Old electricity sparks as Dubs and Meath generate showdown
GAELIC GAMES:LEINSTER COUNCIL’S projections for yesterday’s big GAA provincial football semi-finals in Croke Park were slightly off when a couple of thousand fewer than the expected 50,000 arrived on Jones’s Road but they will reflect that things could have been worse.
The eagerly anticipated Dublin-Kildare final had already bitten the dust after the first semi-final and, with just less than half an hour to go in the second match, the All-Ireland champions were three points down and their combustible corner forward Diarmuid Connolly had been sent off.
With a Wexford-Meath final shimmering on the horizon, Dublin, assisted by the weird scoring phobia that appeared to afflict their opponents, recovered to stay live but it was the first semi-final between Meath and Kildare that generated most of the electricity yesterday afternoon.
There had been no doubt in the bookies’ minds about who was going through. Kildare were 7 to 2 on. Viewed through the prism of the league Division Two campaign this was understandable. Kildare had won the title whereas Meath had been relegated.
They had also won the last three championship meetings.
The spring had concluded with a messy attempt to remove manager Séamus McEnaney, which failed but without any ringing endorsement of McEneaney. By yesterday afternoon, all the talk of Meath being hard to beat and unwise to underestimate had been long been filed under nostalgia.
Short a number of first-choice players McEnaney sent out eight players under the age of 23, some of whom were men of mystery within the county boundaries let alone outside them. He – not entirely plausibly – denied he felt a sense of vindication.
“Absolutely not. I’ve said this a thousand times and I’ll say it again, the only thing that matters to me is the four walls of the dressingroom and the people inside the four walls of that dressingroom. I have a great group of lads fighting tooth and nail for each other, fighting tooth and nail for positions.
“They know the way I operate. I operate with players on form. It doesn’t matter about birth certs or names, it’s about players on form. And that has produced the goods for us.”
Kildare had gone into the match under the cloud of controversy, as former Cavan footballer Seánie Johnston completed the great trek from his home county to eligibility for Kildare by taking part in a hurling championship match for Coill Dubh in his new county.
This satisfied the need to play championship in his new county. But despite being cleared to play he wasn’t called on by manager Kieran McGeeney and featured only in ribaldry among supporters promising the migrant player would sign sliotars after the match.
McGeeney was asked about the matter and criticised the length of time the long-running and contentious transfer saga had taken but said he believed that he could have played Johnston had he chosen to.
“I can’t help the way the GAA make decisions. They want to elongate, change the rules, ask people for objections, all those things are out of my hands. How many players would that affect?”
“Yeah, but I have my own thing and you have to be available on a Thursday night to be picked for me. I can’t change the rules for individual players. I have always stuck to that.
“I’m satisfied he is free to play.”
Kildare certainly looked in need of a scoring forward as they were out-run and out-enthused by their young rivals.
The afternoon was also a tale of two sendings-off. Darryl Flynn picked up a second yellow card in the 53rd minute and his loss both undermined Kildare’s already stilted mobility and encouraged Meath.
Alternately, in the second semi-final, as Wexford were giving Dublin their now customary hard time, the sending off of Connolly for an off-the-ball dig on Brian Malone, both energised a lethargic Dublin and appeared to blow fuses in Wexford’s equilibrium.
Another critical goal from All-Ireland hero Kevin McManamon in the 52nd minute turned the match in favour of the champions.
“The team showed great character; you couldn’t fault the character when we went a man down,” said manager Pat Gilroy, “especially because we hadn’t been going that well. If you lose a man and you’d been going well you can carry on.
“But these lads have dug deep before and it’s not every day that you’re going to go out and everything is going to go right. Those are days that showed the true character.
“They showed that today in adversity, when defeat was a distinct possibility.
“They really upped the intensity and I think that got us home.”
For Wexford manager Jason Ryan it was Groundhog Day. In three successive years, he’s watched his team on the verge of recording a first win over Dublin since 1956 and on each occasion they’ve balked at crossing the line.
“I can’t pin it down to any one area. It was amazing in the first half that we were three points up with the amount of possession Dublin had with the kick-outs. Huge credit to our defence for working so hard and to the forwards for being clinical when the chances came along.
“In the second half we won more kick-outs but all of a sudden we made a few errors at both ends of the field and so it is disappointing. Maybe on the sideline, when Dublin started playing more off the cuff when a man down, they were much harder to deal with, so we have got to look at it and think should we have made this change or that change.”
In three weeks the first Dublin-Meath Leinster final in 11 years will take place.
Finally the weekend also saw the end of a grand old tradition: the “tunnel incident”. A new GAA directive pre-ordained that one team should wait on the field at half-time until the other has gone off. More taking the physicality out of the game.