Examining the entrails as club gives way to county
The GAA’s rites of spring whet the appetite as another summer approaches
St Vincent’s Diarmuid Connolly scores one his goals past goalkeeper Ciarán Naughton of Castlebar Mitchels during the All-Ireland Senior Club Football Championship final on St Patrick’s Day. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho.
The Ides of March fall two days short of St Patrick’s Day and even if the average club finals afternoon is unlikely to produce anything as dramatic as what befell Julius Caesar in the middle of the month, it’s a significant marker in the GAA’s season.
When it comes to extrapolating data on club finals’ day, Monday’s action fell into two categories. The hurling was significant precisely because it told us little about the fast approaching championship season. Any time that a club from a county like Carlow reaches the final there is a feeling that one of the club competition’s big purposes has been satisfied.
Mount Leinster Rangers gave a good account of themselves without ever looking like they’d upset the odds. To an ambitious club being patted on the head may be an irritation but not as bad as the process of wondering where the match went wrong and if on another day, they might have been able to do something about it.
Portumna – as captain Ollie Canning referenced in his acceptance speech – have completed an astonishing four All-Irelands in nine years, emulating Birr’s identical achievement a decade previously. But Galway hurling has learned not to rely very much on reading the entrails at this time of the year.
In the 26 years since last taking the Liam MacCarthy Cup west, the county has made off with nearly half – 11 and shared amongst six clubs – of the club All-Irelands and has stopped attributing much significance to the achievement.
The football was a more absorbing contest, as has been the way in the past two years in which far more goals – 10 as against two – have been scored. Green flags aren’t an irrefutable indicator of quality but in well-contested matches they add excitement and on Monday only Castlebar’s final goal might have been said to be irrelevant.
On the subject of irrelevance whereas the outcome of another defeat for Mayo in a senior All-Ireland final might have been a source of gloom for followers, the club championship isn’t a Holy Grail like the Sam Maguire. Since Corofin from Galway broke through in 1998, Connacht teams have done well in winning the title six times in 17 years and Crossmolina and Ballina were amongst those successful.
Castlebar didn’t implode. They had done exceptionally well to get to Croke Park having had to plot a way through perennial Connacht contenders Corofin, All-Ireland champions St Brigid’s and favourites Dr Crokes. They overcame the loss of a key player and the concession of an early goal to stay in contention until the final quarter.
Whereas their comments afterwards were commendably gracious in a refusal to ascribe the defeat to Richie Feeney’s black card, his loss didn’t – as former Tyrone manager Art McRory said when asked how having his head walked on had affected Brian Dooher’s performance in the 1996 All-Ireland semi-final against Meath – “make it any better”.
Or in another quote more in keeping with the Ides of March theme: “No one is so brave that he is not disturbed by the unexpected,” – Julius Caes ar, Commentary on the Gallic Wars .
A less unexpected feature of the match was the display of Diarmuid Connolly and it would be surprising if Castlebar didn’t regret not handling it better.
It has been pointed out that manager Pat Holmes knows what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a virtuoso All-Ireland performance, having played on Maurice Fitzgerald in the 1997 final.
But in fairness to Holmes, there was a temptation to leave things as they were. For all that Connolly was on the ball and the manifest threat he posed, Castlebar had reclaimed the lead at roughly the three-quarters mark. It was just after this that the roof fell in and the Dublin forward scored 2-3 (all but two points of his total) in 11 minutes.
Even the brilliance of the second goal was in the recovery after Eoghan O’Reilly had harried him into losing possession. Sometimes individual performances are irresistible.
The Castlebar players re-joining James Horan’s panel will hardly be traumatised by what was a creditable club campaign and look in reasonable shape to shift their attentions to Mayo’s improving season.
For Dublin the sight of Connolly shooting the lights out isn’t unknown. Three years ago his seven from play against Tyrone was the defining performance of what turned out unexpectedly to be an All-Ireland summer. The following match though saw him sent off and somewhat fortuitously restored for the final he gave an excellent display against Kerry.
Consistency of contribution and on-field leadership, as shown in last year’s semi-final also against Kerry, will be what Jim Gavin and the management hope to see in the months ahead.
Vincent’s doing well has generally coincided with rising fortunes in Dublin. Even six years ago, when that connection wasn’t particularly obvious, the All-Ireland success and Kilmacud’s a year later were the out-riders for 2011.
Dublin could do with league play-offs to re-integrate the Vincent’s contingent, as Jim Gavin was able to do last year with Ballymun’s, but both Connolly and Ger Brennan are in form.
Overall it will be a surprise if none of Monday’s contestants are back on Jones’s Road in six months.