Kieran Shannon looks back at three epic encounters on Sunday, June 26, 2011 that proved to be momentous moments in shaping the destinies of three provincial championships.
It hasn’t always been like this, it only feels this way.
Where you can’t see anyone remotely touching Dublin in Leinster, Connacht is Mayo’s both to lose and to rule, Donegal are again fancied to outwit Tyrone and win out Ulster while Killarney appears an unbreachable fortress to Cork and the rest of Munster.
Four years ago there was no Big Four that you could depend upon to be all playing well into August.
At the outset of the 2011 championship, football was a different landscape. Provincial superiority seemed to count for little: the previous August all four provincial champions had been disposed of in the All Ireland quarter-finals by sides storming through the backdoor.
The first two counties knocked out of that 2010 championship had been Donegal and Mayo, the former suffering the ignominy of being hammered in Crossmaglen on national television, the westerners crashing out in Longford. It was no place for a managerial career like John O’Mahony’s to end but that’s where Mayo were back then.
That same weekend Dublin and Stephen Cluxton were riddled for five goals by Meath in a Leinster semi-final, looking like startled earwigs once more.
Yet exactly a year later, on Sunday June 26, 2011, each of those three teams would be back, transformed, with watershed wins over their biggest provincial challengers.
Tyrone’s Owen Mulligan was on the receiving end of one of them. “I often wonder,” he’d write in his autobiography, “would Donegal have gone on to win all they did win if they had lost that day.”
The answer is no: they wouldn’t. It was their first major statement game, the one that made all others possible. Even going into it, they knew.
“We feel this is the biggest game of our lives,” Kevin Cassidy would confide a few days beforehand to Declan Bogue for the terrific book This Is Our Year. “If we’re beat on Sunday there’s going to be a lot of soul-searching done after the amount of effort that has gone into this year. This is the game that will make or break us.”
It made them, just as the same day would make and break some others.
LEINSTER SFC SEMI-FINAL, CROKE PARK: KILDARE v DUBLIN
While you might have some difficulty recalling The Day That Changed Football, Andriú Mac Lochlainn doesn’t, even if a part of him wishes that he could.
If he had his way, he’d remember it and be remembered as that tenacious back that came on and quietened Alan Brogan, then moved over to likewise stifle Bernard. He’d be known for clearing a late goal chance from Alan off the line, then moments later storming upfield to offload to Eamonn Callaghan who’d place a low shot to the corner of the net to bring Kildare level and make Croker shake with time almost up. Because he did all those things. Kildare did so many things back then under Kieran McGeeney. It seemed as if it was all building to something special, like taking the Dubs that day in Croker.
You’ve to remember the lay of the Leinster land heading into game. While Dublin had recovered well enough the previous summer from conceding those five goals against Meath to reach the All Ireland semi-finals, Kildare had been even more impressive that summer of 2010. In that year’s All-Ireland quarter-final they’d steamrolled the same Meath side that had tormented Dublin in Leinster. Their subsequent game against Down had turned on a Benny Coulter squareball goal but as devastating as that loss was, their resolve and belief was even greater in 2011.
“By then we felt we were getting closer and closer to getting our hands on a Leinster title and even the bigger prize,” says Mac Lochlainn. “We feared nobody at the time while there were teams that feared us. We were very tight at the back and contrary to a lot of we were racking up big scores upfront. At times in those years we felt and looked like a machine.”
There was certainly no fear of Dublin the way there’d be a fear of them now. While Pat Gilroy’s team had two special forwards in the Brogans, Kildare felt they had the backs for them. Mac Lochlainn was especially up for and to the task. When he came off the bench 10 minutes before halftime he took up Alan Brogan, Dublin’s main playmaker. Then when Ollie Lyons went off injured shortly after half-time, Mac Lochlainn was moved on to Bernard Brogan, the reigning Player of the Year. Mac Lochlainn would tie him up as well, but then moments after that foray up the field to help set Callaghan up for the equalising goal, Mac Lochlainn was adjudged to have fouled Brogan in front of the posts. Brogan duly tapped the free over with the last kick of the game to give Dublin a 1-12 to 1-11 win.
It was a hugely contentious decision at the time by Cormac O’Reilly. “Ah no!” Kevin McStay would pronounce in his match co-commentary. “He [Mac Lochlainn] has his two hands spread out, both men are going for the ball. If you know the game, how can you call a free with it 14-all and only seconds left? It’s crazy!”
Mac Lochlainn is too honest to pretend that it doesn’t still rankle somewhat with him now.
“I wonder if at the time if the officials got confused with the roar after Eamonn’s goal and they thought we were actually a point ahead. Because it was an absolute ridiculous free to give. The ball that had been kicked in was heading out over the sideline. My man was heading away from goal. I’d the sideline and endline to act as extra defenders, I had a midfielder covering back and time was almost up. I was in my ninth year as a senior county player. There was no way I’d give away a free in those circumstances.
“The following day [referees spokesperson] Mick Curley came out and showed the blurriest clip that I’ve ever seen from behind the goal and said ‘There was obviously contact.’ The only contact was I clipped one of my own legs. I never made contact with him [Brogan]. He never stumbled.”
Reilly would be the same referee that would irk Mayo fans after a string of contentious calls in Limerick last August. No Kildare supporter would get to attack or verbally abuse him in 2011 but Mac Lochlainn himself would approach the Meath official walking off the field.
“I ran over and made a point of never once abusing or cursing him but I did say to him, ‘I don’t think you realise the magnitude of your decision. ’ I had a young family that had sacrificed everything so I could do something selfish and play county football and achieve certain dreams. By him not being up with the play and making that ridiculous decision it was one of my last chances to win a Leinster medal gone. I actually said to him, ‘When you go home and see it yourself I’d appreciate a letter of apology.’”
No such letter would be forthcoming. Neither would that elusive Leinster medal. Kildare would rage through the backdoor once more eyeing another shot at Dublin. “We were possessed after that day. All we wanted was to get Dublin again and destroy them. If we’d got them in the All Ireland semi-final that year we’d have felt we’d have the psychological and motivational edge over them. Dublin would not have wanted to face us again.”
In their All Ireland quarter-final though Kildare would encounter more misfortune. Tomás O’Connor looked to have put Kildare five points up against Donegal when he poached on a ball that came back off the upright. “He actually checked his run so that it wouldn’t be a square ball,” says Mac Lochlainn. “If that goal had stood Donegal would have had to come out of their shell and that would have really suited us.”
But O’Connor was called for a square ball. After Coulter, then the Brogan free, it was third time unlucky. The following year momentum wasn’t with Kildare either. Instead Dublin were reigning All Ireland champions, and overlords of Leinster. For all the “great memories” Mac Lochlainn would leave the sport with, Kildare would never get so close to Dublin again as that day in 2011. No one in Leinster would.
CONNACHT SFC SEMI-FINAL, CASTLEBAR: MAYO v GALWAY
When James Horan inherited the wreckage that was Mayo after Longford 2010, there was no one in the county talking about reaching or winning All Irelands. As he’d tell this paper on the eve of the 2011 All Ireland semi-final, “The players’ confidence had been absolutely shot to pieces. There was this perception that players weren’t putting it in for the jersey. From knowing the lads, that was totally unfair but when players constantly hear that, it does seep in.”
He countered it by telling them something else. “In fairness to James when he came in he kept reinforcing how good we were as individual players,” says Enda Varley. “After 2010 we all thought we weren’t close to being up there with the best but he’d reinforce over and over again that the talent we had was up there with the best in the country.”
It would take time for that to register. Horan’s managerial career was nearly over before it began with the infamous trip to and escape from Ruislip. What nearly broke them made them. As Varley says, “After London we were so focused going into the Galway game.”
After Ruislip organisation would be the hallmark of Horan’s reign. Logistics to and from the London venue had been farcical; thereafter he would entrust his county board less with such responsibilities and increasingly designate them to his own Mr Wolf, Noel Howley.
On the field too there would be changes. “The way we defended in that [London] game was absolutely unbelievable,” Horan would say later that 2011 season. “Unbelievable as in terrible! The first goal basically came from all our half back line being ahead of the ball, anticipating a break forward when it broke behind.”
