GAA Football

Kevin Madden's highs and lows of 2015

Conor McManus is now rightly regarded as one of the finest forwards in the country  
Madden on Monday with Kevin Madden

THIS time of the year can be as stressful as it is joyous and, in a peculiar way, it reminds me of the past season’s football Championship.

A couple of days before Christmas, at the checkout in a packed Marks & Spencer, a gentleman with two children decided to jump the queue and push his trolley in front of mine. Immediately I challenged him and pointed out what he had done was rather rude.

Unfortunately, he didn’t take it that well and, in no uncertain terms, crudely told me if I didn’t shut my mouth he would take me outside and knock seven bells out of me. He looked like he meant it - he actually looked like he might not wait until we get outside.

I decided to cut my losses and let it go. A scene in the middle of a packed supermarket and two black eyes for midnight Mass made my mind up that my positioning in the queue wasn’t really that important.

 

THE 2015 season will be remembered as the year cynicism, thuggery, sledging and cheating reached new levels. Unsurprisingly, Dublin sorted out their defensive frailties to recapture the Sam Maguire after a dour final played in horrendous conditions.

Monaghan won their second Ulster title in three years and, in hindsight, their journey through the weaker side of the draw allowed them to peak at the right time. With all this talk of it being a young man’s game, it was actually a good year for the 30-plus club, particularly in Monaghan.

The older hands were critical to capturing the Anglo-Celt again, which once again highlighted the huge contribution Malachy O’Rourke is making to Monaghan football. Dessie Mone, Vinny Corey, Eoin Lennon and Dick Clerkin all made telling impacts to pull the Farney men over the line in their games against Cavan, Fermanagh and Donegal. But standing head and shoulders above them all was Conor McManus, now rightly regarded as being one of the finest forwards on the game.

Donegal, on the other hand, had tough games against Tyrone and Derry to get through in an attempt to retain their Ulster title. 

Often, the most complete performance in a season will be met with the opposition producing the most abject one. Mayo’s unmerciful thrashing of Sligo springs to mind, but one that few of us saw coming was the way Rory Gallagher’s Donegal completely obliterated Kieran McGeeney’s Armagh in the Athletic Grounds.

I felt, at the time, that this performance was a couple of rounds too early for them. Without trying to sound like Conor McGregor, in this game precision smashed possession as it took little over 15 minutes for Donegal to demolish Armagh.

If there was an award handed out for perseverance or resilience, Tyrone would win it hands down. Ironically, they were the first team knocked out of the Anglo-Celt race, yet they were the last Ulster side in the All-Ireland Championship.

The only thing that stood between them and an appearance on the third Sunday in September was a little more composure in front of goal. But with another All-Ireland U21 title in the bag for the Red Hands, it looks like it won’t be too long before they grace the hallowed turf again.

One team that certainly lightened the mood, gaining much admiration in the process, was Fermanagh. Their campaign was graced with comprehensive wins over Antrim (twice), Westmeath and a super victory against Roscommon before a valiant effort in tackling the Dubs.

An Ulster title for the minors from Derry raised the spirits in the Oak Leaf county before they bowed out to an outstanding Kerry team.

Once again, RTÉ never wasted an opportunity to denigrate Ulster football and, in particular, Tyrone as Ciaran Whelan used his position as a Sunday Game analyst to go out of his way to pick out as many incidents as possible to depict the Red Hand county in a negative light. Fortunately, karma wasted little time in coming around again as, a couple of weeks later, it was his native Dublin in the spotlight after the Mayo game.

Sadly within the large GAA community, a year never passes without sorrowful and unexpected loss. After his battle with illness, Antrim lost a legend in Jim Nelson.

On the lough shore, Ballinderry said goodbye to a legend of their own after young Aaron Devlin lost his short battle with meningitis.

A dour enough Qualifier campaign was brightened up by the progress made by Tyrone, Fermanagh and a shock victory for Antrim over Laois.

If it was bad year for the loyal spectator, it didn’t get any better for our officials. Perhaps the tone was set in the preliminary round of Ulster when Joe McQuillan managed to stumble himself into the way of a Tyrone attack at a very important time in the game for the Red Hands.

In club football, Crossmaglen have once again climbed to the top of the tree in Ulster. Because of their unmatched success of the last 20 years, few raised even an eyebrow. But credit must go to Oisin McConville, John McEntee and the men from Cross as this is a much less decorated side when it comes to star quality. But the old values remain the same and, with Corofin and St Vincent’s gone, few would bet against them bringing another Andy Merrigan Cup home.

As with like my experience in ‘Marksies’, the 2015 season displayed a poor level of sportsmanship and, at the same, time lacked the punch to get everyone excited.

 

MY FAVOURITE MOMENT
Despite it being a disappointing Championship, some moments did stand out.

The couple of Michael Murphy moments of class against Galway - when he nonchalantly flicked the ball into the path of Ryan McHugh to score a goal and the catch, turn and score were particularly sublime. 

Some outrageous yet invaluable points by Conor McManus would be up there as well. 

Against Fermanagh, the outside of the boot pass by Jack McCaffrey to Bernard Brogan was only equalled by the anticipation and finish from the Dublin talisman. 

