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Monday 20 August 2018

Super 8s are back in the ball game

Total Football of Dubs and their chief pretenders breathes life into summer

UP FOR GRABS: Dublin’s Michael Darragh Macauley competes in the air with Tyrone’s Declan McClure during Saturday’s All-Ireland SFC quarter-final Group 2 match at Healy Park, Omagh. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
UP FOR GRABS: Dublin’s Michael Darragh Macauley competes in the air with Tyrone’s Declan McClure during Saturday’s All-Ireland SFC quarter-final Group 2 match at Healy Park, Omagh. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

IN the space of a week, we've gone from Puke Football to Total Football.

After all the hype, the first half of Galway/Kerry was like a slow death. Those present must have cursed themselves for choosing this over the World Cup final.

Fast-forward to the 22nd minute in Omagh. For once, Dublin's defence is completely opened up after Richie Donnelly claims a raking Niall Morgan restart and immediately kicks over the cover. One second, Cathal McShane looks to have a clear run on goal. The next, Paul Mannion gobbles up the turf to execute a perfectly-timed dispossession.

Danger over … and Dublin duly counter for Philly McMahon to bisect the Tyrone posts in swashbuckling, outside-of-the-boot fashion. Mannion, you may have noticed, had No 14 on his back. McMahon was wearing No 4. Total Football.

HIGH-OCTANE

Omagh was no classic but it was high-octane fare with much to recommend it. Not least the eye-catching points by a queue of defenders - Jack McCaffrey, McMahon and John Small for Dublin; Tiernan McCann, Frank Burns and Michael McKernan for Tyrone.

Yet, for all the good vibes, it was merely the third best contest of the weekend.

After round one of the Super 8s, it wasn't just the new structure being panned. It was the game itself. All changed, changed utterly?

Yes and no. Gaelic football hasn't undergone some glorious seven-day transformation. Some of the first weekend wasn't that bad. Some of the second wasn't that good.

But what transpired in Healy Park on Saturday night, even more so in Newbridge and especially Clones later that Sunday afternoon, has awakened a football summer that was lurching dangerously close to a comatose state.

It has also reminded us that - even in the modern reality of structured defences - football can be a thrilling game when played with full-blooded intensity, on the front foot, instead of being shackled by caution. That was a problem with Week 1: some teams appeared more intent on avoiding defeat than winning.

STUNNER: David Clifford celebrates after scoring a late goal during the All-Ireland SFC quarter-final match against Monaghan in Clones. Photo: Philip Fitzpatrick/Sportsfile
STUNNER: David Clifford celebrates after scoring a late goal during the All-Ireland SFC quarter-final match against Monaghan in Clones. Photo: Philip Fitzpatrick/Sportsfile

Kerry were the most culpable, moving away from their full-press, rampaging Munster template to play a sweeper against Galway. The move backfired spectacularly. But, even if fatigue may have been a factor, Donegal weren't blameless either as Dublin played keep-ball in the home straight.

Maybe the realisation that teams had a second chance infected some of the thinking. Last weekend, for Donegal, Roscommon, Kildare and Kerry especially, that was no longer the case.

But that doesn't fully explain why our Super 8s belatedly caught fire. The home venue factor was critical; the energy from the terraces and stands provided a power surge that players tapped into, and they in turn repaid the favour.

It reminded us all that a half-empty Croke Park will never match the atmosphere of a packed provincial cauldron - a lesson for HQ, surely, when fine-tuning next summer's schedule.

Ultimately, though, it came down to highly skilled, well coached players delivering under pressure.

After last summer, Tyrone forwards won't have been surprised by the voraciousness and technique of Mannion's tackling; the All Star may be currently struggling in his primary scoring brief but his workrate on Saturday was back to his stellar 2017 standard.

A different form of Total Football was evident in Newbridge, where Galway - damned with so much faint praise in recent months - had 13 different scorers from play.

BREATHLESS

Kildare deserve equal kudos for their contribution to a breathless first half.

Meanwhile, up in Clones, we had Conor McManus tormenting another rival full-back line for the thousandth time; Rory Beggan landing 60-metre missiles on a sixpence; Karl O'Connell, Monaghan's answer to McCaffrey when it comes to defenders doubling as devastating counter-attackers.

All that, and still Monaghan couldn't drive the stake through Kerry. David Clifford has kept their season alive, and provided a tonic to the rest of us.

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