After that they came up with a rule, a mantra: “Always Two”. At all times there had to be at least two men in the halfback line and another two in the fullback line. It would be the cornerstone of them becoming the meanest defence in Connacht for the next four years.
There would still be tricky moments, starting with that next day out against Galway. Although Tomás Ó Flatharta’s team had been relegated from Division One, Galway were tipped to win by four of five national journalists polled in the match programme on the back of an impressive challenge game win over reigning All Ireland champions Cork. At halftime in Castlebar Galway were 1-5 to 0-4 up. In the Mayo dressing room though there was no panic.
“That was the start of the process mentality,” says Varley. “That if we stuck with our process our skills and fitness and grit would ultimately tell.” It would. The two O’Sheas would take over midfield. At the back they would hold Galway to just a point after the break. An Alan Freeman goal would put daylight between the teams and then Varley and Ronan McGarrity would come off the bench to each kick a point to seal a 1-12 to 1-6 win.
There would still be work to do; their freetaking was hugely erratic that day, prompting a teenaged Cillian O’Connor to memorably assume such responsibilities the next day out against Roscommon. You could argue with that All Ireland still proving tantalisingly elusive there’s still more work to do.
But Galway have a lot more ground to make up. It was that day in 2011 they started losing it. As Varley says, “That day was the start of something new.”
ULSTER SFC SEMI-FINAL: DONEGAL v TYRONE
Of all these pivotal games on the day that changed football, this was the one that represented the most significant power shift. Donegal hadn’t won an Ulster title in 19 years. Tyrone or Armagh had divvied up every Ulster title between them for the previous 12 years. Tyrone had won either an Ulster or All Ireland title the previous four years. For Donegal to make any breakthrough they would have to go through Tyrone and Jim McGuinness made it clear from his first meeting with his team.
“I don’t want to have to keep harping on to youse about Tyrone,” Kevin Cassidy would recall him constantly saying, “but they’re the benchmark.”
After their June 26 showdown, McGuinness would say his admiration for Mickey Harte’s coaching had grown even further. Twenty-five minutes into the game his team trailed 0-6 to 0-1 as Tyrone did a masterful job of getting shots off against Donegal’s radical new defensive system. “We set out like we were going to destroy them,” Owen Mulligan would later say. “We should have been out of sight by halftime.”
Instead they were only two points up. There was a defiance about Donegal, personified in a mantra McGuinness devised for the occasion. In previous years Tyrone had verbally wound up the likes of Colm McFadden who had lashed back and been sent off in the 2007 clash between the counties. On June 26, 2011 though McFadden and his teammates had a stock answer to smile back with: “NOT TODAY.”
When Kevin Cassidy kicked a monster point just before halftime similar to that he’d famously scored against Kildare in Croke Park, even an unusually subdued Ryan McMenamin could sense that it might not be Tyrone’s day.
It was a tense, niggly second half, the sort Ulster football specialises in as the 2-6 to 0-9 scoreline would indicate. Ultimately it would turn on a couple of Donegal goals and Joe McMahon going off injured after a contentious challenge by Leo McLoone. “Donegal were lucky enough to win that day,” Mulligan would claim. “If Joe hadn’t gone off injured I don’t think they would have.”
But they did. They’ve had a grip over Tyrone and Ulster ever since.
A week later there would be another significant game. Cork would confidently march into Fitzgerald Stadium as All Ireland champions. They would leave it still seeking their first win at the venue since 1995, losing out 1-15 to 1-12.
Although Conor Counihan’s side would bounce back to win the following year’s league title and Munster title, Kerry would resume control in 2013, something they may not have been in a position to do if Cork had finally raided their Killarney citadel in a position of such strength in 2011.
Maybe things will change in 2015. Out west, Horan is gone. In Donegal, so is McGuinness. Upon his departure he would talk about four-year Olympic cycles and how all things come to a natural end. This could well be the summer there’ll be a power shift in some of the provinces. But there’s no doubting the day and week four years ago that the status quo began.
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