HomeFootballÉamonn Fitzmaurice: Heroic Galway blow it all open, Kerry close it out

Éamonn Fitzmaurice: Heroic Galway blow it all open, Kerry close it out

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On Saturday evening Galway blew the hinges off the championship when they knocked the reigning All-Ireland champions out, and now all of the remaining teams will feel they can win it. On Sunday in headquarters Donegal and Kerry joined the Connacht champions and Armagh in the last four. 

While Donegal scored an impressive 1-23 there was much about their performance that Jim McGuinness won’t be happy with. They were sloppy and lacked energy and bite at times. I will be shocked if that is the case in their semi-final against Galway. Meanwhile Kerry also got the job done in a patient mature display. In truth it was a tough watch. The game was played at a pedestrian pace and lacked quality at times. The teams had a combined total of 16 wides, eight each, and a further five shots dropped short. 

While happy to be in the semi-final, similarly to McGuinness Jack O’Connor will have plenty of ammo for his video analysis review meeting this week. Early on, Kerry’s body language and support play suggested that they were going to try and really test Derry with pace and quick movement. As the game wore on it became a slow-paced contest that suited the Ulstermen. They dragged the Munster champions into a tactical battle and avoided a free-flowing shootout that may have been beyond them considering their recent exertions. 

Brian Ó Beaglaoich was the main exception here as he continuously drove at pace in an effort to punch holes and once more got on the scoreboard. It is great to see him injury-free and playing so well, both for himself personally and for Kerry. It was only when Kerry ran the bench that the gaps began to appear, and they managed the closing stages very well. Killian Spillane and Dylan Geaney both got nice points but Cillian Burke was the pick of the replacements and was seriously impressive. He was lively and available as an outlet, got on the ball to drive at Derry, contested kickouts and won an important free late on. In short, he wanted it. With a bit more game time and experience he may have taken on a shot or two but that will come. He has put himself in contention for a starting spot for the Armagh match.

Derry’s turbulent season has finally come to a close. The League champions were the definition of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in 2024. They deserve credit for making it back to Croke Park and competing as hard as they did. They looked dead in the water a short few weeks ago. Shane McGuigan found a spark in extra time in Castlebar last weekend. For the previous couple of matches his shooting had been off, and his confidence low. Admirably he had continued to work as hard as ever and lead in that regard. He was back to his best in Croke Park Sunday, until he tired late on. For such an excellent forward he is more than willing to do the dirty stuff. His block down on Gavin White for the early goal chance was massive. It was at the other end he shone though. His score taking left and right was out of the top drawer. Derry are excellent at freeing him up and getting him the ball in dangerous positions. It is possibly something Kerry could work on to help David Clifford more. 

Kerry now look forward to an All-Ireland semi-final clash with Armagh, their first championship meeting since 2006. We were used to playing against each other in big knockout games back then, but this will be a novel one. I played against them in 2006, 2002 and in those two classic semi-finals in 2000 which required a replay and extra time to separate two great sides. Jack and Kieran McGeeney were both involved back then as well. Armagh will have seen what Derry did to stifle Kerry and could borrow extensively from their playbook, so don’t expect a classic this time round.

All season long Galway have been absolutely plagued with injuries. All season long they have refused to yield to them or to be defined by them. Pádraic Joyce has never used it as an excuse or as a get out for either himself or his players. They have stubbornly ploughed on. They survived in Division 1 through sheer force of will. A by-product of all of these injuries is that the panel has been considerably deepened. When injuries once more struck on Saturday they didn’t miss a beat. 

Cein Darcy came on for Sean Kelly and kicked a huge second-half point. Tomo Culhane replaced Shane Walsh and kicked a massive point on his weaker left side. In general, this was a win built on defiance. There was an old-school heroism about their performance, Paul McGrath in the Giants Stadium style. They needed every bit of it as had they lost they would have been inconsolable with some of their skill errors at critical times, something that is normally so alien to their game. They won kickouts and kicked them over the sideline or straight back to Dublin. When they needed to finish the game and the Dubs off they kicked mad wides. Right at the death they had possession and kicked it away to give Dublin one last shot which Con O’Callaghan uncharacteristically missed. 

In a way none of it mattered. They just weren’t going to be beaten. There were heroes all over the field but Cillian McDaid, Dylan McHugh, Seán MulKerrin, John Maher and Shane Walsh were simply outstanding. McDaid in full flow, as he was in the second half, is a sight to behold and a joy to watch. He improves Galway immeasurably through his presence, physicality, mentality, athleticism and long-range shooting.

The opposite was true of Dublin. They didn’t look themselves. Finally many of them looked sated. They kept the Connacht champions at arm’s length for the first half without playing well. Brian Howard once more was a constant outlet for Stephen Cluxton’s kickouts as they scored five points off their own short kickouts in that opening half. They got a further three off Galway’s restarts. They were doing enough without excelling. 

Still, it felt like one of those games that they would grind out and win by six or seven points, as they led by four at the break. As a manager sometimes you can sense when your team isn’t right at the pitch of it. Dessie Farrell probably felt it in Roscommon a fortnight ago. And that anxiety was evident again on Saturday evening. I have never seen him as animated as he was when disputing a 60th-minute sideline in front of the Hogan Stand. That one snapshot summed up the game, in many ways. Cluxton was forced long and as he has successfully done countless times in the past he went towards Brain Fenton with James McCarthy hovering. Critically though this time Jack Glynn won the break right on the sideline and was under pressure from Fenton. It did look as if Fenton got the last touch in the act of tackling Glynn but it was a marginal call. Fenton and Ciarán Kilkenny who was also in the vicinity were clearly frustrated which they rarely show, but Dessie rounded on Conor Lane, the linesman. He was fuming. There was an air of desperation about it. It was if he knew his boys weren’t right and he could feel it slipping away from them, even though they led by two at the time. 

Fifteen seconds later McDaid was kicking his third outstanding point. 30 seconds after that Darcy kicked the equaliser after Damien Comer turned over John Small from the resultant kickout. Momentum swung and suddenly the game felt like Galway’s to lose, and there was an equal feeling of it being the end of something for the champions. Straight after the match people were wondering why Dessie started Jack McCaffrey, Paul Mannion and James McCarthy. It was being levelled at him that he should have kept back at least two of them to bring the ship home, as they have been doing. Because they lost it was automatically the wrong decision. That old gem as a manager, hindsight analysis. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc, after this, therefore because of this. 

I imagine Dessie was thinking they were going to go for the jugular from the off, to try and kill off Galway early. Make the fatigue factor from playing the third week in a row count. There is always a reason but it backfired and it will bother him. As will not having a left-footed free taker on the pitch for that late Cormac Costelloe miss. Paddy Small was about to come on for Costelloe but they held the change to allow Costelloe take the kick. If it is the end of days for some of those great Dublin players what servants they have been. All of that in good time, but for now Galway are the story of the weekend and are one step away from getting back to the All-Ireland final.

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