Ireland Correspondent: Kennelly stars in ill-starred final

By Peter Lenaghan

There are five minutes to go in the second All-Ireland football semi final. Emily and I are watching the game in a south Dublin bar, but we are distracted by a bowl of hot chips and the rain tumbling down outside. In truth, the game lost our attention a while ago.

On the telly, Marty Morrissey from the national broadcasting network RTE is wrapping up the clash between Kerry and Meath early. “Well, it’s turned out to be a very dull and uneventful All-Ireland semi-final,” he summarises.

A man with long, greying hair tied back in a pony tail is passing us on his way to the toilet. “I thought it was fooking rubbish,” he grumbles.

The mood is a far cry from the hope the opening minutes of play generated. We take our seats at the back of the bar in Terenure, just a few minutes’ walk from home. The 20 punters assembled on the couches and bar stools are middle-aged men. There are no replica kits being worn.

A fortnight ago Emily and I were in central Glasgow in a pub filled with another group of middle-aged men to watch one of the city’s big clubs, Celtic, take on Arsenal in a European Champions League soccer match. When we bought our first drink, a woman behind the bar smiled and apologised in advance for the bad language.

“Celtic are a fucking joke,” yelled a tiny Scotsman perched on a stool in front on the telly. “With only one striker you lot are playing anti-fitbah (football)!”

“What would you know about fitbah, you fucking dwarf,” shot back a reply.

The debate continued in this vein for about half the match before the bartender began to referee. “Can you two keep the cursin’ to a minimum?” she shouted over the debaters. “There’s a wee lassie in the back there.”

A man sitting next to Emily and drinking a glass of red wine piped up. “Thank you, I’m very sensitive.”

A shared laugh, aided by a pitiful Celtic performance, diffused the tension.

The atmosphere inside our bar in Dublin today is more relaxed. Colm ‘The Gooch’ Cooper is the centre of attention from the moment the players file out on to the Croke Park pitch. A light drizzle is falling on the north Dublin stadium and the Kerry forward is under an injury cloud. “Is The Gooch there?” the drinkers ask each other. “Do you think Meath can upset the Kingdom?”

The little red-head with sunken eyes, big ears and a teenager’s build does appear for the team photograph, and within three minutes of the throw-in all lenses are again trained on the number 13. Darragh O Se, playing his 80th championship match, floats a kick towards the Davin Stand end. Meath’s defenders cannot clear the ball and The Gooch is scrapping for possession. With his back to goal, he toe-pokes the ball away from the Royals’ full-back, Anthony Moyles. The defender is off-balance and throws out a hand, momentarily grabbing Cooper’s forearm. Ever the opportunist, The Gooch throws his arms in the air, twists and lands on his back. The referee does not hesitate. Penalty. There is a collective groan around the bar. Kerry’s captain, Darran O’Sullivan, slips as he takes the resulting shot at goal, but the ball ekes its way past the outstretched right hand of Meath’s goal keeper, Paddy O’Rourke, and in to the net.

The pain of conceding of a goal is compounded almost immediately when Meath’s captain, Stephen Bray, is substituted. His collarbone was dislocated in a bump just before the penalty was awarded.

Cooper snaps another score over the bar, but then gets in the way of a teammate’s goal-bound shot a few moments later and deflects the ball wide. It takes Meath almost 15 minutes to post its first score, kicked by the full-forward, Brian Farrell.

The game’s defining moment is another goal, and it arrives within a minute of the second half beginning. Tadhg Kennelly, who started the match at centre half-forward, lobs a kick towards the goal at the Hill 16 end. Tommy Walsh, jumps from behind Moyles, catches the ball at the second attempt and calmly slots a shot past O’Rourke in to the Meath net. The margin is now five points and the contest is killed. Just to make sure, Walsh, who came off the bench just before half-time, sends another shot over the bar a few minutes later.

Beyond these moments, the low-scoring match is poor viewing. The dazzling Kerry skills that demolished Dublin are nowhere to be seen. Kicks skid off the pitch and out of play, the competitors slide and lose their footing in the greasy conditions, there are long gaps in between scores and the Kerry squad is wearing a plain, navy blue change kit. The Gooch is barely sighted in the second half, but the Kingdom prevails by seven points. A report in the Irish Independent described most of the match as “an eyesore on a pitch more suited to Torvill and Dean”. A more sympathetic observer might describe the contest as an arm wrestle, but for long periods it was little more than a dour scrap.

The verdict on Meath’s performance was just as swift and conclusive. “They just weren’t good enough,” was the common refrain from observers. The Royals progressed to the semi-finals through the qualifying rounds after a loss early in the Leinster championship to Dublin. The team gathered momentum along the way and defeated Mayo in the All-Ireland quarter final. A loss to Kerry was largely expected, despite Meath’s reputation for a “never say die” attitude, cultivated brilliantly during the 1980s and ’90s by the man in charge of Ireland’s International Rules team, Sean Boylan. The county’s current manager, Eamonn O’Brien, told the press that his team’s play against Kerry was too predictable. Cian Ward kicked almost all of the Royals’ score, including a consolation goal just before the final whistle.

One of the few to emerge from the match with an enhanced reputation was Kennelly. The former Sydney Swan, who is regularly being linked in the Irish press with a return to the AFL next year, was neat and effective with his disposal – a rare feat on a wet Sunday afternoon. The pundits on RTE television picked Kennelly as their man of the match. One of the analysts, Joe Brolly, reckoned you could tell Kennelly had been playing professional sport for a decade. “Kennelly has got the engine and the power … He never stopped.”

After the game, Kennelly said, “I thought I’d be in an All-Ireland final a long time ago – I left when I was 18, nine years ago. So it’s great to be back and I suppose to give so many sacrifices away and to be in an All-Ireland final is fantastic.”

The performance all but ensured the 28-year-old a place in the Kerry team that will make the county’s sixth consecutive appearance in the All-Ireland football final. Only Wexford early last century and Dublin in the 1970s have managed such a run of success. Cork will provide stiffer opposition to Kerry on September 20 and, if the Kingdom can reproduce the form it showed against Dublin, the match should be more entertaining than the rain.

Sunday 6 September 2009
ALL-IRELAND HURLING FINAL @ Croke Park
Kilkenny v Tipperary

Sunday 20 September 2009
ALL-IRELAND FOOTBALL FINAL @ Croke Park
Cork v Kerry

Comments

  1. uncle tony says:

    I am predicting the same sort of superiority for “the saints” who squeeze the bejeesez out of the black feathered ones this sunday.There will be eternal tears and whinging from the toothless mob and I can only grin

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