Last Sunday I witnessed two of the finest games of football that I have ever seen on All Ireland final day, and I have been at most finals since 1977. We occasionally get a memorable match, but rarely do we get two wonderful exhibitions of football. The two games were enthralling, exciting, nerve racking, at times but it was football played at its very best. I left Castlebar early on Sunday morning as I wanted to get to Dublin with time to relax and soak up the atmosphere before the games. Jones’s Road, on big match day, is a hive of activity and last Sunday I mingled with friends and acquaintances for almost two hours before going into the ground. We were blessed with the most glorious day that added greatly to the feel-good factor. There were lots hovering about the place hoping to pick up a spare ticket but I got the impression that there were very few floating about the place last Sunday. (No harm to see the touts taking a hit too in these economically depressed times. ) I had my son Johnny and my daughter Sally Rose with me bedecked in their red and green ensembles. They were excitedly looking forward to seeing the Mayo minors play Tyrone. Others from my house were content with the luxury of home viewing. I met and chatted with a few of the 1983 Galway footballers as they made their way into Croke Park for lunch. They, and the Dublin footballers, were guests of Croke Park as they were part of the 25 year jubilee celebrations. I sent my two on their way into the game and made my way upstairs to the media section as I was lucky enough to be asked to work on the game for RTE Radio 1. I had a cup of coffee in the canteen with a few journalists and the unanimous consensus amongst these experts was that Kerry would win their third All Ireland in a row. They couldn’t call the minor match, but I did get the impression that if they were pressed they would side with Tyrone. I spoke with Micheál O Muireachtaigh to establish his views on the two sides. He thought Tyrone had some excellent players but “liked this Mayo team”. He referred to their physicality and suggested that this year’s team reminded him of some of the great minor teams he had seen from Mayo in years past. Micheál is too much of a gentleman and diplomat to suggest either team would win it, so he said that we should have a great game of football. And what a game we had.
The best minor side we’ve produced for a long time
The quality of the kicking, catching and scoring was of a kind we so rarely witness in big games these days. In my excitement, nearing the end of the game, I remarked in my commentary that I didn’t want to see either team win on the day. What I meant, of course, was that it would be unfair on either team to lose, as both teams played magnificent football. (One has to appear neutral as often as possible on occasions like these! ) If we are going to be crowned All- Ireland champions in 2008 we are certainly going to earn it the hard way. It would make it all the more memorable if (when ) we come out of Pearse Park on Saturday having played a superb Tyrone side over 120 minutes of football and proved to all that this Mayo team is the best to have represented the county at this grade for a long time. I see no reason why we can’t do that. Jimmy Magee was equally enthralled with the quality of the minor match he witnessed. He suggested that if the senior final was anywhere near the quality of the first, we could safely announce that there is nothing wrong with Gaelic football in this country!
We can all be wrong
I had by now moved seats to sit with Tommy Carr and Jimmy, having done the co-commentary with Brian Carty on the minor match. RTE asked that we provide match analysis for the senior final and we were asked just before the throw-in to call it. Every one agreed that it would be Kerry’s day. Tommy suggested that Kerry would win it by five or six points. I wasn’t as convinced that Tyrone would be beaten by that margin, but was convinced Kerry would win. But we were wrong and in lots of ways I am glad we were. This Tyrone team is quite incredible. They are without doubt the team of the decade and after overcoming so much adversity over the last decade they deserve to be labelled as an “awesome” team. The game was set to provide us with excitement, intrigue and above all else quality. That it did in abundance. There were so many sub plots to the day that it was no wonder supporters of Gaelic football were so excited about this final. It ebbed and flowed from the throw in with Kerry looking dominant in the opening 20 minutes. And on the balance of the evidence provided by this year’s championship I felt they would be the ones that would drive on and open up a big lead. But this Tyrone side bear little resemblance to the side that were beaten by Down in this year’s Ulster Championship and have improved beyond recognition from their ordinariness at the quarter final stage of this year’s championship. Much of the talk centred on the sudden death of John Devine senior on the eve of the match and whether John junior would play in goal for Tyrone. He didn’t and as it transpired his replacement Pascal McConnell pulled off two magnificent saves to see Tyrone through. Tyrone were patient in that first half and, as we have come to expect, they never panic. They have mastered the act of grinding the opposition into submission with their resolve and on Sunday, when the opportunity presented itself as it so often does, they were smart enough to avail of those chances and close up shop at the other end.
Architects of their own downfall
However, I felt that Kerry were the architects of their own downfall in lots of ways. They continuously bombarded their full forward line with big high balls that were easily defended by a superbly organised Tyrone defence. They never once varied this tactic and the Kerry management must take some blame for that. They could also be accused of leaving Bryan Sheehan and Eoin Brosnan on the field far too long. They contributed little in open play. On the other hand Darren O Sullivan was excellent when introduced as he ran at the Tyrone defence causing them all sorts of problems. You may recall that Wexford did something similar in the semi-final when the Tyrone defence looked anything but slick. And you couldn’t but notice that Tyrone had the greater unity of purpose, spirit and hunger to win this All Ireland. The true aristocrats of football throughout my lifetime have undoubtedly been Kerry. They have been the ones that played with such a fluency, style and above all else sportsmanship. There is no other county in Ireland that has produced footballers in more profusion or of greater talent down through the decades. However, there has been a seismic shift in the last decade. Maybe the gods are beginning to pay back Tyrone in a strange kind of way for all the mishaps they have had to endure in recent times.