The 12 GAA's of Christmas: From Harte in Louth to 'Club8Sam' and Clarkey's 11 on Antrim's glory day

Cavan's Thomas Galligan battles with Donegal's Michael Murphy in the Ulster football final. Picture: Seamus Loughran.
Cavan's Thomas Galligan battles with Donegal's Michael Murphy in the Ulster football final. Picture: Seamus Loughran. Cavan's Thomas Galligan battles with Donegal's Michael Murphy in the Ulster football final. Picture: Seamus Loughran.

The 12 GAA’s of Christmas

THE tragedy of Covid-19 put sport in perspective but Gaelic Games have played a huge role in keeping our spirits up this year. The pandemic came creeping up and in March the GAA announced a two-week suspension in its activities. It soon became obvious that a fortnight wasn’t going to be nearly enough and so month after month went by with many predicting no Championship at all this year.

The return of club action in July brought a smile back to our faces and, after the thrills and spills of the club action, the inter-county season resumed with the League and then with remarkable Championships that finished last weekend.

Andy Watters looks back on some of the highlights in a season that just kept on giving…

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me…

Mickey Harte in a Louth jersey

WHO saw this one coming? You’d need to have been the product of Nostradamus’s dirty weekend fling in Blackrock with Mystic Meg to have predicted that three-time All-Ireland winner Mickey would switch to the Wee County after his 18-year spell ended with Tyrone.

Louth TD Peter Fitzpatrick was on the phone to Harte the day after the Red Hands lost to Donegal in the Ulster Championship. Fair play getting Mickey to answer Peter and even more fair play getting him to sign up for three years with the ambitious ‘Wee County’.

With Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher taking the reins in Tyrone, Harte’s Louth side will play in a glam Division Four next season that will also include Enda McGinley’s Antrim, Tony McEntee’s Sligo and Terry Hyland’s Leitrim.

Interestingly, Louth now have Sam Maguire winners managing their football and hurling teams. Paul McCormack, part of the Armagh 2002 panel, guided the hurlers to the Christy Ring Cup.

Two Cavan comebacks

THE Breffnimen were the story of the year. Washing-machines and tumble dryers around the county must have been going flat-to the-mat to keep the lads in clean gear as Mickey Graham’s men produced win after win, weekend after weekend. They looked down against Monaghan and out against Down but recovered to win both games and dethroned Donegal to win a first Ulster final since 1997.

To set the scene, Cavan were relegated to Division Three and the panel had been affected by Covid-19 before they travelled to Clones. Monaghan ran riot in the first half and were winning by seven points at half-time. But they stopped and Cavan started and were level at the finish. Raymond Galligan’s monster free in extra-time earned an unforgettable win.

Even then, there weren’t many who gave them a prayer against Down in the Ulster semi. The Mournemen hammered them in the first half and again the game looked over at half-time. But from the moment Conor Madden kicked the point of his life from the corner flag the comeback was on.

Cavan played superb football for the rest of that half and they were even better against Donegal in the final when fearless warrior Thomas Galligan got busted up, stitched up and thrown back into the fray to lead them home. Apparently the roar of delight that went up from Terry Coyle Park (the estate that overlooks Kingspan Breffni) was picked up by a Chinese satellite.

It’ll be interesting to see if they (Cavan, not China) can build on it next year.

Three Orchard Hens

ARMAGH sisters Eimear, Caoimhe and Orla O'Kane were on the panel as the Orchard women beat Ulster neighbours Cavan to win the All-Ireland Junior Camogie final. A pair of sisters – the Donnellys – were responsible for a whopping 17 of Armagh’s 19 scores. Ciara landed 0-13 and Leanne contributed four in the three-point win.

The All-Ireland intermediate final was another all-Ulster affair. Down met Antrim and 2-3 from Portaferry’s Niamh Mallon saw the Mourne women to a 4-16 to 2-10 victory.

Four little counties

HOW are we going to stop these Dubs? Cut their allowance? Introduce a transfer system? Make them play with their boots on the wrong feet?

The real issue is the colossal population of the county – 1.3 million and counting.

That’s around seven times more than Meath (their Leinster final opponents) and around 18 times the population of Cavan, their All-Ireland semi-final opponents. Clearly this is unsustainable.

Dublin have done great things with the resources at their disposal. Look at the success of Ballymun for example: A club from an inner-city area with huge social problems that won the Dublin championship this year and produced five players for the panel that won the All-Ireland final last Saturday.

I’ve yet to meet a Dub that wants anything to do with this but the only solution is to divide the county. North and south would do for me and there is evidence that the groundwork for that has already begun. A couple of weeks ago the Dublin county board purchased 23 acres at the former Hollystown Golf Club to develop a centre of excellence in the north of the city. In 2017, Dublin bought the 35-acre Spawell site in Templeogue on the southside.

Five points on Leeside

IN the centenary year of Bloody Sunday, maybe it was written in the stars that Tipperary would win their first Munster title since 1935.

It was another incredible story in a remarkable season. First Cork shocked Kerry and then Tipp shocked Cork in the final and it was five points from Michael Quinlivan (alongside the brilliant free-taking of Conor Sweeney) that made the difference. Tipperary donned the green and white strip their forebears had worn on the fateful day in Croke Park in 1920 when Tipp footballer Michael Hogan and 13 others were murdered by the black and tans.

In a year when many of us have taken time to stop for a while and think about our history, Tipperary’s marvellous win was as fitting as it was richly deserved.

