AS usual, referees have come in for quite a bit of criticism as the provincial championship programs move towards the end of their respective campaigns. And none more so than Meath official Cormac Reilly at Croke Park last Sunday. Reilly's decision to award Dublin a very soft free in the dying minutes has upset a lot of Kildare people.
One person it didn't bother was Bernard Brogan because be subsequently popped over the free which gave Dublin a 1-12 to 1-11 Leinster Football semi-final success over the Lilywhites.
This hugely competitive, highly exciting and controversial encounter proved the highlight of a vast GAA weekend of matches which included four provincial football semi-finals. In the others, Donegal made it through to the Ulster decider by getting the better of Tyrone by 2-6 to 0-9, Mayo comfortably saw off a disappointing Galway outfit 1-12 to 1-6 in Connacht, while Wexford dispatched Carlow by 4-12 to 0-10 in the other Leinster semi.
Throw in all the qualifying games and you are left with an enormous amount to choose from. But there's no doubt that the best of all that action came in the second Leinster semi-final, played in front of a crowd of 58,723 at Croke Park.
Just think, if Cormac Reilly had decided not to award the late free to Dublin, the Leinster Council would have had a replay and another financial bonanza on the hands. In the past, referees have repeatedly been accused of allowing games to end level in order to facilitate just that.
But Reilly saw what appeared to be a slight tug by Andriu MacLochlainn on Bernard Brogan's jersey as a free as the game was in stoppage time. Brogan responded by comfortably sending the free between the posts for the winning score.
No one would have denied Kildare a replay after a match which had seen them draw level with a late, superbly taken goal and a point by Eamonn O'Callaghan.
So, it's hardly surprising that the Kildare manager Kieran McGeeney wasn't best pleased.
He was certain that it wasn't a free, a view shared by MacLochlainn. "I'm sure in my own mind that I didn't foul him. It was a cruel way to end a game of football." stressed the Kildare substitute.
Somewhat predictably, Pat Gilroy saw things differently.
"He (MacLochlainn) was pulling Bernard, no question." argued the Dublin boss. It was a pity really that the game should have ended on such a controversial note, as it was such a high class encounter.
In a sense, it also took away from a fine Dublin performance which saw them play most of the second half with 14 men. Up to the point, five minutes into the second half that Eoghan O'Gara was sent off for a second yellow card, Dublin were undoubtedly the better side. Indeed, they continued to hold the upper hand until those dramatic closing minutes.
A fisted point from Man of the Match Alan Brogan left them four points clear in the 63rd minute. Despite the sending off of O'Gara, an outstanding defensive display seemed to have made certain of victory.
But credit to the battling qualities of this Kildare outfit, they will always keep going until the very end. O'Callaghan's goal, a low daisy cutter, not that there are any daisies on the Croke Park surface these days, was a thing of beauty.
That said, there's no question Dublin were the more impressive side. Had they not gone down to 14 men, you would have to think they would have won with a bit to spare. Their first half goal, a well taken effort, came from Paul Flynn. Dublin were on top, leading by 1-7 to 0-4 at the break, but the sending off of O'Gara put a much different complexion on the proceedings.
The difference was that the Dubs were a bit more clinical. Bernard Brogan finished with 0-6, five of which were frees, to be their top scorer.
O'Callaghan, with 1-2, did most of the damage for Kildare, but they dropped far too many balls into the hands of Stephen Cluxton in the Dublin goal. Just the same, this remains a very decent Kildare side who will surely have another good run in the qualifiers.
As McGeeney put it: "We didn't feel that it was a free but we have to take it on the chin and come back."
They will start that bid with an away match against neighbors Laois. Dublin, meanwhile, can look forward to a Leinster decider against a Wexford outfit which eventually came good to comfortably see off Carlow in the opening semi-final at Croke Park.
For most of the first half, however, Wexford struggled to display their best form. But a bad mistake from the Carlow defense proved Shane Roche with a great goal scoring opportunity which he availed of just before half-time. From then on it much more comfortable for Wexford as Roche went on to finish with 2-4.
Yet, their manager Jason Ryan wasn't about to get too excited, arguing that Wexford are going to have to play a lot better in the Leinster final. "At times we were really poor, but we're obviously delighted to be though to a Leinster final."
