There was a pivotal period in the second half of this afternoon’s less than enthralling National Football League Division One final when Dublin, shorn of several first team regulars and now reduced as well to fourteen men, looked extremely vulnerable and more than a bit rattled. The title was there to be won by Galway but they just couldn’t do it. Instead, they lost their way badly down the closing straight and Dublin, as they’ve done so often, found a way to win … yet again.
It was a strange finals day at Croke Park. The crowd was a disappointing 36,000, the atmosphere was utterly flat and the football wasn’t, indeed, much to write home about. That said, however, the Division Two final was a veritable shootout while the main event did eventually – after a fashion – come to life over the final twenty minutes.
The opening half in the Division One final was cagey and, to be honest, not all that entertaining for the neutral (for neutrals we were, from our vantage point in the Lower Cusack). Both teams pulled fourteen behind the ball when the other lot had possession, so the channels from forty yards out were congested at both ends.
Despite this, Dublin got a bit of change off the high ball in over the top – right over the blanket – while, for Galway, Comer was always a good ball-winning outlet inside.
Comer’s a danger, for sure, but what struck me about him today was how wilful and selfish he often is on the ball. He loves taking possession moving at a million miles an hour but once he has the ball he seems never to look up, forever looking for the opportunity to show he’s the main man.
When this comes off – as it sometimes does – the end result can indeed be glorious. Today, for example, he landed an utterly superb point to reduce the gap to one with a bit over five to play. But another time, in the first half, he broke forward at pace but failed to notice Shane Walsh unmarked and clear on goal inside. Comer pointed from the move but a great three-pointer chance was spurned in the process.
Half-time came with the teams tied at eight points apiece. Dublin, not anything like at full strength to start with, lost James McCarthy to injury before the break and then John Small departed early in the second half (though the Ballymun man did rejoin the proceedings again late on). Galway, by contrast, were operating with a side far closer to their full deck and, perhaps because of it, they looked well set to have a right rattle at the title after the break.
When Dublin pulled three clear soon after the resumption – the first two of these scores coming directly from poor Galway restarts that were immediately turned over by a Dublin forward line sniffing blood – it looked as if this match was only going to go the one way. All the more so when, for the third of those points, Rock nailed a ’45 with what looked like consummate ease.
But then Scully, already in the book, dived in rashly and high. Ref Anthony Nolan didn’t really have any choice but to flash a second yellow at the Templeogue Synge Street player. Dublin were down to fourteen and now Galway had a real chance.
For the first (and only) time this afternoon a roar of Galway! Galway! went up around Croke Park. Then Walsh smashed over a glorious point and the men from the west were once again on level terms.
They needed to push on at that point. Instead, Dublin edged back in front once more via another Rock free and although Comer connected to a long ball in to level once more, Rock should have goaled soon after at the Hill end, Lavelle reacting rapidly to paw the shot away. But Rock put over the ’45 that came from this and Dublin were in front again.
This time it was a lead they wouldn’t lose. Despite being the man down they remained utterly assured in possession – and little short of ferocious when Galway had the ball – and hungry for the late scores that they knew would seal the deal.
The Tribesmen, by contrast, really lacked leaders at this key time. Conroy went completely out of the game, Comer was well shackled ‘till the end and Brannigan, such a livewire all spring, was utterly anonymous pretty much all day.
In what proved to be as counter-productive as it was pointless, Galway went all he-man in the final quarter, repeatedly playing man rather than ball. What they needed then was the rapier rather than the bludgeon and Dublin, doubtless disbelieving their good fortune, were more than happy for the contest to veer in an earthy direction.
At the finish, Dublin were comfortable enough four-point winners. Galway could, and should, have made a better fist of things with the extra man. But, once again, victory in Croke Park was beyond them and this time they definitely left a win – and a national title – behind them at HQ.
From our perspective, I came away from Croke Park in better mood about our chances next month than I’d gone in. Galway will, of course, be a handful for us at MacHale Park and they could well inflict a third successive championship defeat on us. Not least because we’ve a load to sort ourselves after another up and down League while Galway will be primed to peak in mid-May.
But, you know, I’m not convinced they’re the coming thing or anything approaching it. Sure, they’ve got plenty of exciting talent but they’ve still got the likes of Bradshaw, O’Donnell, Conroy and Armstrong in their ranks – players who know plenty about getting scorched by the Green and Red.
Today they were presented with a gilt-edged opportunity not just to beat Dublin and win the National Football League but, in doing so, to defeat at the first opportunity in a decider a team that we, despite running the Jacks so close in finals so often, have never been able to get the better of. But it was an opportunity they spurned in a rather ham-fisted way and so all they’ve got to show for their day’s work is a defeat to end what was otherwise a very positive League campaign for them.
Dublin will, no doubt, be delighted with their day’s work. A long way from full strength and finding themselves in a contest that appeared to be leaking away from them, they steadied themselves well and, once again, figured out how to grab a win and, with it, another League title. You’d have to admit that, on today’s evidence, they look far from sated.
A quick word about the Rossies, who won a rather madcap Division Two final, beating Cavan by 4-16 to 4-12. It was point-scoring by the Connacht champions that kept them afloat in the first half (Cavan retired at the break with an improbable tally of 3-2 to their credit while Roscommon had twelve points) but when they started to bang in the goals themselves after the break they soon got on top.
A fourth Cavan goal brought the match back to boiling point but Roscommon’s fourth at the other end, a defence-splitting pass finding sub Cathal Cregg who finished coolly, effectively decided the contest in the Westerners’ favour.
Roscommon will be well pleased, I reckon, with their return from this year’s League. Back in Division One at the first time of asking, back as Division Two champions to boot, they’ve recovered well from the traumatic end they suffered to 2017.
They’ll head into summer – and that grand, soft draw in Connacht that they’ve once again been handed – in good spirits. They still have issues – their defence, on today’s evidence at least, looks a bit porous and midfield looks no better this year than it did last year.
But the Rossies have heart and guts in abundance – qualities, you’d have to say, that Galway didn’t exhibit too much of in the Division One final – and they’ll head into the championship knowing that the Super 8s are well within reach for them. Today’s win won’t do their confidence any damage either.
The more pressing question for us, though, is what impact today’s defeat will have on Galway. Soon enough we’ll have our answer to that one.
Post-match audio report: