All Ireland Football Championship: Down’s Sunday feast leaves us wanting more
Do we GAA followers really appreciate how lucky we are? For the past two Sundays we have seen two absolutely magnificent sporting contests, full of immense skill, marvellous examples of individual brilliance and dramatic finishes which left audiences almost breathless.
Cork versus Dublin and Down against Kildare — unlikely pairings earlier in the year to be involved in All-Ireland semi-finals — provided two truly memorable occasions that we should all be grateful for.
Yesterday's game was one of the most exciting matches I have ever seen. There were many other wonderful aspects to it as well, but the sheer drama and excitement of the final few minutes was incredible. The scene at the end, when Kildare's Rob Kelly had to beat about eight opponents on the goal-line from a free, was something we have rarely seen at Croke Park, and the fact that he went within inches of achieving the target will live forever with those who were lucky enough to be present.
Apart from that dramatic finish, this was a fabulous example of how Gaelic football can be so exciting, varied and ever-changing during a single game, and above all a vehicle for outstanding personal bravery of both mind and body as each team in turn had periods of domination as well as good luck and bad luck. The total package was one of the best games we have seen at Croke Park for decades and the pity is that there had to be a loser to this drama.
But Down are the winners and are on their way to their sixth All Ireland final, having won all of their previous five. In my opinion, they did deserve to win, because they had more players of exceptional skill who dictated parts of the game than Kildare had.
At least half a dozen Down players are exceptionally talented, natural footballers and their contributions decided the course of the game. These included Marty Clarke, Benny Coulter, Kevin McKernan, Peter Fitzpatrick, Daniel Hughes and Kalum King. Between them, these players did terrible damage to Kildare's composure and Kieran McGeeney's meticulous pre-match preparations.
The only negative arising from this game was the wrong decision to allow Benny Coulter's goal in the 12th minute when it was clearly a square-ball infringement. That goal came at a crucial period when Down were struggling and behind by two, but in a flash they added two points after the goal to go ahead by three. That was essentially the game-changing score.
Indeed, that change of events seemed to upset the entire Kildare defence, as in the second quarter they looked extremely ragged. In what was their worst period in the game, they allowed Down to score six points in the final 13 minutes of the first half.
The traditional aspect of this game is very interesting because we had been told that managers James McCartan and McGeeney were two of the new breed of manager, with all sorts of modern approaches to team preparation on and off the field. Yet in that most basic component of Gaelic football, the kick-out, it was ultra-traditional as practically every one of them was directed straight out the middle of the field, as has been the case for over a century
That style of kick-out is what really won the game for Down because they dominated that area of the field from not long after the start with King and Fitzpatrick being the clear masters of possession, either from clean catches or from breaks.
When we also remember that Down were providing their forwards with some wonderful long foot-passes, we saw the power and majesty of this form of Gaelic football by comparison to the orgy of handpassing that has throttled so many big games in recent years. Thanks Down and Kildare!
So Down’s victory is well-earned, despite the vagaries of fortune that afflicted Kildare.
Cork will fret a lot about the final if only because Down have an impeccable record at that stage of the championship. That's for another day though — for now let us thank the players who produced such a magnificent contest.
They deserve our gratitude on behalf of the old game.