GAA weekend that was: Talking points from the weekend’s action
Seán Moran reviews the second round of the football and hurling leagues
Tempers flare between the Dublin and Tyrone players at Healy Park on Saturday night. Photograph: Philip Magowan/Inpho
Dublin were solid favourites going to Omagh on Saturday and duly delivered despite being a man short for nearly half an hour so in a way it was a case of, ‘nothing to see here’ but the context is extraordinary.
During Mickey Harte’s 17-year year tenure as Tyrone manager he has taken on four different Dublin counterparts (on a side-note the only one he failed to overcome at some stage was the first, Tommy Lyons) in the league.
Whereas for the first three years, 2003-05, the spring encounters went with home advantage, in the years since, the counties have met 10 times in Division One and nine times the home team has failed to win.
The weekend was just the latest. The fixtures break six in Croke Park and four in Healy Park.
The only exception was the 2013 final, won by Dublin although technically it wasn’t home advantage. In regulation matches, Jim Gavin has never beaten Tyrone in Croke Park (two draws and a defeat).
Two of the matches were extremely high-profile and Harte’s team won both, the opening nights in the 2007, staged as the first under lights in Croke Park, and ‘09, a celebration of the GAA’s 125th anniversary.
Not that the reverse fixtures in Omagh have been insignificant. Dublin have won all four. In 2010 the result relegated Tyrone for the first time during Harte’s management and four years previously, the home side were All-Ireland champions and their defeat was overshadowed by incidents that became immortalised as the Battle of Omagh.
There have been a further six meetings in championship during this period, all in Croke Park with Dublin 3-2 ahead and one match - the 2005 All-Ireland quarter-final - drawn.
Wexford’s win over Cork on Sunday served further notice that the David Fitzgerald era in the county is stretching nicely into a second season. With the Walsh Cup already won - and in Nowlan Park - the Division 1A newcomers have now defeated last season’s All-Ireland finalists and Munster champions in their opening matches.
Fitzgerald reckons that one more win will secure the county’s place in the top flight for a second season.
Whereas it’s likely that Wexford have more done at the moment than other counties - Fitzgerald said on the radio that he was giving the players a few days off whereas the previous week opponents Waterford were bringing on no replacements in order to get “75 minutes into the players’ legs” - the momentum created by early-season wins is important for a developing team.
Last year, Wexford’s hot start to the league burned off their two promotion rivals, Limerick and Galway, in the first two matches and turned Division 1B into a done deal in the space of eight days.
Two years ago Fitzgerald took Clare to promotion and the league title and although it wasn’t enough to prevent his departure after a mediocre championship, there would be a less equivocal welcome for the same feat were he able to repeat it in the south-east.
This year marks the 45th anniversary of Wexford’s last league title. It’s commonly accepted these days that league success is a strong All-Ireland credential so the comments of Paddy Downey on these pages after the 1973 final will sound familiar.
“Many among the 20,814 spectators who witnessed the National Hurling League final between Wexford and Limerick at Croke Park yesterday left the ground at the end of a great game with a distinct impression that they had had a preview of the 1973 All-Ireland champions - such was the quality of Wexford’s performance.”
Paddy wasn’t entirely wrong: the crowd had indeed seen that year’s champions, as four months later Limerick won what remains their last MacCarthy Cup.
Shock of the new
It’s fair to say that there was some scepticism about how last season’s Division Two winners Galway would get on in their first season back in the top division since 2011. Kevin Walsh’s team - and the county before he took over - have had difficulty stringing together winning sequences in either league or championship.
That may be in the process of changing, as Seán Armstrong’s late, late winner in Letterkenny gave the county a great start to the campaign.
This season’s draw didn’t appear to do them any favours, springing the top two Ulster teams in the opening fortnight: Tyrone to Tuam on opening day and off to Donegal for a return bout with the team they hammered in last summer’s championship but now under new management and as it turned out an impressive battle with Kerry under their belt despite being down to 14 men.
Precedent wasn’t on their side either. In the nine seasons since the league adopted its current format, the Division Two champions of the previous season have managed to win their first two top-flight fixtures on only two occasions, 2010 and 2013 when Cork and Tyrone, respectively, opened their campaigns with two wins.
The low-key Walsh might prefer not to be reminded but those two counties created another precedent by reaching the league final in the relevant years: Tyrone lost to Dublin in Jim Gavin’s first year whereas Cork defeated Mayo to take the title.
On a more cautiously encouraging note, in the 10 years of the current hierarchical four-division format, only one county - Westmeath - has won Division Two and got relegated straight back down the following season.