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Eamonn Fitzgerald: Goodbye to a difficult year

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Killarney Advertiser sports columnist Eamonn Fitzgerald reflects on 2020, a sporting year like no other that produced some fascinating storylines.

 

What’s another year, as we say goodbye to 2020, a year dominated by COVID-19.

It impacted on the health of so many people and sadly, in the case of far too many, death followed. To all those who suffered and were bereaved we extend our sympathies and hope that 2021 will be a better one for you and for your families.

Sport also came a cropper, especially in the early stages, but then it opened up again. I had argued in this column on a number of occasions that most sporting activities should also be closed down, because the health and lives of people were at stake, particularly in crowded situations, involving teams and supporters. I was in favour of individual sport continuing.

I can appreciate the counter-argument that sport was not alone necessary for the physical health of players and supporters, but very much so for mental health. Sporting events were something we look forward to, but the risks were too high.

However, most sports opened up and 2020 provided that release for so many aficionados. It was a different year, with most sports played behind closed doors. Live streaming became the norm and it looks like the new norm will continue for 2021.

SOCCER

COVID-19 wasn’t kind to Stephen Kenny in his opening matches in charge of the Irish team in the Nations League. A famine of goals followed as he set about changing the Irish style of play. Gone was the Charlton mode of putting ‘em under pressure, often hoofing the ball long and direct. Kenny’s style is more attractive, but fans want wins, not moral victories. And, certainly, we need goals. What is overlooked too often is that he does not have the calibre of class players that Big Jack had. He has too few top-class footballers to call on.

On the club scene, COVID-19 didn’t stop Liverpool from being crowned champions, even if their many supporters in Killarney had to wait for quite a while before they could exercise the bragging rights, which they did. They were deserving champions and they still lead the way. Chelsea and Leeds’ fans hopes were high to challenge them, but recent results burst that balloon, even at this early stage. The challenge may well fall to the two Manchester rival clubs and what about Leicester, making an early burst?

On the Irish stage Shamrock Rovers reigned supreme and were worthy champions. I have happy memories of going to Glenmalure Park in Miltown (Dublin) in the seventies when they were unbeatable. They are in that mode again, but their old stomping ground is no more. In 1987 that beautiful pitch was controversially sold to speculative-minded builders, so beautifully captured by Luke Kelly in his song Dublin in the Rare Old Times: “the grey unyielding concrete makes a city of my town”.

Rovers had no home ground for over 20 years until they settled on Tallaght.

SIX–IN-A-ROW

Across the city to the north side and there was no stopping the Dubs as they rewrote the history they made in 2019 by clinching the new norm of six-in a-row.

Great displays by Cavan and Tipperary brought home interprovincial silverware to success-starved fans in those counties. No joy for Kerry, who allowed Cork to boss them in the deluge at Páirc Uí Chaiomh and bending the knee with that late, late goal. What’s the story for 2021? More about that in future editions.

The Kerry hurlers gave great satisfaction to so many supporters, even if they lost the McDonagh Cup final to Antrim, who proved to be their nemesis on four occasions in 2020.

This game was a curtain-raiser to the All-Ireland senior hurling final which was won convincingly in great fashion by Limerick. My abiding hurling memories of 2020 were those amazing sideline cuts by the imperious Joe Canning. Four out of four from varying distances, left and right. What a skill, what a man raising four white flags. At local level, it was encouraging to see Dr Crokes win the Kerry IHC title versus Tralee Parnells. They are looking good for the future.

Speaking of the future and of optimism: fair dues to the Kerry U17 footballers. They beat Cork in a thriller in Tralee and made sure of the Munster title with victory over Clare. They played a brand of football that gladdened the hearts of Kerry supporters, who were still hurting after the seniors' defeat. They played a good mix of old-style direct football and controlled close passing until the colleague arrived on the shoulder. They drove forward and delivered the ball in quickly to the scoring zone, where garsúns like Cian McMahon came of age, notching match-winning scores.

They were due to meet Roscommon in the All-Ireland semi-final in two weeks’ time, but I don’t expect that game to go ahead.

