What a shocking day’s action that was yesterday. Well, it was for Donegal – getting washed away by a red tide in Clones – and for the Rossies, who were truly awful and fully deserved their defeat at home to Sligo, and for Louth, who could never quite live with an unexpectedly lively Wexford, and, last but not least, for the Dubs, who managed to field a free-taker who actually knew where the posts were and, in doing so, presumably shocked even themselves by discovering how to win a close match for the first time in an absolute age.
Donegal’s capitulation up in Clones was as unexpected as it was complete. I’d said in advance that their sluggish win over Armagh demonstrated that Tyrone had to have a chance but that proved to be one of the understatements of the year. What we witnessed yesterday at St Tiernach’s Park was nothing short of the re-emergence of the 2003/2005 Tyrone Machine and this Mk III version looks as mean and formidable as the two earlier models did. Suffocating in defence, swift and devastating in attack, this was vintage Tyrone and poor old Donegal were simply swept away.
The only comfort Donegal could take from the proceedings was to start lamping a few of the Tyrone lads. Let’s face it, who hasn’t been tempted to land one or two on Brian Dooher at some point but why do it right in front of the ref? So not only did Donegal end up on the wrong side of a nine-point hiding, they also finished the game with only thirteen players on the field.
Donegal’s meltdown puts their league campaign (and, by extension, our own) in context. I remember thinking that Donegal really went a tad overboard in celebrating that league final win: the old cliché of it being their All-Ireland came to mind at the time. Both of us have now had our butts comprehensively kicked since then in our respective provinces and, no more than ourselves, Donegal will be viewing the qualifiers with more than a little trepidation.
So too will Roscommon who were desperately poor in losing to Sligo at Hyde Park, the first victory at the venue for the Yeats County since 1971. Sligo won by just two points in the end but the margin would have been far greater had the Rossies not grabbed two goals against the run of play, one either side of the break, because this was a match that Sligo dominated for virtually the whole 70 minutes.
We all know John Maughan’s limitations on the sideline but he has a good track record of sending out well-drilled teams (albeit ones with Plans A, A and A imprinted on their brains) and he knows a thing or two about what it takes to win Connacht. Well, he used to but yesterday the Sheepstealers looked utterly clueless as Sligo kept taking the game to them and eventually got their reward. Anyone for a Sligo v Leitrim Connacht final? That would put us Connacht football snobs rightly in our place, I have to admit.
Like Roscommon, Louth needed two goals to keep any kind of hold on Wexford’s shirt-tails but, even then, as the Rossies discovered to their chagrin, it wasn’t enough to keep them in the hunt. Like Sligo, Wexford dominated the game and, like Sligo, they got their reward for a consistent supply of eye-catching points. Their Leinster semi-final with Laois could be one to keep an eye on.
And so to the big box office attraction with 82,500 paying punters and a TV audience of squillions more (even if most of us kept hopping over to RTE 2 to follow the enthralling events from Thurles). I know, I know, I did predict that the Dubs would get their holes kicked but how was I to know that the Pillock would spring Mark Vaughan and entrust him with the place-kicking duties? It seems as if the Pillock didn’t know too much about this in advance either, with Vaughan only starting due to an injury suffered by Darren Magee, but, regardless of how it came about, his inclusion was the single most important factor in turning this replayed tie in Dublin’s favour.
Vaughan kicked a total of eight points yesterday, most of them frees, the majority of which Mossie would have landed into Row Z. One was a superb Cian Ward-ish effort from the sideline, another a 45 drilled expertly into the grateful arms of the Hill and he also chipped in with two superb points from play in the second half. Mind you, for all of the Peroxide One’s efforts, the Dubs could still have lost as they nodded off for about 20 minutes in the second half and, had Meath been a bit sharper with their kicking during this period, they could have really put it up to the Dubs.
Instead, when De Bois En Blew finally awoke from their slumbers, the Dastardly Royals were still a point in arrears and the three late points the Dubs shot without reply made the win look more comfortable than it really was. The fact that they did win a tight match should not be ignored, however, given that their inability to do so on several other occasions over the past year or two had almost been diagnosed as some kind of phobia. Arising from yesterday's win, a third Leinster title on the hop now opens up for them and, with it, entry to the business end of the championship. It looks like those GAA bean counters will be smiling for some time yet this Summer.
From our perspective, Meath, Donegal, Roscommon and Louth have all been added to next Sunday’s qualifier draw. Donegal have now, I think, the look of a busted flush about them while the Rossies and Louth would both present a tame enough challenge to any side possessing a modicum of serious intent. Meath, however, won’t be devastated by yesterday’s loss and are clearly a side on the up. If we’re looking for a real challenge on July 7th, we need look no further than the Royals.