Irish correspondent: Flat-beer season needs a few bubbles

By Peter Lenaghan
Thank God for Antrim. The romance the northern county is generating this summer in Ireland seems desperately needed.
On Saturday afternoon I hopped in the car and went for a drive into the Midlands. The motorway takes me out of Dublin and through the green countryside of County Kildare and County Laois, this evening’s opponents on the football field. The car is a 1995 Astra, worth the grand sum of €875, and appears to be little match for its colleagues on the open road. As I rattle along at a modest 110 kilometres an hour, gleaming motorcars obviously bought during sunnier economic times zip by as though the little Astra is standing still.
The radio presenters speak almost as quickly as the traffic, but the discussion is decidedly downbeat. The primary topic that has dominated talkback radio, TV panel shows and newspaper columns in recent days is: what is wrong with Gaelic football? The consensus seems to be that the indigenous game ain’t what it used to be – too slow, too defensive, too many one-sided games, poor skills and too much handball. In the good old days the players kicked the ball more and the half-forwards devoted their time to attacking, not defending. One county’s coach recently had the temerity to assert that his duty is to produce a winning football team, not an entertaining one. The reaction from fans and pundits was a mixture of outrage and derision.
The discussion’s tone is strikingly similar to that had in Australian football circles three or four years ago, when flooding was seemingly an irresistible force. And as the successful Sydney team led by Paul Roos was so often the target of claims that its tactics were changing football for the worse, so it is in that the dominant northern county and defending All-Ireland champion, Tyrone, is pegged as the cause of the Gaelic game’s ills. It seems that as Sydney’s tight and physical style was copied in the AFL, here opposition coaches are trying to reproduce the defensive qualities that are a feature of Mickey Harte’s champion team.
The suggested remedies have a familiar ring to them, too. Change the rules, the experts say. Make the players kick the ball if they receive a handpass, give more points for scores kicked from more than 45 metres out, or reduce the number of players on the field. One newspaper columnist even suggested last week that an Australian football coach should take control of a county to see if they can lift the gloom surrounding the Irish game.
The drive from Dublin to Tullamore in County Offaly takes about 90 minutes (at a legally accepted speed) and the Midlands town is heaving with visitors. I park the car near the centre of town, and walk up to the ground. White-shirted Kildare fans are everywhere, here to witness an expected win over Laois in the Leinster province semi-final at O’Connor Park. I stand in the terrace, behind the eastern goal, shielding my eyes from the sun, which is setting on a clear, warm evening. I reckon 10,000 of the 14,000 people tucked into the ground are supporting Kildare. Opening the official match program, the depressing tone is evident again. A newspaper columnist writing for the guide asks: where are the artists, the great drama-filled matches? It has been, the correspondent informs readers, “a miserable, flat-beer start to the summer”.
The summation is true for much of this evening’s game, too. Laois make a bright start, but soon the Lilywhites get on top. Dermot Earley is tall and graceful, and he dominates in the air and at ground level like Adam Goodes, while Mikey Conway runs off half-back and shoots incisive left-foot passes across the field. Up forward, Kildare’s captain, John Doyle, is effervescent and beloved. The fans cheer “go Johnnie!” like he is a neighbour. Maybe he is for some. When James Kavanagh scores a goal just after half-time the contest is over and the Kildare fans around me dance and sing like the team has just won the All-Ireland. The Laois fans head for the exits and the pubs.
The win puts Kildare into its first Leinster football final since 2003. There, the Lilywhites will play Dublin, who demolished Westmeath on Sunday afternoon at Croke Park. That contest was over even more quickly than the Kildare game, as the Dubs raced away to a 27-point win. While Dublin is favoured to win its fifth consecutive Leinster title, there is a genuine feeling that Kildare is strong enough to be regarded as a legitimate challenger on Sunday week. Some optimism, at last.
The feelgood factor is strongest, though, up north and it comes courtesy of Antrim, which has qualified for its first Ulster football final since 1970. The Saffrons produced an enormous upset in the quarter-finals to defeat Donegal, in what was supposed to be a walkover. Antrim then battled past Cavan on Sunday afternoon to secure a rare berth in the final. Ironically, for a fairytale ending, Antrim must overcome mighty Tyrone. The underdog is being given little chance, but it is still nice to hope. And God knows Irish football needs some romance at the moment.

