Some things never change. If you can rely on the All-Ireland semi-final weekend for anything, it’s that it won’t be short of talking points. The game changes and evolves and new faces come on the scene all the time but All-Ireland semi-finals are always full of controversy and stories and pure, brutal desperation. This year’s ones were no different.
On the Galway side of things, it’s a real fairytale for Pádraic Joyce. Things weren’t going as quickly as he would have hoped with Galway. I have often thought that because things always came so easily to him as a player that it frustrated him when the same wasn’t true as a manager.
Joyce is a clever guy but he’s an impatient guy. Always was. He would have known that it wouldn’t be straightforward but his attitude would always have been, ‘Well sure let’s make it straightforward. Let’s go and do the things we need to do and it will get us there.’
I think we all knew going into the weekend that Galway had a bit more quality than Derry and that the crux of the game would be finding a way to show it. That’s what the game boiled down to. Galway set up ultra-defensively to start with because come hell or high water, they weren’t giving up a goal. Before they got to show their extra bit of quality, they had to earn it by stopping Derry building up a lead.
So you could look out onto the pitch at various points in the first half and see Shane Walsh and Damien Comer back covering off space, defending their zone, keeping Derry at arm’s length. Anybody assuming that would go against Joyce’s instincts hasn’t been paying attention. To win the game they had to make Derry play on Galway’s terms. In every one of Derry’s wins up to that point, it had been the other way around.
That’s the most impressive thing I’ve seen with Galway this year. They have a real tactical flexibility about them. After losing a shoot-out in the league final, they sized up Mayo and said, ‘Right – what do they not like? They don’t like packed defences. Well, let’s sicken them to high heaven with our packed defence.’
They’ve switched up and back and over and across, depending on the game that’s in front of them. The Connacht final was less of a grind than the Mayo game. They won. The Armagh game was a free-for-all. They won. Last Saturday, they hunkered down until Derry were out of ideas and then unleashed hell. They won.
The Galway players must have so much confidence in Joyce and the rest of the management at this stage. Everything they’ve given them to do has worked. Comer was happy to do all the donkey work in defence the last day knowing that if it worked how it was supposed to, Derry would have to gradually come out of their shells as the game wore on, leaving more room for him to enjoy himself up front.
Which is exactly what happened. For the first goal, he was able to skip around Brendan Rodgers because a lovely passing lane had opened up for John Daly to kick the ball into him.
For the second one, Rodgers reminded me of the villain in Spectre, the Bond movie from a couple of years ago. There’s a fight on a train and James Bond wraps a rope around this guy’s neck, with the other end of it tied to a load of beer barrels. One by one, the barrels fall off the speeding train and right before the last one flies out the door, the villain looks at the camera and goes, ‘Oh sh*t.’
That was Rodgers for Comer’s second goal. When Conor Glass got turned over and Odhran Lynch was caught up the field, everybody in the ground knew that one good kick pass here and Rodgers was for the high jump. Liam Silke didn’t have to be overly accurate, all he had to do was find the space and Comer was away. When you see the close up in the replay, Rodgers’ face says it all. Oh sh*t.
I wouldn’t belittle what Derry achieved this year at all. They won Ulster, which was a huge thing for them. We all said at the time that the football they played to win Ulster wouldn’t win in Croke Park but there’s no disgrace in it. They just have to go away and find a bit more for the next time they’re back.
Say this much for them – the players obviously buy into everything Rory Gallagher asks them. I was watching Conor Glass walking around in circles to try and distract Shane Walsh when he was kicking frees and I was thinking, ‘By God, that’s commitment to the cause.’ I was laughing too, thinking of what my response would have been if any manager ever asked me to do that.
I’d like to think I was a team player. I’d break my backside for any team I was on. I’d chase down every lost cause, I’d put my head in anywhere you like. I would probably even do the walk-around-in-a-circle thing once, just to show willing. But if Shane Walsh was after kicking three frees already with me doing it, I’d say there’d have been little enough chance of me keeping it up for the fourth. There’s a fine line between trying to pull off a tactical masterstroke and humiliating your player.
As for the second game, it was just a great occasion all the way through. Kerry and Dublin both gave it their all and there was only a point between them in the end. I’d safely say in any other year, David Clifford wouldn’t have got that free in the last play. The ref would have waved it on and whistled the game up a few seconds later and everybody would be coming back for a replay.
The game had plenty of flash points. Kerry didn’t make enough hay out of the black card in the first half. I know people are cribbing and crying about the time-wasting but I wouldn’t have any truck with that. Everybody who ever laced up a boot knows how the GAA works. You bring in a rule and everybody pushes the envelope to try and find a way around it.
I have no issue whatsoever with anybody trying to waste time when their team is a man down. Dublin didn’t invent it and the rules don’t say anything about it so they’re completely right to do whatever they can to see out the 10 minutes without the game getting away from them.
Focusing on the time-wasting takes away from the actual reality, which is that Seánie Shea hit a bad penalty. Evan Comerford could have sat down on the ground for nine and a half minutes out of the 10 and none of it would have mattered if Seánie buried his penalty like a good forward should. There’s no excuse for missing a penalty in Gaelic football. You’re close enough in that if you hit the spot you’re supposed to hit just inside the post, the goalie has no chance.
It was a pleasure to be there to see James McCarthy in action. I have said it time and again in this column down the years, there’s nobody in the sport I would rather have beside me on a team. He did the work of five men on Sunday – up and down, winning tackles, setting Dublin moving, scoring his own point, winning kick-outs. And all this after he missed an early goal. The sheer bull thickness of him was a sight to see.
It was a great game for Kerry to win. They went into their shells in the second half a bit, going very lateral and playing as if they were uneasy about chancing a ball inside. A couple of times you could see David Clifford waving his arms and screaming for a ball in but they got shy about giving it into him. It was no accident that he won possession for the free at the end – he had spent long enough roaring for the others to get it into him.
Best of all for Kerry, they got through without hitting top gear. They didn’t get as much off the bench as Dublin did. They whipped off David Moran a bit early I thought. They tightened up at the wrong time when Dublin were there to be killed off. They got there in the end but they have plenty to fix before the final.
Not a bad place to be.