Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 31 August 2014

All-Ireland football quarter-finals 'our Glastonbury'

No quarter: Joe McMahon and Jason Sherlock clash during the 2008 All-Ireland quarter-final

Monaghan. Famous for its poets, for Patrick McCabe and for the chaotic splendour of Clones.

The county has also an incredible record of producing first-rate, courteous and diligent GAA administrators – that body of volunteers that the ignorant and the manipulative often like to take a chunk out of when they are struggling under the weight of their own lack of comprehension, or attempting to gain an advantage.

We learned this week that it was another son of Monaghan GAA – Michael Byrnes – that devised the backdoor system for the All-Ireland football Championship. As well as giving teams a second day out in the middle of summer, to be played in front of a reasonable crowd, it would produce more intrigue than a straight knockout or group stage competition could ever hope to achieve.

In the backdoor, only the strongest survive. And at the end of all that, they have to play a provincial winner in the quarter-finals. It makes life nice and tough but it also gave losing teams a target of playing football in Croke Park when it counted.

The All-Ireland football quarter-finals have become our favourite weekend of inter-county action. For those residing outside of Leinster, it is their first sight of 'business-end' stuff, of the high-wire that is Croke Park. Staging four games over two days electrifies a stadium and the greater north Dublin area. It is our Glastonbury festival, our Rio carnival, it is the GAA equivalent of outrunning the bulls at Pamplona.

It has spawned a new history to the game in the 21st century. In only its first year of 2001 there was the 'Trip to Tipp' for Dublin supporters, when they played out two games against Kerry in Semple Stadium, Thurles.

Almost every August Bank Holiday weekend since, there has been an event that could make a reasonable case for a chapter in the history books of GAA in the new Millennium.

In 2002, it was the explosion of Colm Cooper; a skinny kid from Killarney with the balance of a gymnast and his instant chemistry with Mike Frank Russell in the Kerry forward line.

A year later Tyrone put 19 points on neighbours Fermanagh, who were playing their first Championship game in Croke Park. Twelve months on from that, having lost half that team that brought them to their maiden appearance at Croker, Tom Brewster's late point sailed gracefully over the bar as Fermanagh shocked the world with a win over Armagh. Just a couple of hours later Mayo did the same to All-Ireland champions Tyrone.

He might be gone, but Owen Mulligan will never be forgotten for the way he dummied through the Dublin defence to score one of the finest goals in Gaelic football history in the 2005 clash against Dublin. It ignited the season for Tyrone and personally for Mulligan who had his only All-Star to go along with his second Celtic Cross by that winter.

There was the fright for Kerry at the hands of a ravenous Monaghan in 2007.

There was 2008 itself and while the gutters flooded outside and inside of the stadium with a mid-summer monsoon, Galway and Kerry played Gaelic football from the Gods, booming over points from all angles with artistic subtlety.

Twenty-four hours later Tyrone took the field against Dublin, and while they looked mad and bad in their newly-grown beards, the form book had them down as just waiting for them to make a nasty collision with this, the highest of fences.

Instead, they ate Dublin that day without salt, the McMahons and McMenamins looking for all the world like Barbarians coming to pillage.

Then there was the day Down caught Kerry in 2010, the Kevin Cassidy point that finally drove a stake through Kildare's heart in 2011 and the Dublin exorcism of Tyrone.

When it comes to All-Ireland semi-finals they become standalone fixtures. The mixture of fans from different counties is diluted to a more partisan following.

The build-up becomes more intense and the old saying about semi-finals is true; they are there to be won. Performance is of absolutely no concern. Too tight and too tense to be enjoyed.

All-Ireland finals are fine too. There is the entire social side of it, the Saturday spent in Kilmacud nursing something with ice in it by the sideline while the Sevens are played, 'Up for the Match' and all the trimmings later.

But there's a disconnect by that stage. Official Ireland has a hold of the game and RTE are usually applying their ham-fisted approach to things. Dubious 'celebrities' suddenly are everywhere talking about their connection to the games and the whole event becomes a little bit too much on the corporate side.

The quarter-finals are the authentic experience. Enjoy.

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