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Darby goal the Everest of TV age

by Sunday Independent was published in the Sunday Independent on Sunday the 15th of May 2005

AND still I wonder, said Michael O'Hehir, is there a goal in this game?

O'Hehir posed that question more than once throughout the afternoon. He could feel something coming. Maybe there was a storm looming in the air that day in September 1982. And maybe he could feel it rolling in from afar, the atmosphere heavy with the sense of impending thunder.

"And there's a free for the Offaly men with two minutes left in the game."

This was an experienced, battle-hardened Offaly team. They weren't going to panic, they were too long on the road for that. So Seán Lowry puts the ball on the ground and instead of taking the free himself he wanders off, leaving it for the next man. No hurry, it's only the All-Ireland final.

"And it looks as if they were winning, the way the Offaly men are just diddling and dawdling there."

The punters decided otherwise last night week, on RTE's Top 20 GAA Moments show, but Séamus Darby's goal remains the Everest, the seismic happening, the Big Bang of the GAA's television age.

But the text generation voted Michael Donnellan top of the poll with Maurice Fitzgerald second and Darby third.

Not that it matters, really, it's only TV after all, and while the players get to make the history, everyone else only gets to play around with it.

But sometimes it's good fun playing around with it - occasionally it can even be instructive. We had forgotten, for example, just how special was Jack O'Shea's goal in the '81 final: all we'd remembered was the crashing finish, not knowing the move had started back on Kerry's own endline. A goal for the ages, by the best Gaelic footballer of our lifetime (so far).

And sometimes it can be misleading. Barney Rock, for one, deserves to be remembered for more than kicking a ball into an empty net against Cork in '87. A farcical moment which, farcically, ended up on this list.

Judged on their intrinsic merit alone, some of the chosen moments would not have made the grade. Other criteria applied: a nod to history, a hint of tokenism, a balancing of the books in some way. Ten RTE judges selected the 20 moments. No criteria could justify the inclusion of Offaly's sitdown protest in '98. Ridiculous.

We discover, only 23 years later, that Connor's diagonal punt was more than a hit-and-hope affair

And if they felt that Peter Canavan had to be included somewhere, his 'return' to the action late in the 2003 final could hardly have been a worse choice. The best forward of our lifetime (so far) reinventing himself as a fouling defender was one of the more depressing moments of modern times.

Still, the concept was good even if there could have been a bit more discernment in the execution. And the live show was alright on the night too, with a few feisty contributions from the floor - and a few blasts from the archives that still bear repeated viewing.

"And here they come, this is Liam Connor the full back." The short free and Connor, all hands to the pump now, joins the attack. The ball is popped to him on the burst and we discover, only 23 years later, that Connor's diagonal punt was more than a hit-and-hope affair. He hooked it carefully, right to left, judging height and distance pretty much to perfection. And then O'Hehir's immortal words. "A high, lobbing, dropping ball, in towards the goalmouth."

John Fenton's brilliant but invisible goal against Limerick in '87 came fourth in the poll, Davy Fitzgerald's penalty in '95 fifth and in sixth, DJ Carey's piece of performance art against Clare in 2002.

But Maurice Fitzgerald's last-second score from the sideline a year before represents some sort of apex in Gaelic football, the point where complete technical virtuosity merged with total self-belief to produce, from a local sport, a truly world class moment.

Some 73,000 votes were cast last Saturday night. In the end it was probably the sheer charisma of Michael Donnellan's moment that won it for him. He didn't gallop seventy, eighty yards up the middle of Croke Park that day in '98: it was more like he flowed. Not so much a demonstration of athletic power as athletic grace - fluent and easy and devastatingly fast.

The thing is, he didn't finish the move himself, he offloaded the ball, and in that moment the magic vanished. But while it lasted people were transported by it - and have been since. Maybe because it was one of those rare moments when a sportsman offers us a glimpse of the freedom we yearn for and can never achieve: freedom from fear, from convention, from the physical limitations we cannot escape but which Donnellan, for a fragment of time, could. Field sports generally don't permit such flights of fantasy but this was a young man's act of abandon and on that day he entered the public imagination for good.

Just as Eddie Keher and Jimmy Barry Murphy did before him, and all the others that went before them, each adding his piece in his time to the tapestry of days and games and heroes that is woven indelibly into Irish life and the national memory.

The high, lobbing, dropping ball. A pair of orange gloves reaches up and pulls it down. The player turns and then instinct takes over.

Everyone liked to imitate O'Hehir in his heyday. So, altogether now: "A shot - a goal, a goal, a goal for Offaly! There was a goal in the game. A goal, oh what a goal. And Offaly lead in the dying moments."

As the man said, there was a goal in this game.

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