Football Review 2017: It all led to September, but what a journey
All-Ireland final the game of the year, an occasion probably unmatched and certainly unsurpassed
September’s All-Ireland provided a breath-taking spectacle. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Football is the wallpaper of Irish sporting life. On the first available Saturday of January, Kildare and Longford were facing off in the O’Byrne Cup in St Conleth’s Park in Newbridge. Spin the wheel on another 50 weekends and Moorefield were snatching the Leinster club football final at the death in Portlaoise, eight days before Christmas. Football is always there, more of it than you could imagine squeezing into any reasonably-sized review.
And yet, when it all comes down to it, the temptation to reduce the year to Dublin and Mayo and not a whole lot more feels hard to resist. On the one hand, one of the great Gaelic football teams in history; on the other, one of the best teams never to win an All-Ireland. That you can argue the toss on either one isn’t important here - it’s just remarkable that as watchers of the sport we’ve pulled the lever and been lucky enough to hit on them both at the same time.
Jim Gavin’s achievement in stewarding only the 10th three-in-a-row in the game’s history ought to be impervious to sniping by now. Dublin took their time about getting their sea legs under them early in the year but still managed to extend their unbeaten streak in league and championship to 36 games. It was ended in the league final by Kerry, coincidentally the same team who had last beaten them all of two years previously.
That streak, by the by, will surely age like a good wine. The sheer stickability it takes to go two years unbeaten, especially in games that aren’t all life-and-death, says only good things about the group Gavin has under him. Three times the spring, away to Monaghan and Kerry and home to Tyrone, they were in real danger of coughing up defeats only to pull them out of the fire at the death.
Most players can and should and do pour the regulation 110 per cent into a do-or-die championship game. But refusing to lose in springtime matches that won’t define your year one way or the other amounts to dancing like nobody’s watching. Don’t sleep on that streak, is the point. We’ll look back on it with awe in years to come.
It became an article of faith as the summer wore on that if it wasn’t for Mayo we’d have had no championship at all. Leaving aside the always dubious worth of assessing something as amorphous and unwieldy as 63 separate football matches as an organic whole, it felt like a headline in search of an article.
For once, there were games to see before August. Down shocked Monaghan, Kildare blitzed Meath, Tyrone were foot perfect against Donegal. Even the stinker in Páirc Uí Rinn between Cork and Tipperary had an epic finish. If the provincial finals were for the most part the usual washout, Roscommon’s uprising in Connacht at least provided variety.
The qualifiers had some hidden gems of games too. Tipp’s comeback against Cavan in Breffni Park was nothing short of heroic, ditto Michael Murphy’s individual display for the ages against Meath. Jamie Clarke put in a night of bewitching brilliance against Kildare in Croke Park, Galway walked in a cricket score before half-time against Donegal.
And yes, through it all, Mayo were finding new and interesting ways to be old(ish) and more interesting. They were gone against Derry before Conor Loftus finished off one of the goals of the year. They made heavy weather of it against Clare, had a huge wobble against Cork before prevailing in another extra-time and needed Lee Keegan to drag them one-handed through the first Roscommon game.
By the time they got into gear against Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final, it was as though they had reached an elite level of performance without even realising it. They were much the better side against Kerry, even if it took them another replay to convince themselves of the fact. By then, it was already a season for the ages, regardless of what the final brought.
In it, they met, of course, the impeccable Dubs. They had come through the other side of the draw with no scoreboard hassles to detain them. The only slight speedbump had been the 12-week suspension handed down to Diarmuid Connolly for pushing linesman Ciarán Branagan during their championship opener against Carlow. But even that felt like no more than a cosmetic wound. It certainly didn’t slow their progress any.
On the contrary, their performance against Tyrone in the semi-final was arguably the best-coached, best-executed one-off game by a football team in years. At a stroke, they lampooned the deep-lying counter-attack gameplan that Mickey Harte’s side were presumed to have perfected. They were patient, they were precise, they were clinical. They kicked two wides all day - one of them a Jack McCaffrey shot for a goal that only missed by inches.
The final was the game of the year, an occasion probably unmatched and certainly unsurpassed on any Irish sporting field in 2017. From Con O’Callaghan’s immaculate goal a minute in, it rocked and rolled all the way to Dean Rock’s winner 76 minutes later. A couple of red cards turned it this way and that, there were goals and points and turnovers and tackles. Mayo were two up in sight of the line but couldn’t get over it - nobody has ever scored more in an All-Ireland final and lost. Little good it is to them.
When the golden streamers fell, it was Stephen Cluxton with Sam in the air. He was only 13 seconds into his acceptance speech when he turned to Mayo to offer his commiseration and respect. In the moment, it felt right, as though they were equals just then, separated by the bounce of the ball.
But of course, Dublin are masters in making sure that bounce goes their way. Winners do that. They sealed off the 10th three-in-a-row in the history of the game and in 2018, they’ll aim for only the third four-timer.
We will be watching, of course we will. The game now is as compelling as it ever was. It will be interesting to see if that dismantling of Tyrone has a knock-on effect among the northern teams, especially, who have heretofore been wedded to the blanket defence. To employ it going forward is to effectively admit that you have no designs on the bigger days in Croke Park.
Tyrone haven’t beaten Dublin, Mayo or Kerry in the championship since 2008; without an overhaul, what’s to suggest they can change that pattern anytime soon playing the same sort of game? Monaghan could have been forgiven for it in the past, given their lack of manpower to support Conor McManus up front. But now that they have a sprinkling of strike forwards, it would seem perverse to keep trying to turn them into worker bees around the middle of the pitch.
Further down the ranks, we will look for other signs of life. Kildare have surely kicked on, their qualifier defeat to Armagh notwithstanding. Roscommon have a provincial title to defend, Galway need to convince the world there’s more to them than the odd ambush of Mayo. Cork are starting afresh, again.
Many of them - most of them, truth be told, will have no real business coming up against Dublin next July and August. But in Mayo and Kerry and maybe Tyrone and maybe even Kildare, the pack has a chance. Of sorts.
And if they don’t, well it’s still no hardship to be around in the era of Jim Gavin’s Dublin team. There’s enough to complain about in life without adding something of genuine quality to the mix.