The U20s were badly hit for their All-Ireland semi-final v Galway, losing three players to the virus just before the match. Galway went on to beat Dublin in the final. John Sugrue had a good stint as manager but he stepped down, after facing that long return journey from Portlaoise a few times every week.

Declan O’Sullivan will manage this important group for the next two years, at least. His linkage with the senior management team will be very important as Kerry regroup. As expected, Donie Buckley wasn’t idle too long after parting company with Kerry, the one team he wanted to work with. Banty has taken him on board to boost Monaghan’s hopes of cranking up their dreams.

KERRY LADIES

A special mention to the Kerry ladies football team. They did very well and put up a great show against Cork in Tralee. Cork went on to the All-Ireland final, where they bowed to the other Dub trailblazers.

Mind you, the emerging Dubs have a long ways to go to reach the heights of past Kerry teams which included, among others, the all-round sports star Mary Geaney and Mary Jo Curran. If memory serves me well, Kerry won something like nine All-Irelands in a row, led by Beaufort’s Mary Jo. She won a bagful of All-Ireland medals, 11 in all. What a record and only Henry Shefflin, the great Kilkenny hurler, came near with 10.

At long last progress has been made in some sports where women were treated less equally than men.

Such misogynistic sentiments are coming to their rightful and timely end. In golf at long last, the GUI and the ILGUI have merged amicably into Golf Ireland. I wonder what the story is in Portmarnock and in Royal Dublin? Killarney Golf & Fishing Club has embraced this welcome, pluralistic mindset for quite some time.

The men and women players in the GAA are also well on the way to unity, but the top table of the GAA still lacks the heterogeneity of thought to bring them all under the one umbrella. The treatment of Galway in the staging of the All-Ireland semi-final still rankles, as does the low level of travel expenses paid to the ladies in comparison to the men. Equality beckons. Or does it?

HEART

There was plenty more to gladden the heart in 2020. Katie Taylor is the queen of the ring, the undisputed world champion.

Bookies were closed for the most part, as horse racing went ahead behind closed doors. The harsh lesson from the fall-out in March from Cheltenham was a stark reminder. The main winner in the new set-up was Willie Mullins and it was great to seek the Kerry jockeys doing so well.

The Irish rugby team struggled, but are Munster on the way back up again to their former lofty perch?

In golf, there was no Ryder Cup for team captain Pádraig Harrington. We had winning performances from Dustin Johnson, as well as the arrival on the podium of Bryson DeChambeau, defying best practices by missing most of the fairways and using his extra three stone weight to hit the ball out of the high rough without a bother, giving high handicappers great hopes of making the same winning connection more regularly.

FOCAL SCOIR

Focal scoir and just a few days into 2021, I still feel on balance that a halt should be called to competitions for team sports, where physical contact is a prerequisite. Numero uno is the health of all. Sport for individuals could go ahead, where social distancing is not an issue.

The daily number of cases is close to 5,000. By the time you read this, the daily figure may be up to 7,000. Statistics are reminders of the reality of the fallout from COVID -19. However, these are also human stories of suffering, worry, uncertainty and regrettably, in too many cases, death and mourning for families who are unable to grieve in the healing process of traditional Irish wakes and funerals.

Schools may not re-open on Monday next and Lockdown 3 may well need to continue into March. Team sports should be put on hold until it is deemed safe to open up. After all, basketball has been closed completely in 2020, as it is an indoor sport. For the first time in over 50 years the eagerly awaited Castleisland Christmas basketball blitz, masterminded by the indefatigable Duke, did not go ahead.

Idir an dá linn, Happy New Year and stay safe.

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Live referee mics should be the norm – swearing concerns be damned

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by Adam Moynihan

I was disappointed to learn that the GAA are preventing TG4 from using their live referee mic in this Sunday’s Wexford hurling final.

(And not just because I had already written an article saying how great live referee mics are and how they are sure to be implemented across the board. Ctrl + A. Delete.)

TG4’s GAA coverage is superb and they raised the bar once again when they mic’d up referee John O’Halloran for the Kerry hurling final between Causeway and Ballyduff.

Pinning a microphone on the referee is standard practice in televised rugby and judging by the positive response to Gaelic games’ first foray into this territory, I was expecting it to become the norm.

