Limerick decision a sure sign the GAA sees players at the bottom of the food chain

I’m siding with Kerry and Dublin to come through the weekend’s two semi-finals

Kerry’s James O’Donoghue with Mayo’s Keith Higgins. “I thought Higgins had an outstanding game and yet O’Donoghue still scored 1-3.” Photo: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

Kerry’s James O’Donoghue with Mayo’s Keith Higgins. “I thought Higgins had an outstanding game and yet O’Donoghue still scored 1-3.” Photo: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

Wed, Aug 27, 2014, 12:00

This column was supposed to be a big, in-depth breakdown of the Dublin v Donegal game from 2011. I had it planned from a couple of weeks out and I went to great lengths and got the DVD of it sent down to Kerry and everything. But as they say in politics, I was overtaken by events.

The first event being the draw between Mayo and Kerry on Sunday. The second was the fixing of the replay for Limerick. In a week like this, with two All-Ireland semi-finals coming up on the weekend and a shambles of a decision when it comes to the venue, there’s hardly much point in me droning on about a game from three years ago.

We’ll get to the third event later on.

Plenty has been said here, there and everywhere about the replay being in Limerick but to my mind the one thing that has been overlooked is the simplest of all.

This is a game for players. Everybody else is incidental to it. Supporters, sponsors, media, whoever – they are additions to the game. The game is about players.

Big game

No player in the history of the GAA has dreamed of playing an All Ireland semi-final in Limerick. No player has trained for that, no player has worked for it, no player has made the decision that this is what he’s doing with his life with the idea of playing a big game in Limerick in mind. We have all, every one of us who ever pulled on a pair of boots, aimed ourselves at Croke Park.

By moving such a marquee game out of Croke Park, the GAA is basically saying that, in their view, the players are not important. Look at what their justification has been – keeping the place clear for the Dubs and Donegal if they need a replay and a load of talk about the amount of money they’ve put into developing Limerick.

No regard for what players want or what would be best for them. They didn’t even consult them.

This is the point. Forget about location, forget about whether it’s closer to Castlebar or Killarney. People will go to the game, they’ll get there and back and it’ll probably be a fine occasion for us all with a bit of novelty thrown in. But we don’t matter. The players are the ones who matter.

And the way they’ve been treated here is: “Go on there now lads, go and do what you’re told”. I hate giving out about the GAA but as far as I can see, they’ve basically told the people who are central to their operations that they’re actually at the bottom of the food chain.

As for how it will affect the game, I would see it as a slight disadvantage for Kerry. This is going to sound a bit airy-fairy but there’s something about heading for Dublin at this time of year as a Kerry footballer. This is what you live for. There’s a sort of magic about it.

It’s small things. It’s the train journey. It’s the overnight. It’s the Garda escort. It’s the feel of being in Dublin, of knowing that you’re there doing what generations of Kerry footballers down the years have come to Dublin to do. You can’t quantify it obviously but I always think that’s worth a few scores to Kerry.

Challenge matches

Around Kerry this week, you’d barely know there’s an All-Ireland semi-final on Saturday and a lot of that is down to the venue. Limerick is where you go for early Munster Championship matches. Actually, the majority of games I played in the Gaelic Grounds would have been challenge matches against Mayo or Galway. There’s no big rush for tickets down here because we don’t have any great affinity for the place.

There’s a chance that will transmit itself to the players. I don’t think it’s a huge factor but I don’t think it can be ignored either. It’s a mindset thing and if there’s one thing you don’t want to be at a disadvantage on with this Mayo team, it’s mindset. They are so battle-hardened, they are so mentally strong.

People wondered last week if their past with Kerry would be a factor – it wasn’t in the slightest. Mayo came out and played ball and they had the winning of it despite losing Lee Keegan. Their quality shone through as well as their character. Look at Cillian O’Connor’s penalty – one chance, roof of the net, play it like you own it.

White heat

Aidan O’Shea was brilliant as well in that second half. Kerry had plans for him and made him struggle in the first half. But you couldn’t be a fan of Gaelic football and not love the way he bullied his way into the game. There’s not much better in sport than watching a guy in the white heat of a game that really matters putting his hand up and saying: “Lads, I want it, end of story”.

But this was a game for the ages and Kerry had plenty to be proud of as well. I thought Keith Higgins had an outstanding game and yet James O’Donoghue still scored 1-3. In the sort of form O’Donoghue is in, I’d say that’s about level par for Higgins. You won’t win the Open with it but it’s no disgrace.

And Kerry found a new weapon, even though it’s an old weapon. Nobody saw Kieran Donaghy’s impact coming. It wasn’t flagged at any stage and he didn’t get a game against Galway.

Kerry people were surprised to see him come on so I can only guess how surprised Mayo were. They didn’t have a plan to suit him, no more than Kerry had a plan for what to do if Kevin McLoughlin went to wing-back.

Will he start the replay? I doubt it, to be honest. The 15 that started on Sunday didn’t let Eamonn Fitzmaurice down at all. But that’s another new angle that Mayo have to spend the week trying to get their head around. They will need a plan for when it happens.

I was fairly bullish about Kerry’s chances in the end last week and I couldn’t claim to be quite that confident for the replay.

But I do think that the way they dug out that game after giving away the penalty and going five points down bodes very well. If I was a Kerry player this week, I’d be saying these Mayo fellas have had their chance and they didn’t take it. I think I’ll side with my own county.

Now, as for that third event I mentioned. It involved me, the DVD of Dublin v Donegal 2011 and the realisation that life’s too short. I got through 10 minutes of it on Monday night before turning it off. Sweet divine, it was atrocious stuff.

Turn off

I have nothing against Donegal. There’s nothing worse than the arrogance of people who decide the way that football should be played and I respect Jim McGuinness for setting his team up whatever way he thinks he can best win a game. But everybody also has the right to turn off a game if they’re not enjoying it.

That game has very little to do with the one we’re going to see on Sunday. The one lesson I did think was worth learning though was that Donegal won’t get the same amount of success this time around if they try to do the same thing. The difference in physique in players like Michael Darragh Macauley, Paul Flynn and Diarmuid Connolly now as compared to then is massive.

Go back to the Monaghan game three weeks ago, when Dessie Mone and Paul Finlay were starting to drag out of Flynn to try and get a reaction from him. Monaghan are hardy boys, no doubt about it. But the next ball Flynn got, he knocked Mone into the air like a ragdoll.

The executioner

Dublin are like the executioner who’s happy to let you choose your own way of being killed. You want to play football? Excellent, let’s play football and we’ll beat you a point a man. You want to get down and dirty and have a wrestling match? Fair enough, just don’t imagine for a second that you’re going to bully us.

Who is going to push Eoghan O’Gara around? Or the Brogans? Or Cian O’Sullivan? Who is going to think that there’s profit is getting physical with Jonny Cooper or Rory O’Carroll or Philly McMahon?

Donegal are big and strong and McGuinness will come to Croke Park with a game plan, we can be sure of it. But I don’t really see any way that this game isn’t a foregone conclusion.

Dublin should win it comfortably enough because they are patient and physical and even if Donegal don’t let them in for a goal, they are well capable of kicking scores from distance. Donegal’s problem is that they won’t be able to kick enough of them to keep pace.

As for the rest of us, our only problem will be the tolls on the Limerick road.

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