The Province Finals
Sunday 5 July:  Munster (southern province): Cork v Limerick
Sunday 12 July: Leinster (eastern province): Dublin v Kildare
Sunday 19 July: Ulster (northern province): Tyrone v Antrim
Sunday 19 July: Connacht (western province): Mayo v Galway

Comments

  1. Rod Gillett says:

    Thanks for the update Peter!
    My Irish mates here in Abu Dhabi will be impressed when I slip in a bit of this info over a few pints…
    Any news of Tadgh Kenneally and the Mighty Kerry?

  2. pauldaffey says:

    Hi Peter,

    I lived in Ireland in 1998 and went to a GAA game on many weekends, generally at Croke Park in Dublin, but also in Cork and once in Limerick. It’s one of my regrets that I never went to Offaly for a game as Offaly was my favourite GAA county.

    Offaly is a small county in the Midlands. From what I gather, the northern half of the county, around Tullamore, plays football and the southern half, around Birr, plays hurling. Only a dozen or so clubs play hurling around Birr and yet it was from that small population that Offaly mustered a team that won the 1998 All-Ireland hurling title.

    Some of the Offaly hurlers were impossibly romantic, like Johnny Pilkington, who was profiled brilliantly by Irish Times journalist Tom Humphries that year. Part of Tom’s line was getting Pilkington to open up about his drinking habits. When I read that Pilkington admitted to downing up to 17 pints, and smoking a good number of darts, on the day before a game I laughed out loud and I imagined the GAA community all around Ireland doing the same.

    That was only 11 years ago. Sounds like times have changed.

  3. Peter,

    Dicky Jones has just told me you’re a non-drinker, so I wish I’d chosen another vehicle to make my point besides Johnny Pilkington’s pint intake.

    In any case, I just never quite got into Gaelic football as a game. The round ball dips rather than hold up in the air, as it does in our game, and I found myself frustrated by the lack of aerial aspect in the Irish code. A friend in Cork tried to explain the subtleties of Gaelic football (the inference was that there’s no subtleties in Australian football; it’s a brutish game for a gormless people) but it still fell short of my expectations. I far preferred hurling, which I rank alongside Australian football as a spectator sport.

  4. Peter Lenaghan says:

    Yes, Paul and Dicky have outed me as a teetotalling, soccer-playing, Geelong-barracking disappointment to my liquor-selling, one-eyed-Collingwood-supporting Grandfather.

    But I did acquire his love of the South Bendigo Football Club, so that’s something!

    Rod – Tadgh Kennelly and his Kerry colleagues will have to win their way through the qualifying rounds to reach the All-Ireland final. The Kingdom was beaten by Cork in the Munster semi-final, but they’re still considered one of the teams likely to be playing at Croke Park in September.

  5. uncle tony says:

    Peter
    your recollections are rather hazy about your football alegiances.I first remember the weagles and attending Morabbing with you on the infmamous Bluey McKenna day, thats who you barracked for then.Then I remember us watching at Fransican Av the bears play the swans and you barracking for the bears and upon my pressing your allegiances to such a feeble side you promptly changed your team to the swannies.I noted over time your display of great character (or just plain common sense ) to resist the Lenaghan overutures to be balck and white but where an when did you land on the cats (last year??)
    As for South Bendigo thats a toal betrayal of your CAtholic College upbringing no player or student worth their salt ever barracked or played for South Bendigo(excpet Barry Mulcair) it was always the home of football -Sandhurst. Just goes to show the peverse nature of you football allegiances.

  6. pauldaffey says:

    Peter,

    You’ve been outed on a few fronts there, even if Tony is thinking pre-1990s regarding the absence of Catholics at South Bendigo. (Francis Burke, Pip Hetherington, Leigh Colbert, et al)

    You can choose your friends, etc.

  7. Peter Lenaghan says:

    OK, I’ll admit to a brief flirtation with the Weagles, and it’s all because of the great number 36 – David Hart. He was kind enough to sign a show box lid and send me “best wishes”, the greatest of all autograph sentiments.

    My favourite and most vivid memory of that Moorabbin afternoon is going to jump the fence at quarter time so I could go listen to the quarter time addresses by the coaches. I assumed Moorabbin would be no different to the QEO! Uncle Tony had to grab me by the leg before a police officer did.

  8. Sorry to bud in on your conversation I stumbled on this whilst looking for an old friend, Peter is your uncle Tony about 43 with a Bombhead as a nicknmae. Only spent 1 year at school with him in 82 I think but sure was a great character and a very handy footballer for the flat if I remember rightly. I think he travelled to school on bus with another fairly handy footballer Rich Foster who played some footy for the Flat!! and Port Adelaide

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