GAA Football

Kevin Madden: Thrills, spills and shining stars in 2019

Rian O'Neill (14) of Armagh shoots to score a second-half goal during the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Round 2 match between Monaghan and Armagh at St Tiarnach's Park in Clones, Monaghan on June 22 2019. Picture by Ray McManus/Sportsfile.

ULSTER CHAMPIONSHIP

The plum tie of the campaign saw Donegal and Tyrone meet at the Semi-final stage, but a change in style for the Red Hands proved fatal on the day as a more man v man approach succumbed to the devastating running game of Donegal.

We had a couple of thrillers involving Armagh and Down, and then Armagh and Cavan.

That game in the marshes will live long in the memory as two great rivals could only be separated by a single point courtesy of an Andrew Muirnin 1-1 smash and grab at the very end of extra time.

The Ulster Final proved to be somewhat of a damp squib as Donegal landed back to back Anglo-Celts, by giving Cavan the biggest five point hammering you are ever likely to see.

This was the highest scoring Ulster decider in the history of Gaelic Football with a final score of 2-16 to 1-24.

But in all honesty it lacked the spark to keep you on the edge of your seat.

The Cavan that had lit up the Ulster Championship with a fairy-tale season (Beating Monaghan & Armagh) just didn't turn up for the final as Donegal taught them a harsh footballing lesson.

The average score per game over the nine Ulster Championship matches was in fact 37 points.

But in reality, we only had two really fiercely fought contests, which once again highlighted the sentiment that lots of scores doesn't always guarantee entertainment.

QUALIFIERS

After suffering heavy enough defeats to Tyrone, both Antrim and Derry regrouped nicely to produce impressive winning displays against Louth and Wexford. That was as good as it got for the Bannsiders with both exiting in round 2 at the hands of Kildare and Laois.

Paddy Tally's Down got one of the toughest draws possible in round 2 as they pulled Mayo before losing out by five.

The performance of the round saw Armagh beat Monaghan (who had already dispatched of Fermanagh) by eight points in their own back yard which signalled an end to a poor championship season for Malachy O'Rourke's men.

After their disappointing Ulster Final, Cavan met an utterly ruthless Tyrone in round four as they got whacked by 16 points, with the Red Hands hitting 1-20 from just 26 shots.

Kieran McGeeney's men physically battered Mayo in Castlebar as they produced one hell of a performance that just wasn't enough in the end.

Some questionable decisions from the match referee and a smart stop by David Clarke, from a Jamie Clarke goal chance, left them agonisingly short of the Super 8's.

SUPER 8'S

Donegal and Kerry served up 1-20 to 1-20 smasher with the peerless Michael Murphy converting an injury time free to equalise.

But a bit like the Ulster Championship, we had very few close encounters in this year's competition.

The last game in Group 1 was a dead rubber as were the last two games in Group 2 with Tyrone and Dublin already though.

So with the Kerry v Tyrone tie already decided, it was left to Mayo v Donegal in a winner takes all encounter to see who would meet the Dubs in the other Semi-final.

Mayo had four points to spare on a wet night where they made an incredible 66 tackles (22 turnovers), and still were able to get away with missing four goal chances.

After a disappointing enough Ulster Championship and a Super 8's that failed to capture the imagination there was only one thing for it.

You see, we should know by now that low scoring games that go down to the wire are too dull.

High scoring, free-flowing or dead rubber games that don't go to the wire lack intensity and value.

So, the geniuses around that big hollow table in Croke Park made the decision to bring in a few more rule changes.

Sure a couple more couldn't hurt, could they?

WHEN IT'S NOT BROKE, BREAK IT REALLY BADLY

With The Advanced Mark and Sin Bin in the post for 2020, once again many of us were asking ‘when are the GAA going to leave the game alone and stop mimicking rules from other codes?'

I don't even want to think about the impact this will have at club level and the serious challenge it will pose for officials.

But that aside, this new mark rule is not a positive step forward.

It will more often than not completely disarm the possibility of seeing some good defending.

Once the forward takes even a chest catch (from a 20m kick-pass outside the 50) anywhere near the scoring zone, the hand will go up, the game will stop, and the party will be over.

The net result will be more free-kicks in a game, a reduced level of physicality, and even greater ‘Game Management' from the team who are leading. Last season the GAA adopted yet another rule from a foreign code, by allowing championship games to be decided on free-kicks or penalties.

Perhaps the tie that caught the imagination most was the Antrim Championship semi-final replay between Portglenone and Lamh Dhearg.

Antrim PRO Sean Kelly had half the country on tenter-hooks, as he created a storm of excitement by streaming the climatic free-kick competition live on twitter.

With the sides tied at 10 kicks apiece, the Saffron chairman Ciaran McCavanagh had to enter the fray in dramatic fashion, his arms waving up and down to call a halt.

Most agreed it was a good call and another replay was deemed a more sensible alternative.

To add insult to injury we also had more turkeys voting for Christmas this year, as a two tier championship was passed and approved at congress for 2020.

As that old favourite cartoon character Fog Horn Leg Horn might say: 'Suffering succotash!'