DONEGAL, MAYO GO THROUGH
DONEGAL and Mayo must also be delighted to be through to their respective provincial deciders, particularly Donegal. Their 2-6 to 0-9 victory has ended a long stranglehold, going back 12 years, that Tyrone and Armagh have had on the Ulster title.
Tyrone are entitled to feel disappointed, especially as their Clones semi-final against Donegal seemed sure to be heading to a replay with the game well into injury-time. But Donegal substitute Dermot Molloy then spoilt their plans by pouncing for well taken winning goal. It came after Tyrone had been reduced to 14 men following the sending off of midfielder Kevin Hughes for a second yellow card. Colm McFadden had earlier scored Donegal's first goal in a very hard fought affair.
Not all of it was the most stylish, but this will not bother Donegal who go through to meet Derry in the Ulster final on July 17. Manager Jim McGuinness rightly pointed out: "The goals were the key. It wasn't a great game but it was a real pressure-cooker."
His opposite number, Mickey Harte, agreed, adding: "We missed far too many chances. They were much more economical with their opportunities."
If Harte thought Tyrone's shooting was bad, what was the Galway boss Tomas O Flahara to think about Galway who could muster just seven scores in their 1-12 to 1-6 defeat to Mayo at McHale Park. Amazingly, Galway managed just one point in the second half.
During that period, Mayo outscored them 1-8 to 0-1. By the finish, it was easy for Mayo who go through to face Roscommon in the Connacht decider. Alan Freeman's 57th minute goal really decided the game. Mayo could have won by much more had it not been for some good goalkeeping on the part of Adrian O'Flaherty.
Mayo's manager James Horan was reasonably pleaded. He said: "We finished strong and we kept going. We're delighted with that."
WARD SCORES FOUR
CIAN WARD'S four goal match-winning performance for Meath competed with London's victory over Fermanagh for the highlight of the weekend's football qualifiers.
Both were outstanding efforts. Ward contributed 4-3 as Meath beat Louth by 5-8 to 2-8 in a repeat of last year's controversial Leinster final. This time there was nothing to argue about other than which of Ward's goals was the best. All four were expertly taken as Meath had too much power and pace for their rivals.
"The players wanted to put last year's final to bed," pointed out Meath manager Seamus McEneaney. "In fairness, they did and in decent style."
London, meanwhile, showed that their effort in nearly beating Mayo was no flash in the pan by defeating Fermanagh by 0-15 to 0-9 at Ruislip. London manager Paul Coggins believes that there is now more to come from his side who have drawn Waterford at home in the next round of the qualifiers.
"The lads haven't finish yet. We are not going to stop here, we are going to keep improving." stated Coggins.
There was nearly another huge result at Cusack Park where Clare only lost out by 1-13 to 1-12 to Down. It took an injury-time goalline clearance from Conor Laverty to save last year's beaten All-Ireland finalists.
Elsewhere, Mick O'Dwyer's Wicklow recorded an excellent 1-18 to 0-16 success over Sligo, Longford thrashed Cavan by 2-16 to 0-11, Laois beat Tipperary by exactly the same score, a rejuvenated Offaly comfortably saw off Monaghan by 1-18 to 1-10, and Antrim defeated Westmeath 0-16 to 1-7.
Afterwards the draw for the second round of the qualifiers was completed. Kildare take on neighbours Laois away, Meath are at home to Galway, and, after the closeness of the match against Clare, Down will be pleased to have a home match against Leitrim.
The full draw (home teams first) is: Limerick v Offaly; Down v Leitrim; Laois v Kildare; Longford v Tyrone; Armagh v Wicklow; Meath v Galway; Antrim v Carlow; London v Waterford. Games to be played on Saturday, July 9.
CORK SQUEEZE BY OFFALY
CORK only just made it through to the next round of the All-Ireland Hurling qualifiers after beating Offaly by 2-17 to 2-16 at Pairc Ui Chaoimh. Normally, Cork would have been expected to win much easier but they had midfielder Pat Cronin sent off after 20 minutes.
Consequently, Offaly were provided with a real chance of an upset. The closest they got was when Shane Dooley's last minute "65" found the net to narrow the deficit to just a point. But Cork held on for victory as the referee played only a minute of injury-time.
"How he added just one minute is beyond me." snapped Offaly boss Joe Dooley.
"Sure you get a minute for picking you nose these days. Another 20 seconds and we'd probably have got a draw."
Once again, Patrick Horgan was the key figure for Cork, contributing 0-10, five from frees.