We are now getting to the stage of the championship where a moment of pure brilliance from an individual can make the difference in a team getting over the line. A moment from an individual that inspires his team-mates, a moment that sparks life into the crowd, those jaw-dropping moments that you say that in itself was worth the admission fee.
Daniel Flynn’s point from under the Hogan Stand last Sunday brought to mind these momentous interventions. Okay, it came in the first half of Sunday’s Leinster final and his team lost but it would have been a score fitting of beating Dublin never mind winning a provincial title. What I’m thinking about specifically is scores like Seamus Darby’s goal that prevented Kerry from winning five-in-a-row. Maurice Fitzgerald’s sideline kick with the outside of his boot against Dublin in 2001 that only a player of his ability could attempt. Pádraic Joyce’s overall performance in the 2001 All-Ireland final when he was being marked by the greatest full-back of his generation in Darren Fay. Oisín McConville’s goal in the second half of the 2002 All Ireland final. The character he showed by stepping up to the plate after missing a first-half penalty.
These moments will all live long in the GAA annals but none of them feature in my top five inspirational performances or acts that shook the GAA world and ultimately saw their team over the line. When you talk about dealing with pressure situations and doing it when it matters most I can’t think of a quintet better than the following:
1. Michael Donnellan’s solo run from the heart of the Galway defence in the 1998 All-Ireland final against Kildare was the best example of defence to attack in a matter of seconds. The blistering pace at which he took off at is something that young players could learn a lot from. His pass to Kevin Walsh was measured but it was his determination to continue his run and drive at Kildare when Walsh completed the one-two that was so awesome. His decision-making in the final third was sublime: he could have easily gone for a shot himself but instead found Derek Savage on the loop who then passed the ball wide for Seán Óg de Paor to kick a mighty point into the Hill 16 end. This was a score that epitomised teamwork in its truest form.
2. Conor Gormley’s block. Well, I couldn’t leave it out now, could I? In the dying minutes of the 2003 All Ireland final, his sheer defiance to stop my goal shot was an example to all. He well and truly put his body on the line. While we were losing by a few points at this stage, momentum was starting to swing our way and from a high ball into the Tyrone 21 metre line, I broke it down to Tony McEntee and turned sharply. He then released me in on a one v one situation when out of nowhere came “The Block” Gormley and a full-length dive at my feet prevented me from getting a shot in on goal. If Gormley was my team-mate, this is exactly what I would have wanted him to do so for that I applaud what he done for his team.
3. Owen Mulligan’s solo effort goal against Dublin in 2005 is in no doubt the greatest goal ever scored in Croke Park and quite possibly the greatest goal of all time. I was at the match and by Owen’s own admission he was having a nightmare. He had to produce something fast and boy did he do it. To have the confidence when all was going against you, to take a man on, solo with your left foot, sell dummies like they were going out of fashion and to riffle the ball past none other than Stephen Cluxton takes courage. I firmly believe this piece of individual brilliance inspired Tyrone towards their second All-Ireland title.
4. The most inspirational point that I ever witnessed in Croke Park was scored by Brian Dooher in the All-Ireland final of 2008. Out of nothing, he carried the ball from his own 65-metre line up along the Cusack stand sideline, taking on the Ó Sés and Killian Young with heart and desire. Not ever known for his out-and-out scoring ability, this point really took the biscuit. In a pulsating match and under extreme pressure, to produce a point that was kicked with total conviction with the outside of his right boot can only be admired. He was the team captain and this was his defining moment in a Tyrone shirt.
5. Dublin have become the benchmark for all teams of this decade but the breakthrough might not have been as soon if Stephen Cluxton did not stride towards the hill as cool as a cucumber to strike the winning free over the bar in the 2011 All Ireland Final against Kerry. Have we ever seen a free as intense as this? Yet it did not even knock a fidge out of the player striking the ball. His routine was so calm and it looked as if he was just stepping up to take a kick-out. If there was any nervous tension in him while he jogged up the Croke Park pitch, he sure as hell did not show it.
Over the next eight weeks, I hope to witness many more moments of brilliance. I expect we will too. It’s usually not thought out – it just happens – but to make it happen you have to train yourself to be ready. Stand up and be counted. Make a name for yourself.