GAA Football

A year when football brightened our smiles and widened our eyes and gave us something to be at

IT was only truly when the people of Mayo attached their jump-leads to every second greying seat on Jones' Road and dismantled seven years of unbeatenness that we were able to remember what football really is.

Tyrone celebrate at the end of the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship final between Tyrone and Mayo at Croke Park. Pic Philip Walsh.

IT was only truly when the people of Mayo attached their jump-leads to every second greying seat on Jones’ Road and dismantled seven years of unbeatenness that we were able to remember what football really is.

2020 was a virtual write-off. That Dublin won their sixth title in a row and Limerick built on their hurling domination was, with hindsight, almost a godsend.

To have wasted such drama as Tyrone and Mayo provided on empty stadiums would have been a sin.

You’d quickly forget that there were only 40,000-odd allowed into Croke Park for the latter stages of this year’s All-Ireland series.

The place sounded full. It felt full. And because it felt full again, we felt full again.

Sport, we’ve learned the hard way, is nothing without the thousands who blindly love, ruthlessly criticise, angrily scream, joyously celebrate, mournfully cry after it.

2021 might have been a Covid year but it wasn’t the Covid year.

As the longest day passes us by again, we’ve been sent hurtling back towards the kind of abnormality of living that nobody wished to experience again.

We vowed that when turnstiles reopened and football returned in March with the onset of the National Leagues, the brief absence would make the heart eternally fond.

Did you?

When Tyrone and Monaghan drew 0-14 apiece in Healy Park, there might have been enough to suggest they’d meet again. But nobody noticed.

The sun shone that evening. Grandfathers and grand-daughters, mothers and sons sprang through the gates of Mid Ulster’s answer to the Chocolate Factory, their sleeves shortened and their smiles widened.

500 prized tickets were shared out between the people of Tyrone, though the odd contraband blue-and-white shirt was to be seen too.

Football was creeping its way back. This was May 29, the last round of a league constricted by borders.

North played north, south played south.

There were typically Ulster clues laid. Division One North was Donegal, Tyrone, Monaghan and Armagh. Of the six games, two were draws. The other four were all tight.

Tyrone finished with the highest score difference of +3. Monaghan had the lowest on -4.

Meanwhile the footloose and fancyfree southernball was being run by David Clifford. Cryuff turns and the lot.

The Kingdom scored 15 goals in five league games, the last of which ended Kerry 6-15 Tyrone 1-14.

That was taken as the final indicator required to install Peter Keane’s side as favourites to win Sam Maguire.

Yet in the wider context of north v south, Armagh and Monaghan survived while Roscommon and Galway perished through dramatic playoffs.

Conor McManus’ equaliser to take Galway to extra-time and springboard the Farney to yet another year in the top flight will easily hold its own when his career showreel is finalised.

Mayo made expectedly light work of promotion but Cork didn’t. Jack O’Connor, before the serpent laid the forbidden fruit back in his eyeline, guided Kildare up to Division One too.

Derry eased out of Division Three and Antrim clawed their way out of Division Four, but the story in it all was at the bottom.

Cavan and Tipperary had risen chills from empty seats with their provincial successes in 2020. Yet they both rolled towards 2021’s version as Division Four teams, unbelievably relegated so soon after generational successes.

The football championship of high summer and early autumn was one of the greatest and most memorable in history. There are genuine football reasons for that, and there are sentimental reasons for that.

John Bercow might have been the man to have presented the provincial trophies. Orderrrrrr had been restored.

But it all looked different. Whether it was life putting football in perspective, teams seemed more willing to come out and have a cut.

Both the league (36.4) and championship (37.3) recorded the highest points-per-game averages since 1887.

The number of goals scored in the 2021 championship was the most since 1990, not withstanding the different formats in the time between.

It felt like football recognised that it owed the country something.

Tyrone had made light of Cavan and made use of the good fortune that presented itself against Donegal – Neil McGee’s injury, Michael Murphy’s penalty miss and red card – to reach the Ulster final.

There to meet them were Monaghan, victors over Armagh on a truly unforgettable afternoon in the Athletic Grounds tinged with unbearable sadness.

Brendan Óg Duffy, the county’s U20 captain, had been killed in a car accident on his way home from his team’s Ulster semi-final win over Donegal the night before.

A county was lifted temporarily from its mournful state by a first-half that in any other circumstances would be remembered as one of their most joyous performances of a decade laced with them.

They tore into a fancied Armagh and scored 4-9 in the first half. The Orchard had hit 0-14 themselves and fought back to lead in the final minutes, only for Seamus McEnaney’s men to summon the spirit and composure to wrestle victory back in the undoubted game of the year.

Monaghan were unable to take advantage of a Covid-19 breakout that hit Tyrone in the week of the Ulster final. A timid first half from the Farneymen made way for a barnstorming second but Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher, in their first attempt, were making a fair stab at building some history.

The rest of the country did what they were expected to do. Kerry poured their revenge all over Cork’s faces. Dublin’s slippage was still be substantiated but hindsight made you sure that in only just holding off a Meath recovery and being unconvincing against Kildare were signs.

Mayo won the three-way Battle Royale that, like Ulster’s, finished in Croke Park to allow more bums on seats as restrictions started to ease.

Then came two extraordinary weeks in which Tyrone’s Covid issues spread to the point where they felt they had no alternative but to concede their semi-final against Kerry unless the GAA would grant them more recovery time.

Tense negotiations followed and it was Kerry’s willingness to meet the request that tipped the balance.

Whether they were so arrogant as to think they needed Tyrone to warm up for the final, who knows.

“They said that we wouldn’t. They said that we couldn’t. I tell ye what, we did,” bellowed Kieran McGeary into the RTÉ mic after a sensational extra-time win. If TikTok was paying royalties, he’d be set for life.

Football had taken on a hurling-2018 feel, where the first semi-final between Mayo and Dublin seemed impassable for drama, only to be usurped by the second game.

Mayo’s win that Saturday will live long in the memory. They were out of it at half-time, woeful, listless.

By the time Rob Hennelly’s second attempt snatched extra-time, their shoulders were rising toward September and Dublin’s were sagging.

The Dubs’ uncharacteristic indiscipline unmasked their frustrations as, after seven long years, the crown was finally ripped from their heads.

Football needed it to end and nobody deserved to end it more than Mayo.

But they didn’t deserve an All-Ireland off it. That still had to be earned, and when it came to the big day, it was Tyrone who got it right.

All the small victories – Brian Kennedy horsing Mattie Ruane around, Conor Meyler stifling Paddy Durcan, Padraig Hampsey making Tommy Conroy wish he’d stayed home – culminated in what was deserved.

Mayo had early goal chances and that can’t be forgotten. But when the game settled, it was the introduction of Cathal McShane that again swung it. His blind fisted effort past Hennelly and when Darren McCurry made the most of Conn Kilsixpacktrick’s stunning catch.

A year when football brightened our smiles and widened our eyes and gave us something to be at.

Tyrone, the popular All-Ireland champions, the county to give all others hope.

Imagine that.

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GAA Football