It still might but, explaining their decision to The 42, the GAA said that they were not aware beforehand of the ref mic being trialled in Stack Park on Sunday.

“They believe such a development will require more discussion and education if it is to be implemented on a more regular basis in live TV coverage and could possibly need a policy change,” Fintan O’Toole reported.

The image of the Association is surely the primary concern here.

Players and managers – usually the worst behaved participants when it comes to things like swearing – will be among those who get “educated” on the subject. Some verbal abuse that might otherwise be muted for television viewers will, in all likelihood, be picked up by the referee’s microphone. You would imagine that the teams involved will be reminded of this the week of a televised game.

It also makes sense from Croke Park’s point of view to speak to referees and give them guidance on how to conduct themselves when the mic is on.

In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if senior GAA figures are currently fretting over the possibility of an agitated ref making headlines for something they say in the heat of the moment. And make no mistake about it, some match officials can eff and jeff with the best of them.

A friend of mine (a Wexford man, funnily enough) recalls an incident when a teammate was unceremoniously taken out of it by an opponent.

“Ah ref, for f***’s sake!” the victim complained.

“I gave you the f***ing free,” the referee replied. “What do you want me to do, slap him in the face with a wet fish?!”

The GAA might think that a referee swearing like that would leave all of us red-faced. In reality the clip would be a viral sensation and the general public would probably call for the official in question to run for Áras an Uachtárain. (He’d get my ****ing vote.)

The odd swear word from someone involved is bound to sneak through every now and then but you’d hear the same – and plenty more – at any match you attend from Cahersiveen to County Antrim.

Implementing the referee mic on a wider scale is a no-brainer as far as I’m concerned. It doesn’t appear to take a huge amount of effort or expense for the broadcaster to set it up and, more importantly, it offers a wonderful insight into the unknown.

Listening to referees explain their decisions in real time will clear a lot of things up for commentators, analysts and the media. We will no longer have to speculate about what they did or did not see, or what specific rule is being cited, or why.

Viewers, especially those who might be casual followers of the sport, will appreciate it too and become more educated; I know that’s how I feel when I watch rugby, for example.

It just leads to greater transparency and understanding.

Well done to TG4 and the Kerry County Board for being the pioneers. I’m sure others will follow their lead – as soon as the GAA allow them to do so.

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Popularity of Ladies Gaelic Football on the rise

According to official TAM Ireland figures, 491,000 tuned into TG4’s coverage of the TG4 Ladies Football finals on Sunday with an average audience of 204,900 people watching the live broadcast […]

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According to official TAM Ireland figures, 491,000 tuned into TG4’s coverage of the TG4 Ladies Football finals on Sunday with an average audience of 204,900 people watching the live broadcast of the Senior Final between Meath and Kerry.

The match had a 30.6% share of viewing among individuals. Viewing peaked at 5.10pm with 279,800 viewers as Meath closed in on the two in a row to retain the Brendan Martin Cup.

A total 46,400 attended the match in person in Croke Park on Sunday, the first TG4 Ladies Football Final to have full capacity allowance since 2019.

Viewers from over 50 countries tuned into the finals on the TG4 Player with 14,000 streams of the game from international viewers. Over 20,000 streams were also registered from Irish viewers.

TG4 Director General Alan Esslemont said: “My deepest gratitude to all the counties especially Wexford and Kerry who battled to the end through this season’s Championship, hearty congratulations to both Laois and Meath and I am really looking forward to the re-match of Antrim and Fermanagh which will be carried live on TG4. A special word of thanks goes to the huge crowd which travelled to the Finals from all the corners of Ireland. County Meath especially have become a role model for other counties in how to build huge attending support for LGFA in both genders and at all ages. Sunday’s massive expression of Meath ‘fandom’ in Croke Park brought their county the greatest credit.

Sunday’s broadcast was the 22nd edition of the TG4 Ladies Gaelic Football Championship, a unique history of a sport minoritized by society being championed by a language media minoritized by the state. By consciously standing together we have grown together. As we approach the 50th anniversary of the LGFA in 2024 let us all hope by that time that we are even further along the road towards true equality of opportunity for both Ladies Gaelic Football and Irish language media.”

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