Funny thing, that. Here we sit in anticipation of the first weekend of the eighth month and all that lies in front of us is potential. It doesn’t matter a whit right now that what we’ve had up to this in both codes has hardly been enough to get people into their seats, never mind out of them. Attendances have been down this year, with only the Dubs keeping their end up. And yet, and yet. All across the country this week people will sit over pints rubbing their hands at the thought of what might be coming down the line.
This time last year, the football championship in particular had been shambles. That two narky, spiky games between Armagh and Tyrone had been the only afternoons worth tuning in for laid bare just how little there had been to see. But from the quarter-finals on, the season was rescued. Dublin vs. Tyrone was a blinder, Kerry vs. Mayo pretty as a pearl necklace, Galway vs. Cork and Laois vs. Armagh never short of spirit. The Tyrone vs. Armagh semi-final was a biblical tale and the final was the best of the decade so far. A season that had been meandering along straightened up and flew right in the closing two months.
It’s that thought that sustains us here and now. This has been a year remarkable only for the disciplinary shenanigans that have pockmarked it. From the CDC to the DRA, the GAA has been initialed to death since the spring and if the remaining games don?t save the season, it’ll be remembered as fondly as mange on a stray dog.
And so, Kerry and Armagh, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you. Saturday sees the first meeting of the two sides since the 2002 final, the day we all found out that the world wasn’t flat after all and that Kerry don’t win All Ireland finals as a matter of course any more. Last weekend, after their 4-11 to 1-11 win over Longford, Seamus Moynihan swore that this wouldn’t be about revenge. Nice try, Seamus.
Kerry are underdogs — and it’s rare indeed to see that sentence written. To describe their form as patchy is to be kind in the extreme. In fact, the best that can be said about them is that they’re here at all. Although a nine-point win was comprehensive, the fact that three kicks of the ball would have changed matters means it wasn’t wholly satisfying in Killarney last Saturday. The natives? restlessness is legendary down there and it was only partly sated with the Longford win.
Most encouraging from a Kerry point of view was the fact that a new — well, old as the hills really but new to this team — tactic worked a treat. It centrally involved Kieran Donaghy, an international basketball player who’s flitted in and out of the Kerry side for the past two years, never quite nailing down the midfield spot they’d earmarked for him. On Saturday, they stationed him Bomber-style on the edge of the Longford square and launched cloud-scraping balls in on top of him. All four of Kerry’s goals came through him, as well as a first-half penalty that Mike Frank Russell blasted straight at Darren Sheridan in the Longford goal.
All the while, though, it was hard to avoid the feeling that in a living room in Crossmaglen, Francie Bellew was sitting there dipping a Digestive biscuit in strong tea and willing the young Kerry beanpole to bring it on. You suspect that angels will dance on pinheads before Bellew will allow that amount of ball to go uncontested or unmolested in and around his house. Kerry’s direct route worked last week. It will be a surprise if it works as well this week.
It’s the stand-out game of the quarter-finals but by no means the only source of hope. Saturday will also host Cork v Donegal at Croke Park in the first game of the double bill. For Cork, it?s the opening leg of a two-part weekend in the capital, with their hurlers facing Waterford on Sunday (of which more in a mo). They have the advantage of an extra three weeks? preparation on Donegal who came through a wholly forgettable slog against Fermanagh in Enniskillen last Sunday. No guarantee they?ll make it count, though.
time for Morgan
Last week, a member of the Cork panel was doing an interview with local radio and when it was put to him that beating Kerry in the Munster final must have given them great confidence, the lad replied with an ever-so-humble, “Ah sure, we’ve nothing won yet.” A passing Billy Morgan felt compelled to intervene and inform the boy that, actually, in beating Kerry in the Munster final, they’d won the Munster title.
These are the perils Morgan finds dotted along his way as Cork manager. If Donegal beat them on Saturday, the Munster title won’t matter and he’ll likely get the road. Cork had a decent season last year but that was the one you get. One season’s grace. After that, it?s no good being a coming team. It’s time to arrive. Morgan knows that an All Ireland semi-final has to be the least of his achievements this year. Otherwise Donegal won’t lie down on Saturday. There’s a belligerence about them at the minute, a combination of youthful chippiness and a definite sense of having been wronged in the Paddy Campbell affair (in which, for the uninitiated, the Donegal full-back was retrospectively banned for an offence that took place a whole month before the CDC dreamed of punishing it and even then, only became an issue when it was clear that Wexford’s Matty Forde was to be censured. It was complicated. Shambolic and complicated.)
When Brian McIver was asked in the aftermath of the Fermanagh win what he’d said to his men at half-time, he spared nobody with his reply: “Look, it was easy for me to talk to them. All I had to say to them was to think about what had happened to Paddy Campbell. This was a performance for Nickey Brennan and the CDC and the boys in RTE. Let them look back at the tape of that game there and see if they can find anything wrong with it. Paddy Campbell is a young man, an exemplary sportsman who stood up an apologized to Enda Muldoon for what happened and just because he did that and because the GAA had to be seen to be doing something about Mattie Forde, he was singled out. It’s a disgrace. I didn’t have to say much to the boys. They knew how to get motivated.”
It wouldn’t be a GAA summer without the whiff of cordite in the air. Smells sweet, don’t it?
don’t fear Cork
The last part of the weekend to come has the potential to be the most fulfilling. Just like the quarter-finalists are charged with doing for the football, Waterford and Cork are what stands between a rescued hurling year and one consigned to oblivion. The quarterfinals were a torture, Limerick, Galway and especially Wexford slinking off into the abyss without scaring the horses. Waterford and Tipperary put together the game of the year so far, but if October dawns and it still holds that distinction, we’ll have had a year to forget.
Sunday has every chance of outstripping it. There is a feeling abroad that if anyone is to halt Cork’s arrow-straight course to the three-in-a-row, it’s the one team that has spooked them during their time of dominance. Waterford, for all their quixotic ways on other days, have never been afraid of Cork and their 2004 Munster final win remains the high-water mark of the sport this century. After being down, destitute and broken in the early part of this season, they’ve somehow managed to arrive at this weekend as the form team in the country, their stirring win over Tipp a marginally more convincing affair than Cork’s over Limerick.
Paul Flynn apart, all the principals are present and approaching correctness. Dan Shanahan is playing the best hurling of anyone left in the championship, with Ken McGrath not a million miles behind him. John Mullane has the worst day of his hurling life to make up for and Eoin Kelly the best day to repeat. Straw-clutching to an extent, certainly, but many reckon that if Cork are to be stopped, this is the side with the wherewithal to do so.
Any wonder hands are rubbing countrywide?