Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Sligo Sailing to Byzantium, Royals Rising from the Tomb

"A freastálaí! Tá Eadhrach éigin im' anraith s'agamsa!"
It looks like another mouth-watering weekend at headquarters for GAA men and women this weekend. An Spailpín Fánach knows enough about hurling to know that he knows nothing about hurling and as such will leave speculation on the ancient and noble game to those that understand it better than I. But the Saturday program in the football looks tasty indeed, with one novel pairing and one rather sturm und drang looking rematch.

The pundit nation has been saying for some weeks now that, painful and all as it is for them (the pundit nation) to cast slights and/or aspersions on Sligo’s apocalyptic achievement in winning the Nestor Cup, Sligo are quite clearly chum, prey, born victims, tourists on Store Street, doomed. Everybody in the qualifiers has been licking their lips at the prospect of drawing Sligo in the quarter finals (how Central Council must have been tempted to bend the rules – just this once! – and have Sligo play Dublin) and now to Cork falls the honour of delivering the coup de grace to the plucky Yeats’ Countymen.

An Spailpín Fánach holds a contrary view. Sligo are not used to the big time certainly, and your correspondent would fear for his neighbours’ chances against Meath or Monaghan or Derry. But Cork is the ideal team for Sligo to have drawn, and the reason is this – if Billy Morgan couldn’t get his charges to focus on Louth, with their All-Ireland title pedigree, how will Billy get his team to concentrate for Sligo, with only three Nestor Cups to show for one hundred and twenty years?

How bare that cupboard looks compared to Cork’s, which heaves under the strain of its one hundred plus titles, with one more added only a few short months ago? And as each Cork man stands to attention during the anthem and looks at his Sligo marker, how hard will he find it to suppress his haughty snigger, and the feeling that he’s been challenged to a fight by his kid sister, braces, bangs and all?

If anything Louth have done Sligo a disservice, by giving Cork an early warning of the danger of complacency in a simple game like football, where class lines are not as clearly delineated as popular perception has it. Billy Morgan, the greatest football man in the proud history of a proud county, will have been banging that home to his men morning, noon and night since they left Portlaoise, but deep down, can Cork really take Sligo seriously? And by the time they do, will it be too late?

Of course, Sligo will want to learn how to pop over those thirteen yard frees, or else they’re as well to stay at home listening to their Westlife records. We may take that as read. And, to be honest, they’ll need a goal or two as well, as they just aren’t natural scorers and will need the boost a goal gives. But let’s not forget that Cork don’t really shoot the lights out either, and were having as much trouble finding their new secret weapon as An Taoiseach is currently having finding his bank receipts. Add into the mix the remarkable Eamon O’Hara, as fine as player as exists in the game and a man who, as the picture from the Mayo News shows, can have a remarkable ability to get on the opposition’s nerves, and all of a sudden Sligo don’t look that bad a proposition at all. Least of all with a five point start as offered by Ladbrokes.

The second match is a different kettle of fists. These teams will have no problems at all taking each other seriously – both multiple All-Ireland winners in the past ten years, and both participants in a remarkably violent All-Ireland semi-final eleven (eleven! Can it be?) years ago, which Meath won by, er, a knockout, I suppose.

Tyrone have since made up for the bleak years of the nineties by winning their first two All-Irelands, and are many people’s tip for Sam this year (including that fine GAA man that sets the odds for Ladbrokes, incidentally). However, here your correspondent has to go out on a limb and suggest that Tyrone are now further from the top of the mountain than they may perhaps realise, while Meath are roaring back to the summit with their customary gusto. For all this chat about systems and coaching and what have you, a team is only ever as good as its players, and there is no coaching manual that can turn mortal clay into Peter Canavan, Brian McGuigan or Stephen O’Neill.

In the other corner of the ring, it’s taken Colm Coyle, a Royal folk hero in his own playing days, just one year to restore Meath to the top table. The rise from no-where is as much a part of Meath’s great tradition as rough-housing and the Meath-are-never-bet stuff, and this year might just be another manifestation of that. Fine big boys all over the park, Moyles busting a gut between the fifty yard lines, and a full-forward line that’s now looking as deadly as any in the game, bar Kerry. Add in Graham Geraghty to spring from the bench and that’s some package. Ladbrokes are giving Meath a three point start at 4/5 and a really quite remarkable 9/4 on the outright. An Spailpín’s advice is to fill your boots.

FOCAL SCOIR: I know I’m getting tiresome talking about falling standards in journalism and it seems clear that nobody cares, but this sort of rubbish in today’s Independent really gets my goat. “Croke Park’s decision to cash in on the pulling power of Dublin footballers was rewarded yesterday when their All-Ireland quarter-final against Derry became a virtual sell-out in less than 300 seconds.” It is reasonable to presume from that that 80,000 tickets were sold in five minutes. This is not case, as only 2,000 tickets were sold on ticketmaster, and the rest through usual channels. About the same number and rate as bought tickets for Neil Young in Vicar Street a few years ago. Does this mean that every halfwit hack in the country will now start filing stories about Croke Park’s decision to cash in on the appeal of Canadian singer-songwriters by having a 60x30 handball exhibition between Neil Young and Laughing Lenny Cohen? I weep.

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