Six Sam Maguires

WHAT’S the odds that this is regurgitated as ‘Seven Sam Maguires’ next Christmas? (Of course, we’re talking Dublin here). Last year is was a ‘Drive for Five’, this year it was ‘Buzzin’ for the half-dozen’. In 2021 we’ll be talking (or having to listen) about ‘The obsession with number seven’ or maybe ‘The depression after number seven’?

Dublin have said goodbye to Allstar after Allstar and manager after manager but they are still waaaaay out in front.

Yes, they have many advantages but one thing must be said: this is a superb side. They play an exciting brand of attacking football and blew away every county they came up against – Laois, Westmeath, Meath and then Cavan and none of them got to within 10 points of them. Mayo pushed them harder but were well beaten in the end.

Dublin didn’t concede a goal in the Championship and did Stephen Cluxton have a save to make?

Seven years of Geezer

KIERAN McGeeney is now the longest-serving football manager in the country and he ended his seventh season by guiding his native county back to Division One for the first time since 2012. The clincher was a mid-Lockdown win in Clare in which Armagh showcased some genuine top table potential which was missing when Donegal ran riot against McGeeney’s men in the Ulster semi-final.

Since then ‘Geezer’ has pulled off a notable coup by enticing Kerry All-Ireland winner Kieran Donaghy to become part of his backroom team. ‘Star’ will bring a wealth of experience and an infectious personality to the Armagh camp as they prepare for life in the new-look Division One North next year.

Eight Celtic Crosses

FOR MANY years ‘Club8Sam’ was an exclusively Kerry-only society whose members were green-and-gold blooded GAA aristocrats Paidi O Se (RIP), Denis Moran, Mikey Sheehy, Pat Spillane and Ger Power.

But as they slurped their tae and nibbled on their triangular ham sandwiches while listening to the Kilfenora Ceili Band last Saturday, the well-buffered oak doors of the club were suddenly burst open by a squad of grinning Dublin pistoleros.

“What’s the story lads?” roared Michael-Darragh McAuley, sweeping back his mane of dark hair, as him, James McCarthy, Stephen Cluxton, Michael Fitzsimons, Philly McMahon and Cian O’Sullivan entered, proudly flashing their newly-laminated membership cards.

“Here Clucko, fire us over a couple a’ them sangers,” says Philly as he settled into the best leather armchair closest to the crackling fire.

“An’ stick some decent music on there Fitzer…”

Nine ladies dancing

ACTUALLY it was more like 30. The joy of the Dublin ladies’ celebrations after their All-Ireland semi-final win over Armagh is one of the abiding memories of last season. Armagh pushed them all the way and could have won the game and as they trudged out into the car park understandably disappointed, the Dubs were in a world of their own having a full-on party in their changingroom at Kingspan Breffni.

“Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh, I don’t want a lot for Christmas, there is just one thing I need,” they sang along to the Mariah Carey festive classic.

“All I waaant for Christmas is yoooooooooou…”

The one thing they wanted of course was the Brendan Martin Cup and they made sure it was sitting underneath their Christmas tree in Parnell Park, or wherever it is they keep it, by beating Cork in the All-Ireland final last Sunday. That win made it four in-a-row for the Dublin ladies.

Ten western wakes

SINCE they last won the Sam Maguire in 1951, Mayo have reached 10 All-Ireland finals. Sheep have been painted, curses have been started, US Presidents have been elected but still they’ve lost the lot.

Sometimes they’ve played badly, sometimes they’ve been unlucky, sometimes nerves have got the better of them and sometimes there’s been a touch of all three. Mayo have won plenty of battles but always lost the war because, when the chips are really, really down they just haven’t been able to find that extra half-a-yard to win.

Last Saturday’s final was another in a long list of might-have-beens but Mayo deserve a lot of credit for going head-to-head with Dublin for three-quarters of the game.

Some of the personal criticism directed at these Mayo players before and particularly in the aftermath of last weekend’s loss bordered on the hysterical.

Eleven points from Clarkey

THE Croke Park stands were packed with saffron jerseys the last time Antrim got to a hurling final (the All-Ireland final) against Tipperary in 1989. Sadly it took 31 years for the Glensmen to get back for a decider and this time they won the Joe McDonagh Cup in the curtainraiser to the Liam MacCarthy decider.

It wasn’t a particularly memorable game but it was a memorable victory for manager Darren Gleeson and his players and hopefully they will kick on from it and hold their own against the big dogs next season. Ciaran Clarke hit 11 points in the 0-22 to 1-17 victory over Kerry.

Afterwards the Antrim squad’s wreath-laying at the Bloody Sunday memorial was a touch of real class.

Twelve Canning specials

JOE Canning’s ball-striking from the sideline in the All-Ireland semi-final against Limerick was a joy to behold. Sliothar after sliothar curled delightfully between the uprights at Croke Park as the Portumna genius kept his side in touch with the Treatymen.

Canning hit an even dozen before he was taken off injured. Even if he’d stayed on the pitch it seemed John Kiely’s men had the beating of his team and, sure enough, they went on to face Waterford – another surprise packet in a season of upsets - in the final.

It was men against boys, or rather big lumps of boys against boys, in the decider. Cheered on by their three busloads of backroom staff, Limerick were deserving winners on the day and their forwards whacked over 30 points to win by 11. Only two teams – Kilkenny in 2008 and Tipperary in 2016 – had previously hit the 30-score mark in All-Ireland finals.

It’s worth noting that five counties have won the Limerick MacCarthy Cup in the last 10 years. The competition is in a very healthy state.