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The Great All-Ireland Replay


The Great All-Ireland Replay            Gerry O'Shea          

I am amazed that The All-Ireland Football Final, arguably the preeminent sporting event in the Irish calendar, is being held this year on a Saturday evening. This strange arrangement invites the comment that the planners in Croke Park looked for a convenient Sunday but had to pass on that to accommodate other considerations.

The official explanation seems to confirm this perception: "There were a number of logistical reasons. We are very keen to have it on live TV and in discussions with RTE  -  they would have considerations such as greyhound racing." Nothing against the dogs but surely getting Sunday prime time for a game with a huge level of interest that sold out at 84,000 fans should have priority. That shouldn't be a close call.

I am a big admirer of the GAA and the astounding benefits it has brought to every parish in Ireland since it was founded in Thurles in 1884, but sometimes I worry about the competence of the Association administrators.

I was also taken aback by the insistence that the minor footballers of Cork and Galway after they finished level in their curtain raiser to the big match were compelled to play on for two ten-minute periods before the Cork boys emerged victorious.

This is the biggest day of all for these young sportsmen. They have come through a series of qualifying games earning their right to play in Croke Park before a massive crowd. It is a once-in-a -lifetime occasion for many of them. In the event of a draw, why should they not have a replay like their counterparts in the senior final? Is some administrator saying that setting up another match for the youngsters is just too much trouble, so they are forced to get a result by playing extra time?

To more pleasant matters. I was very happy and excited to be in Croke Park to witness a football final that can only be described in superlatives. The replay this weekend has intriguing possibilities. A few haphazard reflections on Saturday's game:

·       Counting substitutes as well as starting players, fifteen members of the Kerry team were playing in their first All-Ireland Final on September 1st. These men will have benefited greatly from the experience of performing in such a challenging environment. By comparison most of the Dublin players are used to the hype surrounding finals in Croke Park.

·       The Dublin forwards with the exceptions of Brian Howard and Dean Rock were uncharacteristically ineffective in the drawn game. It is very doubtful that Con O'Callaghan, Ciaran Kilkenny and company will be as subdued again. However, the Kerry defenders, ably coached by selector Donie Buckley, will make every effort to be ready for what is sure to be a different attacking plan by the champions. I expect that Eoghan O'Gara, a powerful and talented inside forward, who amazingly didn't make  Dublin's  final 26 in the last game, will play an important role in Gavin's plans for Saturday. Ditto for Kevin McManamon who was on the starting panel but only made a very late appearance on September 1st.

·       The Barry/Moran Kerry center field combination had slightly the better of the vital midfield exchanges in the first match. Brian Fenton, the Dublin star in so many big games, is due a top display against his parents' home county. He certainly has all the skills of the game - speed, strength, high fielding and scoring ability. If Brian dominates the central area of Croke Park on Saturday, Kerry will not be celebrating this year.

·       The weather forecast suggests that Saturday will be a fine day, with only a 10% chance of precipitation. This favors Kerry who depend on the speed and athleticism of  relative newcomers like Diarmuid O'Connor, Jack Sherwood and captain Gavin White. Heavy weather suits the more mature and  robust Dublin players. The Kerry strategy of fast players running at the champions is more likely to succeed on a dry day.

·       Tommy Walsh's father, Seanie, the best fielder in the country  in his day, was known for a few years in the seventies as Kerry's super-sub, the player who was brought on in every game to remedy any weakness in the team's performance. Tommy is equally important to the present Kerry team - he is their super-sub.  In the semi-final against Tyrone and in the drawn game a few weeks ago, he showed a bewildering range of skills - fielding, laying off to faster team mates but also scoring himself - that the opposing team's defenders struggled to cope with.

Will Peter Keane start him on Saturday? Some have suggested that he should do what Mickey Harte did with Peter Canavan in the 2005 All-Ireland Final when he started Canavan, withdrew him for a while for a "rest" and re-introduced him to finish the match. Used in the same way, Walsh could well be a match-winner for Kerry as Canavan was for Tyrone fourteen years ago.

·       The controversial red card that sent Dublin defender, Jonny Cooper, to the line in the drawn game and left his team to play the second half with fourteen men is unlikely to be repeated on Saturday. But how will the Dublin defenders deal with Kerry's wunderkind David Clifford who relishes close play and the scoring opportunities it presents?  For Kerry to win he will have to score much more than he did in the first game.

·       Kerry were behind by five points in the first half and again by the same deficit in the second half of the drawn game. It speaks well for them that they kept playing positive football and forced themselves back into contention. In fact, Kerry went ahead for the first time as the match was closing out normal time. However, Dublin, down to 14 men in the second half, maintained their composure during the seven extra minutes added for injuries. They scored an equalizing point and Dean Rock missed a difficult free on the call of time.

This never-say-die approach by two fine teams suggests that Saturday's game may well go down to injury time scores again.

Gerry OShea blogs at  wemustbetalking.com

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