On the weekend of a championship match Jury’s Hotel, Croke Park is normally buzzing with animated followers of all the participating teams and last weekend was no exception. I was there early as I had overnighted in the capital and I made my way to the hotel to soak up the atmosphere hours before the game. I mingled with a number of Cork supporters chatting about the match and, to a man, they were hugely confident of their chances against Tyrone. They talked about the maturity of the team this year, the options off the bench and the aerial dominance they had at midfield. A number of them suggested that, not alone would they beat Tyrone, but that they had availed of the 7/2 on offer from most bookmakers on Cork to win the All-Ireland. After engaging them in conversation and having the crack with several of them I must admit that they had me convinced, too, that they were the team to beat this year. Jack O’Connor and Ger O’Keeffe arrived at the hotel. There was a rush of eager youngsters to Jack looking for autographs and he was as courteous as one would expect from a GAA manager, spending time chatting and encouraging all of them. Jack’s son was playing on the Kerry minor team later and he was anxious to have some food before heading across to Croker. We chatted for a while with the ever attentive hotel manager, who incidentally is a Kerryman, and had food organised for the boys. They had played golf somewhere between Kerry and Dublin on the Saturday afternoon and O’Connor was as excited as a young lad with a new toy as he described how he hammered O’Keeffe in a game of ‘skins’ (golfers will understand what I am talking about here ). I suggested that a Cork victory over Tyrone wouldn’t necessarily be the result that Jack would prefer. It was widely acknowledged that the Kerry lads would have loved a crack at Tyrone in an All-Ireland this year, bearing in mind their record against the current champions. He didn’t disagree and acknowledged that if Kerry got to a final against Tyrone, his job from a motivational perspective would’ve been a lot easier.
Jack in the pack
Jack wanted my take on what had happened to Mayo against Meath. He was surprised at Mayo’s defeat and went as far as to suggest that he would have been worried about Mayo in a semi-final had we advanced. I smiled, bearing in mind our record against the Kingdom. He enquired after one particular player who really caught his eye in the league encounter between Kerry and Mayo earlier this year. He was referring to Tom Cunniffe from Castlebar who, sadly, has been injured for months. I agreed with Jack that Tom has enormous talent and I would have predicted two years ago that we had a player of immense talent who would have been capable of filling James Nallen’s formidable shoes. It was mentioned to me earlier this week that Cunniffe was heading to a UK university in a few weeks’ time to continue his studies and I am beginning to wonder if he possesses the desire, passion, and will to make it to the big time in football. O’Connor went for his tea with Ger and I made my way over to the match venue. It had been suggested to me that the Armagh minors were a good team and would beat Kerry. They did and I was impressed. They are a very good team with a particularly talented full-forward line. They had a left corner forward, Gavin McParland, who caught the eye with two spectacular goals. He displayed class and a great touch in bagging two goals in the second half that ultimately proved the difference. Corner forwards in this county should take note of how to hit the ‘onion bag’ when presented with such opportunities!
Rebels take the capital
I enjoyed the minor match but I was eagerly looking forward to the big boys’ arrival onto the stage. Cork were first out onto the field and you couldn’t but notice their physicality. These weren’t men, they were giants. They looked fit, sharp, and focused. It is possible to notice little things from the middle tier of the Hogan stand that suggest they were in the groove. The Cork team were obviously allocated the Railway end of the ground for their pre-match warm up, but yet two of their free takers availed of the opportunity to go to the Hill 16 end of the field to kick a few frees before the arrival of the Tyrone team. This attention to detail didn’t go unnoticed and I immediately got the feeling that the Cork boys were really up for this. After 14 minutes of play there was no doubt but that they were up for it as the score line read Cork 1-6, Tyrone 0-2. Cork were fresh, hungry, resilient and did a ‘Tyrone’ on Tyrone. In other words it was the Cork boys who hunted in packs, harried and chased, tackled and forced turnovers and, more importantly, dominated in practically every position of the field. I have talked a lot about leadership in recent weeks. Cork have leaders on practically every line of the field. They have big strong men in Lynch, Canty, O’Leary, Murphy, O’Connor, Cussen, Pearse O’Neill, and Colm O’Neill, every one of them capable of doing something manly when the going gets tough. The best team won by far. Tyrone looked tired and leg-weary, but as I pointed out to several Tyrone people afterwards, this team owes its great loyal supporters nothing. Nobody disagreed with me.
No rest even after the game
I was asked to do a slot on the Radio sports show on RTE Radio 1 later that evening out in Donnybrook. The show goes out live at 6.05pm for an hour. My car was parked in the car park at Jury’s hotel and the Gardai informed me that no car would be allowed out onto the road until at least 6.30pm. I thought it best to make my way to Stephen’s Green to pick up a taxi to get me there. I was still jogging outside the Shelbourne in a lather of sweat with my thumb out at 6.15pm. I eventually got out there around 6.30 where I found the affable Jimmy Magee in full flow. He immediately put me on the spot by asking me what I thought of the referee’s performance. He said that there were literally hundreds of texts and e-mails arriving into the switchboard concerning the referring performance of John Bannon and, in particular, his decision to send off Cork’s Alan O’Connor for what appeared to me, and it transpired thousands of others, a very harsh decision. I heard it mentioned a few weeks ago that a referee makes on average 90 to 100 decisions in a match and on the law of averages one or two will be called wrong. But surely not one as serious as sending a player off in an All- Ireland semi-final for two innocuous looking fouls. John Bannon retires later this year from his distinguished refereeing career and it is regrettable that, if this is to be his last game at inter-county level, it should end in such controversy. It has also just come to my attention that he (John Bannon ) has stuck with his initial decision of issuing ‘only’ a yellow card to the Cork wing back, John Miskella, despite the fact that he clearly raised his hand in a striking action against Tyrone’s Brian McGuigan. I can understand his reluctance to draw further controversy on himself and, in so doing, raise the ire of every Cork supporter had he admitted in hindsight that he should have issued a straight red.
Minors ready for action
Best wishes to Ray Dempsey, his management team and the Mayo minors this Sunday against Down. I have seen this team play a couple of times this year and am really looking forward to the match on Sunday. Were they to produce the excellent fast enterprising open football that they produced against Galway in the Connacht semi-final, I would expect that they have the potential to make it through to the final.