By Paddy Walsh, Donegal’s leading sports columnist
See that grass at O’Donnell Park? Great growth in it. Spent a good deal of time on Sunday studying it and I feel I know what I’m talking about.
They have to be using some measure of growth agents on it to help. But it’s looking well. Apparently it’s all in the old metabolism. Interesting to see it maturing all the same.
“Hard to watch this”, one man standing beside me remarked. Jeez, what grass was he watching?
Ah, I see. The match. Division One of the Allianz Football League. Division Ten in terms of quality.
Hard to watch indeed but not hard to hear the comments from fans who had paid ten euro to get in but would probably have paid treble that to get out again.
“Only twenty minutes gone and it seems like an hour and a half,” another sideline observer declared. “FORWARD, FORWARD”, yet another frustrated supporter demanded.
But the words were blown away in the wind as the Donegal line dancers continued to feed the ball from hand to hand across the field of play and another attack, if that’s what it could be called, eventually petered out into nothing.
A couple of hours before the throw-in, I’d read yet another article from Joe Brolly hitting out at the boring football syndrome which he continues to claim is destroying the sport. He would have had a strong argument against his views if it simply related to the Cork/Kerry game even if the Rebels did run away with that one in the end.
But you’d suspect it is matches such as last Sunday’s at O’Donnell Park that he has in mind when he launches those tirades against the modern game.
I headed across to the standing area at the other side for the second half to see if the view was any better from there. It wasn’t. Michael Murphy’s typically taken goal was the sole highlight from a Donegal perspective – the lowlights were all too obvious. Not a point registered by the home side in that second half told a story in itself. And the opinions of all those watching echoed those of the stand-side.
“The worst I’ve ever seen,” one supporter muttered as he headed for the exits a few minutes before the final whistle in the company of a trickle of head shaking fans. The rest of us stayed on believing that – by the law of averages – Donegal would grab a point or two and win the game.
But it was Monaghan, appearing to be able to get the ball forward much quicker than their opponents, who snatched a brace of late scores to deservedly seal the deal.
The stiffening breeze didn’t help either team’s cause but despite the fact they engineered a three point lead inside the opening stages, Donegal’s became a lost one as the players floundered to deceive. Difficult to score when you’re playing into the stand.
Not much time to recover before they head southwards to the Kingdom this weekend. Not much time for Rory Gallagher to engineer a system that involves forward thinking in every sense of the term.
He can’t allow the grass to grow under his feet on this one because the Championship will be on us before you can say ‘Hard to watch this.’
MARK OF A CHAMPION
With 200 metres to go, the hopes that Mark English would build on his bronze medal from last summer’s European Athletics Championships, appeared to be fading fast.
But fast is in the DNA of the Letterkenny man and as he ghosted past his rivals and caught Dutchman Thijmen Kupers before the finishing line, the silver medal from the 2015 European Indoors was his – and once again his county and his country can celebrate another outstanding achievement.
He had run positively and confidently in his heat and in the semi-final but nevertheless, the nerves gripped hard as we watching the closing stages of the 800 metres.
Mark spoke of feeling a “big well of energy” over the final 150 metres in the arena in Prague – an energy burst that took him to the line in second place but was never going to allow him overtake the gold medalist, Marcin Lewandowski of Poland who, well before, had just about confirmed his finishing position with the strongest of runs.
Once again, Mark’s family, parents Joe and Brigid, and sisters, Joanne and Michelle, were present, as they were in Zurich last August, to watch son and brother claim another medal at a major championship. And a handful of local fans too including double Olympian, Danny McDaid, and his wife, Kathleen.
And where next? Beijing and the World Championships next August, that’s where. Undoubtedly a step up with a lot more class athletes to contend with in the event. But, then, they too will know that there’s a potentially threatening Irishman with the ability to douse their hopes of podium places. And still only 21.
LETTERKENNY LION ROARS TO VICTORY
He’s the man for whom we can now truly coin the word ‘SEANDURANCE’. After finishing second last year in what’s simply called ‘The Race’ but involves the most incredible feat of human strength and tenacity, Sean McFadden blew over the finishing line on Saturday night having completed 250km of sheer physical effort that took him through this county’s notorious terrain on bicycle and on foot within the specified twenty-four hours. Well within it. Fifteen hours, five minutes and thirty seconds within it to be precise.
And among all the voices shouting encouragement at him as his miner’s headlight came into view at the Gartan Outdoor Pursuit Centre, one small one somehow brought a lump to the throat: “COME ON DADDY”, it said. And come on he did into the welcoming arms of his wife, Irene, and children and a whole host of supporters who had gathered at race’s end.
How the Letterkenny man even managed to summon the strength to hoist his vest into the cool night air to wave to the cheerleaders is something us mere mortals can only wonder about. But wave it he did like a helicopter blade bringing him home.
And just in case you thought he had earned a couple of days in the old leaba – he had – the man was up and about early on Sunday morning for a stroll around his home patch.
On Saturday afternoon, I got a chance to see the participants battling high winds and driving rain on their bicycles close to the Derryveagh Mountains and, strange as this may sound, I didn’t envy them. Sean McFadden may have been the outright winner but every single individual who took to the starting line – sixty-four in all – earned the right to be hailed as conquerors, even the twenty-two who didn’t complete the course.
