Monday, April 25, 2005

Armagh and Mayo - Men and Boys

Armagh 0-19
Mayo 0-14

This morning's Irish Independent quotes John Maughan as attributing Armagh's win over Mayo in Croke Park yesterday to Armagh's superior fitness. That analysis seems a little superficial - certainly, the fists in the air approach taken by current Maughan poster-boy Andy Moran compares poorly with the more impactful fists in the ribs approach favoured by Armagh in terms of effectiveness, but An Spailpín gets the feeling that, deny it though Maughan might, there could be more to this Gaelic football than running up mountains and eroding beaches.

When GAA pundits assembled to administer the pats on the head to Mayo for being such game sportsmen last year, one of the favoured pats on the head was for Ciarán McDonald, and what he was doing to bring kick passing back to Gaelic football. Which was very damned nice of the pundits, but they seem to have missed just what a fine kick-passing team Armagh are, and have been for a long time. McDonald can hit a spectacular pass and can do things with a football than would bring an envious blush to the cheek of a pool trick-shot artiste, but who else on the Mayo team kicks long, accurate and defense-splitting passes? As Armagh were beginning to pull ahead in the final ten minutes of the league semi-final yesterday balls were raining in on the full-forward line and were being collected by that same full-forward line. That's Gaelic football at its most fundamental operation, and Armagh are quite superb at it. Mayo are not, and it's as simple as that.

Right now three counties stand ahead of the pack when it comes to contending for the All-Ireland title - Kerry, Armagh and Tyrone. The ideal final would be a 2002 rematch, to see if Kerry have learned anything, and to see how well their more robust style of play measures up against the chaps who will be robust right back at 'em.

As well as being highly skillful, Armagh are highly, highly physical. When they charge in to make a tackle, it's going to hurt. They're also very inclined to bend the rules by continually body-punching opponents, on the basis that it looks like they're just attempting to get at the ball. Referees have turned a blind eye to this tactic for years, and it's not likely that they'll get scandalised about it now. In the meantime, Armagh will soften up all that come within their reach.

Kieran McGeeney was superb again yesterday - what a remarkable, what a fine player he's been, and he's been on the go for a long time now. A lot of attacking centre-half backs tend to be negligent when it comes to their basic defensive responsibilities, but McGeeney realised yesterday that Priority One as far as he was concerned was to make himself as a big a pain in Ciarán McDonald's ass as he knew how, and, as the country knows, there's nothing as painful as a narky Nordie. McGeeney shut down McDonald, and Mayo folded like a tent around him.

Peadar Gardiner is thrilling going forward, Ronan McGarrity and Billy Joe Padden are developing into a very handy midfield pairing (even though An Spailpín would bring back David Brady and have Billy Joe play at ten as a scrounger - for what ASF's $0.02 are worth), and time's fell hand is has made no impact yet on the imperious James Nallen, Mayo's most loyal servant over the past decade. But the full-back line creaks like a loose bannister rail that is going to break someone's bloody neck someday, and up front lacks focus and direction. With Roscommon in disarray and Galway in a period of transition Mayo could again be in the quarter-finals without breaking sweat but right now one gets the uneasy and profoundly depressing feeling that they are as the boxer who can run but cannot hide, and are waiting for another fatal punch in the nuts and another autumn of regret and infighting. Bugger.