ALL-IRELAND SEMI-FINALS

Tyrone's first half performance against Kerry was up there with anything they had produced in manys a year. All-Star in the making, Ronan McNamee had David Clifford well under control.

When Kerry kicked long Colm Cavanagh swept up the pieces.

When they ran the ball a hungry pack stripped them in the tackle.

The long diagonal deliveries to McShane and Donnelly made the Kerry sweeper Paul Murphy a redundant figure and the scores came freely.

A half-time lead of four points could have been much greater.

But that efficiency in front of goal was swapped for some sloppier finishing in the second period. Kerry had found their range and with the game tied on 55 minutes, an un-forced error was to be their undoing.

It looked certain like Tyrone would score but a misplaced pass on their attacking 21 ended up in Niall Morgan's net some 15 seconds later.

The second semi-final was much more one-sided, as a punched drunk Mayo just ran out of gas.

Half-time killed their momentum, as a ruthless Dublin hit them for 2-6 at the start of the second half.

ALL-IRELAND FINAL

2019 will always be remembered as the year Dublin made history by achieving the five in a row.

The Drive for five. Men “Standing on the shoulder of giants” - discovering truth by building on previous discoveries.

But it was far from straight forward.

An early red-card for Johnny Cooper gave the Kingdom a serious advantage and when they hit the lead for the first time on 66 minutes, the ‘Perfect Storm' was now unravelling into the ‘Perfect Script'.

But a carry into contact by David Moran was punished by a fierce Dublin hunt and turnover that lead to the equaliser.

In the replay Jim Gavin had a much better day on the line, as his decision to start Eoin Murchan out the pitch on Stephen O'Brien proved to be a master-stroke.

His man buried the only goal of the game as the Kerry number 12 missed his chance.

So once again, another year that produced no real big shocks or surprises.

Well, apart from Dublin manager Jim Gavin waiting until December to announce he was stepping down.

With immortal status already secured, you can understand why he made the decision to go out at the very pinnacle.

But like almost everything else that happens within Dublin GAA this was an entirely scripted move planned months in advance.

SCORES OF THE YEAR

There were no shortage of top drawer finishes in this year's championship and to be honest it would be hard to top James Carr's goal for Mayo v Galway as he weaved inside and outside for about 60 yards before unleashing a rocket to the top corner.

But another three caught the eye for me.

The first one was an outrageous effort by Conor Cox for Roscommon against Galway in the Connaught Final. From almost the end-line, he executed the most delightful of body swerves to stroke the ball over with the outside of his left boot.

Then there was the virtuoso effort by Caloan Mooney for Down against Mayo where he beat four players before coolly slotting home.

But perhaps given the quality and magnitude of the situation it was hard to top Eoin Murchan's goal in the All-Ireland final replay.

Right from the throw-in he took the break and ran the pitch to bury a fantastic goal that would prove decisive in claiming the historic five in a row.

SAVES OF THE YEAR

Tyrone may well have been in bother early on in the Super 8's had it not been for the heroics of Niall Morgan who pulled off, not one, but two outstanding saves in the first half against Roscommon.

Cathal Gregg and then Enda Smith were both denied majors at a critical point in the game.

Mayo's David Clarke pulled off an excellent save from Jamie Clarke that was necessary to see his team through to the Super 8's. But it was hard to go past the ageless Stephen Cluxton for the stops of the year.

He pulled off a magnificent double save in the drawn All-Ireland final, before repeating the feat again in the replay.

He may have been three yards off his line when he saved Paul Geaney's penalty but it was a fine stop with his far right hand.

But the fingertip save to deny Paul Murphy later in the game was different gravy as he somehow guided the shot onto the crossbar.

Again in the replay he pulled a fine stop to deny Stephen O'Brien at his near post.

Player of the year and arguably Dublin's most influential player ever.

NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK

2019 was a great year for young talent to make the breakthrough. Some of these guys have been around for a while, but 2019 saw them all finally come of age and make huge contributions to the successes of their teams.

It ‘Rian'ed plenty of breath-taking scores in the Orchard County as a young Crossmaglen star, Rian O'Neill, entered the Championship like a wrecking ball, hitting an impressive 3-21.

Armagh have waited for years to unearth top talent and is always the way, two come along at once. Jarlath Og Burns was also a revelation at midfield capping some fine individual displays.

In Tyrone it was all about the ‘Bear in the Square' as Cathal McShane tortured just about every full-back, who got handed the misfortune of picking him up.

It is hard to believe that it was actually Championship year number 5 for the Owen Roes man.

But 2019 saw him take up a new position and with it the emergence of a different McShane who provided so many moments of sheer brilliance that helped breathe new life into the Tyrone attacking plan.

He ended up top Scorer of the Championship with an impressive 3-49.

Just two points behind McShane, came 2018 Kerry debutant Sean O'Se, who also had a fantastic championship in his second year in Senior football. His 10-point haul in the final (drawn game) saw him produce a flawless display of place-kicking to go along with his three points from play.

The new man ripping up the scoring charts in Donegal was a number 12 who went by the name of Jamie Brennan.

With his blistering pace, and an eye for goal, he had a super Ulster Championship.

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