HomeFootballSurprising semi-final line-up suggests new Gaelic football order and end of Dublin...

Surprising semi-final line-up suggests new Gaelic football order and end of Dublin era

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And then there were four.

But after a quartet of games from which the All-Ireland semi-finalists were confirmed (Galway v Donegal, Kerry v Armagh), the teams who watched their season fade away commanded much of the storyline over the weekend.

Dublin’s exit feels more substantial than merely the ending of a season, though. The sand clock always empties, and Saturday felt like that day for the Dubs. While for many weeks now Derry have carried the listless energy of a team playing out the championship on borrowed time, waiting to be put out of their misery.

And yet it is just three months since Derry beat Dublin in what was considered at the time to be a season-defining National League final. Ultimately, both teams had their tents packed up before June was out. Perhaps the league is indeed just the league, after all.

“It was a challenge to get back to the level that we had in the National League,” admitted Mickey Harte after his side’s loss to Kerry.

It was a challenge for those in attendance, truth be told, to remain engaged by what was a turgid contest – though perhaps it was the natural ending to Derry’s unnatural season.

“Probably wasn’t a game for the purists because it was defensive” shrugged Jack O’Connor.

“But we were happy to play the game on whatever terms we came across. Derry set the terms early on. They got a rake of men back and made it tough for us to find space.

“I definitely felt we needed to bring more energy to the game and we spoke about that at half-time. But like, if you think you can play a kind of gung-ho open football against that type of structure then that’s not living in the real world.”

Whether there is about to be a new world order in Gaelic football remains to be seen, but certainly the era of Dublin ownership appears to be at an end. Saturday’s loss to Galway had an air of finality around it in a way the championship exits to Mayo in 2021 and Kerry in 2022 did not.

It is likely to be the end of the inter-county road for James McCarthy and Michael Fitzsimons and Stephen Cluxton. Giants of the game. And what of Jack McCaffrey and Paul Mannion? Might others take leave to go travelling or simply gather up their gazillion medals and just get on with the rest of their lives?

“That era, that we understood it a couple of seasons ago, that everyone looks back to, has moved on,” said Dessie Farrell after the loss to Galway.

“It’s a different generation of players now. I’m sure there’s some of them in there who will be considering their future, it might be the last time that we see them play for Dublin.

“They’ve been brilliant warriors. They died with their boots on today.”

The Donegal players watched the Galway-Dublin game collectively in their hotel on Saturday evening.

“Whenever they [Dublin] get beaten it’s a big moment in the championship,” admitted Donegal manager Jim McGuinness.

“I don’t think there were many people that would have given Galway much chance at half-time. But they did, they believed in themselves. And they brought a huge amount of quality and composure to the game in the second half. And belief. That’s probably the most important thing.”

For McGuinness, the All-Ireland semi-final pairings mean he will go up against his former college colleague Pádraic Joyce.

“We had great times together, he’s a great fella, a great football man and very driven. We had great memories down in Tralee and have always stayed in contact.

“I am looking forward to that because I know one of us will progress to the final. The radio silence might kick in for a wee while, but I might send him a cheeky text tonight!”

If the departures of Dublin and Derry from the 2024 championship are significant moments, the arrival of Galway and Donegal and Armagh back to the semi-final stage is also noteworthy.

Donegal and Armagh played in Division Two this season, and there is a possibility they could meet in the All-Ireland final, so what then of the theory it is nigh-on impossible for a team outside the top-flight of league football to go win the Sam Maguire that same season?

Donegal’s renaissance under McGuinness has been quite extraordinary. Just over 12 months ago Down dumped Donegal out of the Ulster SFC, the same Down side that will be contesting the Tailteann Cup final in two weeks as the supporting act on the undercard of an All-Ireland SFC semi-final.

Early on Sunday afternoon, Michael Murphy stood outside the main entrance to the Hogan Stand at Croke Park and happily smiled for photographs with an endless stream of Donegal supporters.

Not too long ago those same fans had wondered how the team would ever manage without him. Initially, Donegal didn’t. But then McGuinness returned.

That’s the thing about life, folk always coming and going. Nothing stays the same, change is inevitable.

For Farrell and Harte, the end of the season arrived earlier for both than most would have predicted only a few short months ago.

“I’m pretty much an optimistic person,” said Harte. “I look ahead, the past can’t be changed and you can try to do something different for the future.”

But the championship goes on without them. The final chapter of the 2024 competition will be penned by Kerry and Armagh and Donegal and Galway.

And then there were four.

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