 1947, Daly became the first – and only – Irish player to win a major when he defeated the famous American amateur, Frank Stranahan, and Reg Horne by one stroke.
To think that nearly 60 years on, no Irishman has managed to emulate Daly’s feat. The great Christy O’Connor Sr. was a runner up at the British Open in 1965, but in those days, players of his caliber from Britain and Ireland didn’t travel to America for the other three majors.
Darren Clarke also finished second at Troon 1997, Padraig Harrington missed a four-man play-off by one shot when Ernie Els won at Muirfield in 2002, and Harrington also came close at the recent US Open at Winged Foot where he was joint leader with Mickelson standing on the 16th tee in the final round. But Daly stands alone.
There was a time when Harrington played down the importance of majors in his schedule, but now at 34 he has admitted that it’s time he became the first Irishman since Daly, and the first European since Paul Lawrie in 1999, to capture one of golf’s most prized titles.
“It’s definitely time to push on in the majors and to make sure they’re the focus of my year,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve made it to a Woods or a Mickelson standard, and I want to win big events in Europe as well, but what I need to do is to be at a major for the sake of that championship alone. I mustn’t be looking past it, or outside it.”
A recipient, along with Paul McGinley, of an honorary degree at NUI Maynooth last week, he has also established a golf scholarship program at the university in memory of his father Paddy Harrington who died just over a year ago.
The bitter disappointment of finishing with three consecutive bogeys at Winged Foot where he was eventually fifth has been offset by his qualification for Europe’s Ryder Cup team. He won’t be overly concerned about history, won’t be thinking about Fred Daly this week, but with Mickelson still recovering from his U.S. Open meltdown, and with Woods only playing his third tournament in three and a half months, he has every chance of contending at Hoylake.
Recently Colin Montgomerie was asked about Europe’s struggle to get back among the major winners. “If it’s not me, then I think Harrington is most likely to do it. You might think that’s strange because of Donald, Howell, Garcia, Clarke and Olazabal, but I think Harrington has the best overall game. He’s very, very good.”
Couldn’t have put it better.
gets new job
He no doubt wouldn’t agree, but you could say that Sean Kelly has gone from the frying pan into the fire. The most recent president of the GAA, now Kelly has been appointed as head of the newly established Irish Institute of Sport.
Situated on the National Sports Campus at Abbotstown in West Dublin – where Bertie Ahern once had grand plans to build a national stadium – the institute, at this stage anyway, has a clear goal.
Mass participation is well and good, but Kelly has been charged with getting the best out of Ireland’s elite athletes, and with negatives rather than positives so often making up the fall-out from participation in the Olympic Games, Kelly certainly has a demanding job on his hands.
The institute will play a key role in preparing athletes for the Beijing Games in two years time, but in particular for the London Games in 2012.
We’ll be watching.