Down progressed to the All-Ireland Football Final by squeezing out Kildare in a game that came down to the final kick in Croke Park on Sunday. It was a game filled with unusual strategies of varying effect.
Down lack width early
Kildare enjoyed some early success, at least in terms of control of the game, due to Down’s decision to crowd the middle and essentially sacrifice the wing. It proved an odd decision as it made Down’s kick-outs far more predictable and a straight-up fight, rather than trying to mix things up during the period in which they had the wind. The failure to adapt would have worried Down supporters as Kildare were winning plenty of ball from Down kick-outs. The result saw Kildare gain plenty of opportunities to attack Down’s high defensive lines. Kildare’s profligate streak, often failing to turn possession in scoring position into scoring chances, hurt them as they only put over three points during this spell.
A missed square-ball call swings momentum
I will address the technical issues of the square ball below. First to the implications on the game. Down immediately capitalised on the momentum of the score. Having moved from two points down to a point ahead with the goal, Down scored two quick points afterwards. Kildare rallied well to score three in a row but by this stage Down had recognised an advantage on the right flank and they were poised to plunder.
The Mourne Men stepped up the attack scoring six of the final seven points in the half as Kildare’s defence wilted, with Emmet Bolton and Danny Hughes among the players to exploit the opening on the right side. With space to move Down took a dominant position.
Kildare’s sweeper play fails to stifle Down surge
Interestingly much of Down’s success was due to what initially appeared to be a sensible ploy by Kildare. Playing into the wind in the first half, Kildare opted to use Hugh Lynch in a sweeper role. Lynch was effective as a straight up stopper but lacked the mobility required of an extra defender. Lacking the ability to move from flank-to-flank, the only benefit the midfielder offered in defence came when players took him on head-on.
This wasted Lynch’s ability to use his physicality further up the field, where he could have helped break Down’s already fragile lines, and proved damaging to the Kildare defence as the half wore on. As Down continued to exploit the space on the right side, Kildare needed a player who could manoeuvre from flank to flank playing this role but instead were stuck with the immobile Lynch.
Mourne men play clock control
I was particularly keen to keep an eye on Down’s clock management, having been impressed by Martin Clarke’s ability to mix it up between quick and slow frees in scoring position against Kerry. The difference between clock management and flat-out time wasting is in the former you also make sure you don’t waste time when you want to make the most of a situation.
The wind meant this was a far more predictable day for clock management than could have been hoped for on a day without such a potent breeze. That said it was still an educational affair with my stopwatch. In the first half, with the breeze favouring Down, the Mourne men took 12 seconds, 13 seconds, and 28 seconds to take frees which they sought to score from directly. I timed from when the referee blew his whistle to the point the ball was struck with the free taker’s boot. The last of these was slower than the first two as delayed because of a yellow card.
The second half saw Down slow the game far more with frees of 21 and 28 seconds, before a yellow card caused a fourth to take 1 minute and 10 seconds, a full 42 seconds longer than in a similar situation in the opening period. Down’s final free in scoring position took even longer, as the Mourne men chewed up 1 minute 14 seconds in second half injury time with their last effort.
Down’s full backs wilt
Yet for all this clever play and exploitation of gaps, Down nearly lost the game. The reasoning was simple. Kildare abandoned the sweeper system at half-time, devoting more bodies to the attack, while Down’s effort to bring its defence nearer to goal did little to stop the Lilywhite’s advances.
Kildare had surprising ease running right through large swathes of red jerseys. The physical advantage of the Lilywhites proved telling as their forwards bullied Kieran McGeeney’s men back into the game, in the face of no resistance from the Down backs. It was Kildare’s failure to convert this dominance into points, and it was very much a failure as opposed to defensive nous from Down, which cost them the game in the end.
In the end Down’s defensive frailties allowed this game to have been far closer than it ought to have been. In attack the Mourne men were far more clinical, exploiting weaknesses, controlling possession, and showing much greater efficiency than their counterparts in white. Kildare’s strength going forward in breaking Down’s lines however guaranteed this game would go down to the wire. That Robert Kelly’s effort on goal, which would have won the game for Kildare, came so close was remarkable as Down had positioned its defence almost as well a could be managed to make Kelly’s target as small as possible. The window for error was just that little bit too small and Down survived its inadequacies at the back to book a date with Cork. I’ll have plenty to say on that ahead of the game.
About that square ball
I deliberately avoided discussing the intricacies of the incident until after going through the tactical analysis. Much of the reaction on Down’s goal, which was a clear square ball, has been on calls to introduce technology to help with such big decisions. Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh was amongst the voices clamouring for change after Benny Coulter wandered into the square ahead of the ball before punching into the net. While I am usually an advocate of such visual aids, making the case here lets the officials off the hook too easily.
This was not a close call. This was a decision that those officiating games of this magnitude need to be able to get right. Referees and umpires are fallible, this does not make glaring errors excusable. These officials are given jobs of this level because they are deemed the best at what they do, which requires an ability to eradicate inexcusable errors.
Coulter entered the small rectangle as soon as the ball left Martin Clarke’s boot. The ball was in the air over three seconds; Coulter was in the box for three full seconds before connecting with his fist. That was clear from both my vantage point in the Upper Cusack in line with the 21 at that end and in the TV replays. In the TV replay we can also see Pat McEneaney clearly stops to look at the positioning of Coulter, albeit from a substantial distance. The umpire on the Cusack stand side of the goal did not have such a handicap and he immediately reached for the green flag upon the ball going in. The umpire on the Hogan stand side stood forward slightly but made no signal towards his colleague. Two officials had perfect sighting of the incident for three seconds, a third had enough of a view to consider it questionable.
There was no pause.
The only action an umpire can take if he is unsure of the validity of a score, is to wait to raise the flag until the referee tells him too. Failing to raise the flag immediately alerts the referee. The umpire with the green flag didn’t do this. There was no hesitation. This was human error; avoidable human error which does not need video technology to fix.