The day started brilliantly, with a terrific inaugural Tailteann Cup final in Croke Park.
hen Kieran Martin rumbled through the Cavan defence like a humvee with a tyre missing and smashed home the winning goal, it felt like liberation. The Westmeath people and their players celebrated for nearly half an hour out on the pitch. This is the beginning of a long overdue emancipation for the GAA community.
For too long, big days in Croke Park have been the preserve of Kerry, Dublin and a few others. Over time, the aim must be to introduce four tiers, with a weekend of All-Ireland finals.
After that excellent Tailteann Cup final, the day went downhill rapidly.
By half-time in the All-Ireland semi-final it was 0-4 to 0-4, thank you very much Jimmy McGuinness. I was sitting with Kevin Cassidy, one of Jimmy and Rory’s guinea pigs in the 2011 team. Kevin remarked that the first half had been “quite high scoring” which got a big laugh from everyone around us. At half-time in that 2011 semi-final the scoreline was Donegal 0-2 Dublin 0-1. Like that Donegal 2011 team, Derry discovered in the second half that you cannot defend your way to an All-Ireland final.
The modern idea of the goalkeeper as a magician, who attacks freely, contests the opposing team’s kick-outs and is an accomplished all round footballer, is being exposed for the dangerous fallacy that it is. Rory Beggan self-destructed in the league this year when Kerry looked for goals every time he got caught out the field. In the last round of the qualifiers, Donegal’s Shaun Patton melted down trying audacious short kick-outs, giving away a goal to Armagh and getting a black card.
Yesterday, Derry’s goalie, a converted midfielder, diced with danger throughout and was eventually caught when Conor Glass was easily turned over. Odhran Lynch could only watch in horror as a long ball sailed over his head to Damien Comer and Comer beautifully kick-passed it to the empty net, making it 2-8 to 0-5. He also flapped an easy high catch back to Johnny Heaney who palmed it back over the bar. What is wrong with a safety first keeper who can catch a ball and kick it out well?
Galway began hesitantly, unsure of what to expect from this unknown Derry team. Even in Derry, little or nothing is known about them. They work in secret with Rory Gallagher behind closed doors and might as well be CIA agents for all they reveal.
Our anxiety over our keeper’s kick-outs turned to delight when, for the entire first half, Galway did not press them, and we lost our only kick-out of the first half in the 38th minute.
In the first quarter, Derry were able to control the ball, but did little else. All-Ireland semi-finals cannot be won by free-scoring corner backs alone, but by the 19th minute it was 0-3 to 0-0 and Galway were panicking, snatching at potshots and kicking the ball into block after block. Three great point-scoring opportunities were squandered by Derry going for goals that were not on, but Galway were so passive that it looked as though that might not matter.
Derry’s progress this season has been based on efficiency and ferocity. But from the 19th minute on, we degenerated into slackness and lethargy. Galway, by setting up their defence in a mirror image of Derry, left us completely out of ideas. Soon, we were looking like a team that had contested the Division 4 final against Leitrim less than three years ago.
Niall Toner gave a very bad pass straight to a Galway defender. Lynch surged forward and palmed a terrible pass over the Galway endline. Chrissy McKaigue took a desperate potshot, putting it 30 metres wide. Instead of Derry slowly but precisely building a lead and maintaining the confidence trick that we are a very good team, Galway suddenly realised that there wasn’t very much to us at all.
In particular, having played around the fringes of Derry’s zonal defence and gotten nowhere, they began to see that if they kick-passed the ball into Comer, he had enough room to take on Rogers one on one, since our sweeper was playing out on the edge of the D. In the 21st minute, Comer took a one bounce kick-pass and pinged an easy score. Very quickly, the myth of the impregnable Derry defence evaporated.
From the start of the second half, Galway did two important things. Firstly, they pressed the Derry kick-out fiercely, causing it to fall apart. Secondly, instead of playing around the periphery of the Derry screen, they constantly looked for Comer. The nightmare was upon us.
Rogers is a superb attacker but not a man marker. Until now, he hasn’t been exposed because teams have been mesmerised by our defensive shield. Once Galway started kicking it in to Comer, it was curtains. His first goal was as easy as a stripper in Ballyragget — 1-7 to 0-4 and the game was over.
Derry disintegrated completely thereafter, charging aimlessly into the Galway phalanx and kicking the ball amateurishly into the block. Lynch was blocked down when he tried a shot in the 60th minute. A minute later, Conor Glass, who sadly succumbed to the panic, dithered on the 21, got dispossessed and Comer scored the easiest goal of his career to complete the humiliation.
Galway were not bad. Derry were out of their depth. More than that, our style of play bespoils the ancient game and I am glad we are not in the final.
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