Following the conclusion of an historic GAA year, Eamonn Butler sifts through the cards, goals and picks out his top five moments.
(1) Death knell of hurling rang too early?
First, to hurling. It was a year dominated by talk, discussion and general whinging about the chronic spectacle which our beloved field game had become due to the infamous sweeper system. This thorn in the side of hurling people had come to be viewed by many pundits as a plague the game. And to be frank, we can see their point.
The death knell for hurling was rung loud and clear throughout the country as every fan slumped in disappointment following two one-sided provincial finals. Tipperary, as if channelling the country’s venomous hatred of the sweeper, laid waste to the Waterford system with a masterclass in penetrative attacking. Similar dismay was felt after the second-half demolition of Galway by hurling’s other heavyweight, Kilkenny.
Just as the end of hurling as we know it was prophesised, the Championship burst to life in a frenzy of close contests, manic intensity and high drama. The semi-final and replay between Waterford and Kilkenny served up two ferocious contests as the Deise threw caution to the wind. On the other side, the white-knuckle tension in the meeting of Tipp and the Tribesmen didn’t disappoint, as if it ever did.
Then, perfectly symbolised by the virtuoso individual display of one Seamus Callanan, we got the final for the viewer. The battle of the traditionalists. The Ali v. Foreman, but with timber. It is clear now that rumours of hurling’s death have been greatly exaggerated.
(2) We saw enough diving at the Olympics, thanks.
Last year we witnessed the uproar over a certain Tyrone footballer’s diving antics in championship football. The fallout and condemnation was so severe, parallels were even drawn by some to the Premier League. The diving plague reared its ugly head once more this year when Aidan O’Shea expertly simulated being fouled against Fermanagh in July.
Now the purist in the stand could be heard from far and near lambasting the dishonesty of such a reprehensible act (sure, nothing like that ever happened back in the day, don’t you know). This, of course, is the same man who preaches of how Mayo must be more like Dublin and Kerry, and do whatever it takes to win. The question remains as to whether this particular Olympic sport has permeated the GAA.
Two game-changing incidents in successive years is not cause for panic, but once every four years at the Olympics is as much diving as us Gaels can handle.
(3) In a championship ruled by Goliaths, David shines the brightest.
An unavoidable characteristic of every sport is domination. Schumacher in Formula 1, the ‘Big Three’ in hurling, New Zealand in rugby union and so on. Sometimes the fans cry out for a fresh face; a new challenger to knock the old favourite off their pedestal.
Leicester City, in their run to the Premier League title, invigorated a competition which long threatened to become stale. Gaelic football, too, is dominated by the old masters, Kerry and Dublin. While the refreshing challenge of the Tipperary footballers came up short of reaching the pinnacle, it is no less admirable for it.
Prospects looked bleak as a county attempting to reach its first semi-final in 80 years, weakened by a raft of big-name departures such as Colin O’Riordan, Seamus Kennedy and Steven O’Brien. The doubters were sent packing after victories over much-favoured rivals Cork, Derry and Galway. The media and GAA faithful were awed by their bravery and passion and lauded their swashbuckling style of play. Here’s hoping for 2017 that another David challenges Goliath and we can once again dare to dream.
Here’s hoping for 2017 that another David challenges Goliath
(4) A Lesson in Respect
Admittedly, as followers of hurling and football teams, we all get caught up in the want and need to win. After all, this is what we are in the game for. However, when tension is at fever pitch, followers can sometimes forget that respect and sportsmanship come first.
After Pauric Mahony (who had a tremendous season) dropped his free agonisingly short, it was easy for fans to be absorbed with personal disappointment or elation. For a man who fought his way back from a crippling injury to be the one to so closely lose out was heart-breaking. And while the victorious supporters streamed onto the field, and the Deise faithful headed for the gates, a young Kilkenny fan decided to console the distraught Mahony.
A great lesson in respect and sportsmanship and an image for the ages. We should all take note.
(5) All cursed on the Western front?
A Hex-cellent display by Mayo in the 2016 drawn All-Ireland Senior Football Final, but they just couldn’t get over the line. In the end, only an epic finish from maestro Cillian O’Connor could salvage a second bite at the Dubs.
An unprecedented two own goals dragged ominous thoughts back into the Mayo heads and while they significantly outplayed and outfought the Dubs for long stretches, you felt their chance was gone. Bitterly unlucky with that early double concession, the eighty thousand onlookers packed into Croker could almost catch a glimpse of the ancient green and red curse. But they lived to fight another day, which begged the question: would the curse prevail or could the Mayo men cast off the shackles of history?
Alas, the western force sit yet again the wrong side of a one point defeat after an All-Ireland Final. Can you point to the increased physicality of the Dublin side in the replay? Sure. Or Dub supremo Jim Gavin’s genius in springing Cormac Costello off the bench for the closing stages? Of course. It is with a heavy heart though that the wide consensus agreed the game turned on a tragic mistake, as the curse guided the ball out of Robbie Hennelly’s hands and onto the clinical foot of Diarmuid Connolly.