Sunday, September 25, 2005

The All-Ireland Final, 2005

Tyrone 1-16
Kerry 2-10

For the past three weeks, the nation has been hearing that this All-Ireland final was to be Kerry's coming of age. Kerry hadn't faced a Northern team in their 33rd successful All-Ireland campaign last year - Derry don't count, you know - and so, by dispatching Tyrone, Kerry would once again be returned to their undisputed and regal throne.

Except for the fact, of course, that nobody seems to have told the Nordies that this was the agreed script. The first six minutes were as advertised, with Kerry slashing through the Tyrone backs, brave Cooper leading in the van. As well as a typically effortless point, Cooper set up Dara Ó Cinnéide's opportunist goal - a goal the under-rated Ó Cinnéide did very well to score, with a Tyrone man attached to his back like a limpet - and the gloss was beginning to return to the Kingdom's ermine.

And then, slowly and inexorably, Tyrone started to reel the Kerrymen back. The time between Kerry's last score and their next grew longer and longer, as Kerry found it harder and harder to find their men, and their men found it harder and harder to find the posts. The swarm defence was in full operation, as the Tyronemen mercilessly and clinically choked the life out of the Kerry attack, just as any defence aspires to doing. Sometimes Tyrone had only three men in the Kerry half of the field, the rest having retreated to bail water where-ever the pressure was at its utmost among their rearguard.

And then, with the game past the half-hour, came a mortal blow. Owen Mulligan jumped high to flick a ball back and into the path of the onrushing Peter Canavan. Goal. Kerry got a point back, through Dara Ó Sé I think, to give themselves hope, but they still went in at half-time three points down and with much to ponder.

In the half-time radio analysis, Ray Silke implored Jack O'Connor to put someone in at centre-half forward to act as a focus of an attack that was now getting swamped and smothered, but it seems that O'Connor was not as inclined to tune in to Radio One as An Spailpín Fánach. No change was made in the Kerry divisions at the half, but Mickey Harte took off Canavan for Tyrone. Canavan had been outstanding, and Harte was always going to bring him back for the last ten minutes. It's hard to go into battle without your best guy, but Harte knew that effectively losing a substitution by taking off Canavan to bring him back again made more sense than for the Canavan to ask for one more effort from his 34 year old limbs in the sixty-eighth minute, and for his limbs to be unable to reply.

While Canavan watched from the Hogan Stand shadows, the Kerry attack was looking increasingly forlorn. Mike Frank came on with twenty or twenty-five minutes to go, but no ball came to him - the fight was being lost further out. Tomás Ó Sé scored a fortuitous goal with five minutes to go to give Kerry a lifeline, but this too was shredded and cast to the winds by a Tyrone team who really wanted it more than Kerry did. Kerry thought since their win last year that they had caught and passed the Ulster Revolution; the fact is that Ulster have moved on further again from where the Kingdom had mentally marked them, and the greatest football county in Ireland is off the pace once again.

As I stood on the Hill watching a Tyrone win become more and more inevitable, I wondered if this was what it was like in 1960, when Down outgeneralled Kerry and shut down Mick O'Connell, the greatest midfielder in the history of the game. We are now on the verge of a new epoch in the game, and it's now time for the GAA, the President of the GAA, the DRC, the Central Council, Liam Mulvihill, Congress or who-ever it is that's supposed to be in charge to decide how they want the game of football to be played in the 21st Century. As it's played now, with this strange nether-world existing between what's foul play in the book and what's foul play in actuality, someone is going to get seriously hurt because no-one can agree when a punch is a punch.

Tom O'Sullivan of Kerry got a yellow card for punching Tyrone's Brian McGuigan in the second half. Striking or attempting to strike is a sending-off offence - why didn't O'Sullivan walk?

Several reasons. Firstly, it seems that a punch isn't actually a punch, a punch qua punch if you like, if the player "didn't really mean it," or "isn't a dirty player." The other reason is the "what goes around, comes around," school - after five or ten minutes of play, just when Colm Cooper was threatening to tear Tyrone a new botty just as did Mayo this time last year, he was stretched at the foot of the canal end posts, literally under the nose of the one of the umpires. If a Tyrone man had lamped Cooper, then it's jungle justice for a Tyrone man to get belted as well, and the referee to ignore the second belt if he didn't punish the first. So what happened the Gooch?

Ray Silke speculated with Pete McGrath and Jimmy Magee on the radio that Ryan McMenamin may or may not have struck Cooper - ! - and went on to adumbrate the usual platitudes (with one eye to the laws of libel of course) that it's a man's game, anything can happen, and besides, if Cooper had indeed been struck, he had been struck under the noses of the umpires and therefore he couldn't have been struck, because - are you still following this? Good - if he had been struck, then surely the umpires would have drawn the referee's attention to this. An argument that would draw applause and cheering for William of Occam, Thomas Aquinas and all those other medieval scholastic metaphysicians, who argued about counting angels on the heads of pins. An Spailpín shall be watching the Sunday Game very carefully - just as carefully as the RTÉ lawyers are no doubt boning up on the libel laws even as a type.

If Ricey did clock Gooch - and An Spailpín Fánach's own legal team would like to point out that neither An Spailpín Fánach himself, his little corner of cyberspace, nor any of his associates, does not claim for one second that Ricey did indeed lamp Gooch - then that box was the trigger for the Tyrone revival. When you read in the papers tomorrow that the Tyrone players would have done anything for the jersey, don't forget how broad a church that "anything" covers. And platitudes about "a man's game" will not cover this shameful behaviour. Either punching is legal or it's not. The current series of exceptions, where a man isn't sent off for striking, as he didn't really mean it, or he isn't really a dirty player, or perhaps even that particular punch didn't really hurt, are shameful and cowardly evasions of duty on the part of the GAA, and An Spailpín has to wonder who's going to have to get crippled or worse before they take action.

And before I'm accused of soft Southern anti-Northern bias, could your correspondent point out that this duality about the acceptability of striking and violent play has been raised in this forum before? Thank you.

It's a good thing that Tyrone won, because the handy narrative of brave Kerry restoring the natural order by putting beastly Tyrone back in their horrid box has been broken up, and perhaps we'll now get a bit more intelligent analysis about the state of the game and the way it's currently played now that the easy explanation is denied the pundit community. It's going to be a long winter, and we could do with something to warm up debate during the long dark nights.