THIS HAS BEEN a really rather fantastic couple of weeks in the championship.
It feels like every Sunday night the ground has shifted underneath your feet — and if you’re from Donegal, you wake up today to the real possibility of your county ending the year as All-Ireland champions.
I hope you all went to at least one game this weekend because there’s just no other way to put this — this weekend was the most fun I’ve had since Newstalk’s live GAA coverage began in May 2011. Portlaoise on Saturday night, Clones on Sunday afternoon… these are salad days, no doubt about it.
Factor in Killarney on Saturday afternoon, and another instalment of the Dublin-Meath rivalry, and you have a weekend about as jam-packed with drama as you could hope for.
Portlaoise may have been the side-show to Killarney on Saturday night, but in the end it provided all the late drama and top-class football that we were expecting from the Kerry-Tyrone game, with none of the nastiness. And while we will talk about Kildare in due course, you actually can’t overstate how close Limerick came to a major shock.
I have to say — I didn’t see it coming. Kildare are the archetypal flat-track bullies — when they’re better than you, they’ll murder you. But Limerick were set up brilliantly, they defended magnificently both individually and as a unit, and were the better team for at least 45 minutes of the game. But they just couldn’t keep it up, and in the last quarter Kildare probably did enough to deserve extra-time.
I thought after the game that Kieran McGeeney would be raging with his team, but he was actually delighted at the spirit and the belief they showed, and really that’s the biggest compliment we can pay Limerick. And as for Kildare’s All-Ireland chances… well, what team had we seen this year that had put together a string of really strong, impressive performances? They were still in it, and at this stage, even with Kerry’s show of strength on Saturday, that means they’ve as good a chance as anyone.
But that was Saturday night, and I’m writing this after the events of Sunday afternoon. Donegal are the best team I’ve seen in this championship, by a margin.
In advance of the All-Ireland qualifier in Killarney between the two teams, we were talking last week on Off the Ball about the infamous 2003 All-Ireland semi-final between Kerry and Tyrone, a game which really set the tone for the entire decade of football that followed, and also the divides along north-south lines that unfortunately still permeates much of what passes for punditry these days.
The sheer toxicity of the reaction to that game was only surpassed by the aftermath of the Dublin-Donegal semi-final last year. But there are clear parallels now to be drawn between those two games. Tyrone did whatever they had to do to win, and last year Donegal tried to do the same. Having won the All-Ireland in 2003, Mickey Harte moved his philosophy on — Jim McGuinness is doing exactly the same thing now. Winning gives you confidence, and the belief coursing through the veins of the Donegal players and management at the moment is palpable.
When Leo McLoone got his goal in the first half, I threw my head around to see Jim McGuinness’ reaction. Hardly a flicker. When Frank McGlynn soloed through the heart of the Down defence to score their second goal, he permitted himself only the smallest of smiles. If you expect it to happen, why be surprised?
In fairness, the man’s not Rafa Benitez, and when the final whistle blew he made a point of hugging and embracing every single one of their players. If you thought for one second the expulsion of Kevin Cassidy caused irreparable damage, forget it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a manager and his players as close.
And as well as the confidence they took from last year’s Ulster title, they also perhaps learned lessons from that All-Ireland semi-final. Maybe Jim McGuinness realised he could let his players off the leash a little. Maybe he realised that his players are good enough to go out and blitz teams like they did on Sunday. In any case, they all believe it now. They were delighted to win an Ulster title, but that is not the summit of their ambitions… not by a long chalk.
It will take a team with 100% belief in their ability to beat Donegal. I think Dublin don’t have the stomach to beat them. I think Cork will concede goals to them. And I think they’ll outlast Kerry. I think Donegal will win the 2012 All-Ireland.
- This week Murph was – laughing for quite some time at the steward in Clones who told our co-commentator Liam McHale that he was up til 4am Saturday night / Sunday morning using one of his balers (google it, city folk!). Liam is from Ballina, and so is not a scion of the agricultural machinery dynasty that operates out of Kilmaine in south Mayo, but hey, who cares. And let’s be honest here, Liam McHale is a basketball-playing, shorts-wearing, perma-tanned, Steve Nash of the West… the man wouldn’t know a baler if it came up and challenged him to a game of H-O-R-S-E.