Due to the conditions, the kayaking element of the event was postponed but that didn’t ease the pain.
A lot of credit to Ulster Television who, apart from a special preview of ‘The Race’, also covered what presenter, Garth Wilkinson, described as the “edge of human endurance.”
Sean revealed that he had been close to pulling out half way through as a tearful few moments threatened to bring him down. It took, apparently, the encouraging words of a friend, to persuade him to continue but as anyone who knows him, the likelihood is that he would still have found the strength himself to carry on.
“You’d want to be mad”, the runner-up, Sean McLaughlin, cracked a grin after being asked what it had felt like.
Mad? That’s one word for it. But try telling that to SEANDURANCE….
HOME WITH THE HARPS
Encouraging results for Finn Harps to open their competitive season even if one of them ended up in a defeat.
They followed up that goal-less draw at Shelbourne – and a late chance from Damian McNulty could have sealed the full quota of points – with a 3-2 loss in Galway in the E.A. Sports League Cup on Monday night. Having trailed 0-2 at one stage, they fought back twice to within a goal and, again, had a late opportunity to bring the tie into extra-time.
Not to be but the League’s the one Ollie Horgan is aiming for and this Friday they face new boys, Cabinteely F.C. who opened their campaign with a lone goal victory over Wexford Youths and then knocked U.C.D. out of the afore-mentioned Cup.
But in front of a home crowd – and hopefully the fans will turn out in force – Harps can take the points and put their promotion campaign on track.
Meanwhile, the ‘Irish Examiner’ compiled a list of their top 25 League of Ireland players of all time and one Brendan Bradley – and there was only one – finished on top of the pile. “Stats doesn’t always tell the story but in the case of Bradley, they roar it to the skies; he once scored all six for Harps in a game against Sligo and when he finally hung up his shooting boots in 1986, he did so having amassed 235 League of Ireland goals, a record which stands to this day,” the Examiner’s soccer correspondent, Liam Mackey, summed up the career of the big man.
A couple of weeks back, R.T.E. did a special feature on that record which included an interview with Bradley and with the man who is twenty goals away from breaking it, Bray Wanderers striker, Jason Byrne.
Some of us old nostalgics and Harps veterans will hope he never manages it, petty as that may sound.
Not alone do I want Ireland to deliver a thumping to Wales in Cardiff this Saturday – 58-0 would do just nicely – but I want to see Warren Gatland’s smirky face after it.
It’s got that bad, that I was even cheering on England when they played, and won, at the Millennium.
Nobody drops Brian O’Driscoll from the Lions in his final season before retirement and gets away with it.
If it hadn’t been for the photograph at the top of the page, you would have been hard pressed to notice any reference to Mark English’s semi-final race at the European Indoors in the Sunday Independent.
Readers – and particularly those of us from Donegal with a vested interested – had to trawl through the paper’s sports supplement before we came upon the picture on the third last page. And there buried at the bottom of the same page in a column marked ‘Sports Briefs’ was a paltry couple of paragraphs on the Letterkenny man’s advance into the 800 metres Final, paragraphs which also managed to squeeze (and it was a squeeze) in details of the other Irish athletes and their performances.
And next Sunday the same publication will have four or five pages dedicated to the multi-millionaires of the English Premiership. Something wrong somewhere.
The G.A.A. has come in for some criticism – with a number of newspaper columnists leading the charge – over its refusal to allow referee David Gough to sport a rainbow wristband in support of the gay movement during Saturday night’s National League fixture at Croke Park between Dublin and Tyrone.
The organisation viewed it as a political gesture and considered it particularly inappropriate in the months leading up to the referendum on gay marriage. “The GAA is not a vehicle for other people’s political messages. You leave your politics at the door,” a spokesman reacted.
Some years back we might have scorned such a reaction given that the GAA did appear to run with a political football at times. But let’s be fair, the sporting body has come a long way since those days and indeed just last year, Croke Park stewards were ordered to remove Palestinian flags from Hill 16 during a match.
And the criticism the authorities has received on its latest stance? It probably would have been a lot more forceful had the Association allowed a referee, or indeed a player, to wear a wristband opposing the gay movement.
In any case, I believe the GAA was right to impose a ban on this occasion.
VILLA PARK INVASION
Smashing Cup game at Villa Park at the weekend. I thought the big fat bloke with the ill-fitting tee-shirt did well while the fellow with tattoos running down his arm looked a decent prospect on the pitch and the young lad getting ready to lay out Chris Brunt is one for the future.
However, that future won’t be at Villa Park as they’ll probably all be banned.
If you’re looking for a sure bet for Cheltenham, look well beyond this column. But if you’re looking for a tip that might pocket you a cent or two, place a bit of your hard-earned on Carlingford Lough – 10/1 from Paddy Power the last I heard – in the Gold Cup.
Apart from the fact that one Tony McCoy is riding him, I’m tipping him because his trainer, John Kiely, is talking up his chances and he has shown recent form including a brilliant win in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown.
But mainly because Carlingford’s a nice place and I have a sister that lives there.
It’s at times like these that you discover that you know far and away – and the farther away the better – too many Arsenal supporters…