Kevin Madden: for many, no fairytale endings in GAA 2017
“It was Christmas Eve babe in the drunk tank
“An old man said to me, won't see another one
“And then he sang a song.”
I don’t think I know anyone who doesn’t love this Shane McGowan and Kirsty McColl classic which was once again voted the best Christmas song of all time.
But unlike most tunes around this time of year, this golden oldie isn’t a tale about sleigh rides, mistletoe or a big jolly fat man with a red suit and white beard.
“You took my dreams from me,
“I could have been some one,
“But so co could anyone...” and so the story goes.
A tale of lost youth and shattered dreams; with minor changes to the lyrics it easily could be telling the story of the year past for the majority of inter-county GAA teams.
After all, for 31 teams there were no bells ringing out on All-Ireland day.
After months of hard slog and false optimism, there was really only one fairy-tale of 2017 and that was the “Fairytale of Dublin.”
The boys with the ‘cars big as bars’ and the ‘rivers of gold’ who made their own history by steam rolling (almost) all in front of them to win their third All-Ireland on the trot.
Jim Gavin played the role of Shane McGowan perfectly, as his imposed media ban after the Diarmuid Connolly incident made as about much sense as the former Pogues Star after a feed of the Black Bush.
It was left to good old Mayo to bring some much-needed romanticism and not for the first time, they were the team who captured the hearts of a nation.
But with the finishing line in sight, not for the first time either, they imploded in glorious fashion.
After a herculean effort in the final, a dramatic red card and flying GPS monitor became the main talking points of another Sam Maguire slipped from their grasp.
For the second successive year, Tyrone were the kingpins of an Ulster Championship that seemed a particularly poor standard across the board.
Five of the eight ties were non-events with only Cavan v Monaghan, Armagh v Down and Monaghan v Down being remotely competitive.
Tyrone easily beat everyone in front of them but the lack of competition didn’t serve them well for the much anticipated ‘Game of the Ages’ against Dublin.
The retirement of Sean Cavanagh and a well-deserved All-Star for brother Colm were big talking points, as was the cheeky lobbed goal by Ronan O’Neill in the Ulster final.
The Red Hands strolled the Ulster Championship with winning margins of 11, nine and eight before following this up with an 18-point annihilation of their near neighbours Armagh in the All-Ireland quarter-final.
With their eyes wide-shut they stumbled into a well oiled and completely ruthless Dublin who dished out a footballing master-class.
Down were the surprise package in Ulster as the big bear in the square Connaire Harrison gave us many moments of ball-winning, man-beating, and scoring brilliance.
Their dramatic survival in Division 2 of the NFL was surpassed by a championship campaign which produced massive victories over Armagh and Monaghan on their way to an Ulster Final.
Armagh had a turbulent year on their way to a great qualifier run that would eventually see them annihilated by their biggest rivals Tyrone.
Donegal did their best to finally prove Alan Hansen right with his assumption that ‘you can’t win anything with kids’. Monaghan, Antrim, Fermanagh and Cavan all had disappointing years with the latter three suffering relegation from Division’s three, two, and one of the National League.
Derry finished their season in spectacular fashion after rattling Mayo in Castlebar.
This was a game they should have won, but Conor Loftus spoiled the party and the curtain came down on Damian Barton’s reign.
It was still a good year for Derry GAA though, with Damian McErlain’s minors winning Ulster, Glen capturing yet another Ulster U-21s, and St Mary’s Magherafelt winning their first ever MacRory Cup.
Not to forget the relentless, fantastic Slaughtneil who produced another three in a row across three codes - which was supposedly never to be repeated.
St Mary’s shocked the Third Level circuit by winning the Sigerson Cup.
As we look back on the year past here are a few awards that capture the best and worst moments.
Zinezine Zidane Moment
Lee Keegan’s petulant act of throwing his GPS tag at Dean Rock as he kicked the winning free in the All-Ireland final was probably more desperate than it was crazy.
Diarmuid Connolly’s finger pointing and shove of linesman Ciaran Brannigan in Dublin’s win over Carlow was a pretty stupid act that cost him a three month suspension.
In fairness the time on the sidelines gave him ample opportunity to sculpt those wonderful guns which he showcased in an exclusive beautiful sky blue tank-top on All-Ireland Final.
Winner: This isn’t even a contest. Just like Zidane cost France the 2006 World Cup, Donal Vaughan’s act of madness arguably cost Mayo the All-Ireland.
I felt at the time a red was perhaps a tad harsh but it was still senseless on his part.
Mayo did fight gallantly but the extra man (John Small sent off for Dublin) and a converted free would have been massive advantages in an evenly balanced game.
Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney spent three months on the side-line for an angry altercation with linesman Joe McQuillan.
Antrim managers Frank Fitzsimmons and Gearoid Adams came into the reckoning on two counts.
Firstly, due to the disgraceful handling of the Matthew Fitzpatrick case.
After seeing his one game suspension lifted twice, he was bounced through the GAA courts one more time only to be hit with a 48-week ban.
Both men were also angry about getting the cold shoulder from the county board in relation to taking the team for another year.
Pete McGrath was another manager scorned as he made a shock exit from the Erne county after claiming his players put him in the position where he had no other choice than to resign.
Winner: They say it’s not the size of the dog in the fight and that old adage certainly sums up this wee man who was prepared to take a much bigger, younger, fitter man armed with a weapon.
When Davy Fitz encroached the Nowlan Park pitch to barge and square up to Tipperary’s Jason Ford he did so with no regard for his own personal safety.
After winning back to back Ulsters with ease, few could have predicted that Dublin would hand Tyrone their backsides on a plate after just ten minutes of the All-Ireland semi-final.
Finally, it seemed that Mayo were going to bring Sam home.
Ten minutes into the second half of the All-Ireland final the momentum was with them, but the gods weren’t, as once again they imploded spectacularly.
After an impressive qualifier run beating Westmeath, Tipperary and Kildare along the way, Armagh were taught a harsh lesson by the one teacher they cannot stand.
The performances of both Monaghan and Tyrone against Dublin were a major let down.
Winner: Roscommon caused a major shock by winning the Connaught title after destroying Galway in the final.
The Rossies were on top of the world. A great performance against Mayo followed, which brought us a much anticipated replay.
But the 22-point annihilation that followed left McStay’s men scratching their heads contemplating a major fall from grace.
Heart Sinking Moment
As Dean Rock stepped up to hit the winning free in the All-Ireland final we were all pretty sure what the outcome was going to be.
Still it was hard to watch.
After being in the driving seat for so long, the Mayo goal in the dying moments against Derry in Castlebar ended the dream.
In fairness it didn’t put the lights out entirely but it left them flickering badly.
Winner: Deja vu. The missed free by Cillian O’Connor on 71 minutes of the final was brutal to watch.
It mightn’t have been enough, who knows, but they would have had something to hang on to rather than having to chase a score.
What made it even more heartbreaking was that he missed from almost the identical spot to level at the very end of last year’s final replay.
The Biggest Avengers
There is no doubt Down produced one of the best performances of the Ulster Championship when they dumped out raging hot favourites Monaghan.
When the two teams came back out of the hat for Round 4 of the qualifiers it was no surprise to see Monaghan set the record straight.
Winner: Immediately after Armagh’s dramatic, gut-wrenching defeat to Tipperary on the last day of the league their captain Brian Fox added insult to injury.
He tweeted a photo of himself, Quinlivan and a couple of team mates with the caption "Some-one call the PSNI quick, there's been an Orchard raided by Michael Quinlivan."
Waiting in the long grass, Armagh’s subsequent victory over them in the qualifiers must have tasted sweet.
Best Newcomer & Golden Oldie
2017 was a very good year for the emergence new talent as well as being a ‘good un’ for the ‘Oul Han.’
Armagh had quite a few ‘newish’ players who made a great impact including goal-keeper Blaine Hughes.
The Red Hands two goal hero in that game, David Mulgrew, announced his arrival on the big stage as did the impressive Padraig Hampsey who had a tremendous season.
I‘m not sure if Croke Park has ever witnessed a better individual performance than David Clifford’s in the minor final against Derry.
Four goals and four points was some return for a very special talent. Many of those in the 30 Club defied the numbers game.
Players like Colm Cavanagh, Kevin McKernan, Keith Higgins, Philly McMahon, Stephen Cluxton, and then a few were among the best performers in the country last year.
Winners: Strictly speaking, this was year two for the Dublin superstar Con O’Callaghan but at just 21 years of age, he literally had a Carlsberg season that saw him win practically everything across both codes at club and County including an All-Star and young player of the year.
Brilliant goals inside the first five minutes for both the All-Ireland final and semifinal underpinned his class.
The Golden Oldie award goes to the irrepressible Andy Moran.
At 34 he produced his best ever season in a Mayo shirt as he deservedly won the player of the year gong.
As we look forward to a fairytale 2018, lets hope it is a prosperous one for our province and as the song goes ‘may all your dreams come true.’
I have two very modest wishes for the year ahead:
1 That referees at Inter-County level learn to count past four and start to finally punish blatant over-carrying in a consistent fashion.
2 To see a successful ruling on the Casement Park redevelopment project, and no subsequent judicial review.
“For I built my dreams all around you...”