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8 September 2005 Edition

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Canavan settles Clash of the Titans



It is very rarely that a football match involving any county other than Dublin has me totally absorbed until the final whistle. Even when games are close there is normally a degree of detachment where I can peer at supporters from the counties concerned and study their joy and pain with the curiosity of a Victorian collector of strange insects.

Last Sunday's semi-final between Tyrone and Armagh was not such an occasion. It was a match that demanded some investment of emotion from everyone who saw it. Where Kerry play with a magisterial aloofness that invites admiration, but not participation, Armagh and Tyrone demand that you take sides. If you don't like what you see, that's too bad. There's always Olympic handball.

It is also hard to be neutral. Where the Dubs are not involved I would have a preference for Tipperary, Kilkenny, Wexford, Meath and Fermanagh for various reasons. Before Sunday I had a slight bias towards Tyrone, solely on the basis that they had beaten Dublin and that it is always preferable to go out to a superior team! I felt the same about Armagh in 2002.

I maintained that preference throughout the match but in truth it no longer mattered. It was such a close hard fought encounter that it would have taken a Solomon to decide who ultimately deserved the spoils. In the end it was Paddy Russell who donned the Biblical robes, when he awarded Tyrone a late free for a foul by Ciarán McKeever on Stephen O'Neill.

It was a brave call and one that many referees in the circumstances might have spurned. Had he done so the likelihood is that the Tyrone attack would have been smothered, the ball cleared and the whistle sounded for yet another replay. Maybe Russell had a flashback to 1995, when his decision to penalise Tyrone for a pick up cost them the final against the Dubs and decided to balance the scales of history.

The last action featured the man who was at the centre of Russell's controversial decision ten years ago. For a moment it looked like Mulligan would take the free but then Canavan walked over to him and took the ball. Apparently he had been reluctant to but gave in to pressure from Seán Cavanagh.

That was no reflection on Mulligan, who admitted afterwards that there was no way he would have put it over! I have rarely seen a player beam so broadly as when relieved of the responsibility. I suppose it was partly relief and partly a feeling that if anyone could take the score and ensure a place in the final it was Canavan.

And so it came to pass. Another installment of what is rapidly becoming akin to a Marvel Comics clash between superheroes ended with the vanquished of the two previous Galactic showdowns exacting vengeance. Cue scenes of delirium and a pitch invasion by Tyrone supporters, who in the end had to be told that the team was not coming back for an encore!

I have heard a number of oul crawthumpers complaining about this and pointing out that sure it wasn't even a final and that Tyrone supporters ought to have sat demurely in their places politely applauding before filing out in good order and driving straight home in time to hear the experts tell them maybe they had been deluding themselves and that sure it wasn't such a good game after all.

Well, as the club chairman said to the Parish priest who was advocating an amalgamation with the neighbouring savages: "That's the sort of talk that sickens my hole." According to some of the above experts, Sunday's match was poor fare, "hardly a rollercoaster" and nothing to get excited about. God love them. Anyone who fails to recognise it as one of the most gripping contests of recent times has a want in them.

Of course, their predecessors in the 1970s derided Dublin and Kerry for playing "basketball" (Dublin were also accused of bringing an "alien atmosphere" to Croke Park by the Cork Examiner!) and Meath for things that you would think to hear them deserved a trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

This lack of contemporary respect for the best in the game is based on a myth that there was a time when fine virginal young lads left their mother's house of a Sunday morning after a big feed, stopped in at Mass, maybe had a couple of pints, and then went off to Dubbalin to tog out for the All-Ireland. They were all either seven-feet tall or four-foot six but could jump higher than a small mountain. And of course they never trained and never struck a dirty blow.

Well, it's about time that this generation of the best in the game was given due credit — time that the canard of 'puke football' was put to bed.

Yes, there have been nasty bad-spirited matches involving both Armagh and Tyrone. One of the worst of them took place earlier in the Ulster Championship when Armagh beat Donegal. It reflected credit on neither team. However, as I wrote at the time, the expression on the face of Joe Kernan told a tale. Since then, Armagh have treated us to some magnificent performances; the comebacks and Ulster Final victory against Tyrone and the skillful destruction of Laois.

In a rare lapse, it was they who faltered at the very end on Sunday, but even to say that does not do them justice because had there been time who is to say that Armagh would not have stormed back up the field and equalised? It was that sort of a game. Tough, hard, uncompromising honest football played by two teams that have set the bar higher for everyone else.

Unfortunately for Tyrone, they now have to meet the team that has possibly reached and indeed soared above that bar. The last Sunday in September will tell that tale. One thing is for sure; it will be worth watching.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1