To hear that a young man I watched growing up - Dermot McAleese - scored a last gasp goal for Antrim to beat Laois was also a personal highlight. 

Fermanagh gave their supporters so many fine moments and a never-say-die performance against Dublin drew many admirers.

Winner: For entertainment and comedy gold, big Sean Quigley bundling Dublin goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton over the line was hard to look past.

It was like something your father would have told you happened 40 years ago, but never in a million years could you imagine a player getting away with it nowadays. So to see the goal stand and the big man’s reaction in front of the Hill was just priceless.

 

AMBUSH OF THE YEAR
In footballing terms, Antrim’s comeback to beat Laois and Westmeath’s late show against Meath stand out above all others.

But off the field, in meeting rooms behind closed doors, plans were being made to get rid of managers and county boards. The perennial chokers of Mayo decided it was time the spotlight was taken off the players again and that all blame for their defeat to Dublin should lay squarely at the door of joint managers Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly.

Five points up with 15 minutes to go in the replay against Dublin, everyone knows the management threw the game away by kicking the ball into the goalkeeper’s arms and handing possession back to Dublin time and time again.

There must be something in the water in the west of Ireland, as the hurlers of Galway also decided that after coming so close to landing their first Liam MacCarthy since 1988, it was time to get rid of their manager Anthony Cunningham. Three points up at half-time in the final and in pole position, he obviously gave a horrendous team talk that cost them the game.

Winner: In a run of the mill year you would be fortunate to see two or three changes in key positions at board level.

But in Antrim, after some astute canvassing and a will for change from the clubs, a group calling themselves Saffron Vision were successful with six out of their eight candidates getting elected to form a brand new county board. ‘Make Antrim great’ is the plan of the new group and so say all of us Saffrons.

 

A TASTE OF THE UNSAVOURY
Even though he would claim it was his left foot, we all know by now that Joe Brolly’s most lethal weapon is his tongue. This was felt most of all by poor Marty Morrissey when the outspoken Derry man drew parallels between his looks and the ugliness of the football played by Cavan.

On the field, most of the unsavoury incidents happened in the one game - Mayo v Dublin. Once again, Diarmuid Connolly let frustration get the better of him when he struck out at Lee Keegan, who it seems was no angel either in the confrontation.

Johnny Copper committed just about as bad a challenge as you are ever likely to see on a football field as he came down with his studs on Diarmuid O’Connor as he kicked the ball in full flight. But as Ciaran Whelan said: “It’s not in Johnny’s nature...” Bless.

Meanwhile, Cillian O’Connor sent a message to all you jersey-pulling full-backs out there as he drew so hard off Rory O’Carroll he had to leave the pitch for the remainder of the All-Ireland semi-final.

Winner: We all know there could only be one winner of this particular award mainly, due to his repeat offending and ability to get away with it every time.

It is not unreasonable to suggest his execution of the dark arts probably denied him the Player of the Year gong. Congratulations Philly McMahon. You must be very proud of yourself. 

 

DRAMATIST OF THE YEAR
Sadly, there was no shortage of candidates and up near the top of the list of dramatists were some of our referees.

When Joe McQuillan ran into a Tyrone player during the Donegal game, they managed to regain the spilled possession. Common sense would have said just play on, but he stopped the game to give a hop ball, which Donegal happened to score from.

At Celtic Park, Eddie Kinsella sent off Down’s Conall McGovern for an innocuous coming-together with Derry’s Enda Lynn. And who could forget ‘hairgate’, Marty Duffy sending Darren Hughes off for nothing more than gently stroking Tiernan McCann’s beautiful mullet?

Winner: One candidate stood hair and shoulders above the rest. Tiernan McCann gets the nod for his ridiculous dive to get Darren Hughes sent off. The next day, the Monaghan man took to Twitter to reveal a hilarious photo of himself lying in bed with his dog and the attached caption: “Playing with Mila’s hair the last 20 minutes and she hasn’t budged” #puppystrong.

 

IRISH NEWS COLUMNIST OF THE YEAR
I was never a big advocate of the sentiment to give the retiring ‘oul hand’ player of the year. So as good and all as Paddy Heaney is/was, he didn’t even make my shortlist.

Benny Tierney cheers me up on a Wednesday with his great storytelling and wife-directed insults but, in fairness, he couldn’t pick his nose when it comes to calling the result of a football match, so that ruled him out.

New kids on the block Philip Jordan and Danny Hughes are showing plenty of promise in the punditry game and came into consideration, but you can’t give such a prestigious award to a minor. Veterans Brendan Crossan and Kenny Archer had some fine moments, but there’s only so many times you can win these things.

As I looked back over my own pre-Championship review to see how my predictions for the year fared, I was pleasantly surprised to recognise I had a 100 per cent record. I called the winner in each Ulster Championship game, before telling you Monaghan would win Ulster and Dublin the Sam Maguire.

Can you see where this is going yet? They say there’s no such thing as bragging: you are either lying or telling the truth. Or is it that the man who brags for himself knows that no-one else will? Either way, there can be only winner this year so, on this occasion, the rest of you may get to the back of the queue.

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