For every forward in Gaelic football, the lesson in Gaelic football is as clear this season as it is in any other: never stop trying to do the right things. No matter how badly you are playing, the season always turns on a couple of seconds. Anyone who doubts the truth in that should look at the story of Tyrone's Owen Mulligan and Armagh's Steven McDonnell.
For the last two years, McDonnell has been rated – along with The Gooch – as the best forward in Gaelic football. He can win his own ball, he can beat his man, he can kick points off left or right foot, and he is a brilliant goal-scorer. Through the league campaign, McDonnell played well and seemed set to dominate the championship. And then, inexplicably, he went off-key.
It's not that he was in danger of being dropped. Far from it. He was still contributing to the Armagh cause, but his game was dogged by poor mistakes. Straightforward chances were missed; wild choices made under pressure; and in both the drawn and replayed Ulster finals, McDonnell was outplayed by Tyrone's Shane Sweeney.
Then, for the first 20 minutes of the All-Ireland quarter-final against Laois, McDonnell played as poorly as he had ever done in an Armagh jersey. Nothing was happening – and the harder he seemed to try, the worse he got.
And then it all changed. A long ball was flicked by Ronan Clarke into the path of McDonnell who scored a brilliant goal down in front of the Canal End. From then till the end, McDonnell was unplayable – kicking a couple of lovely points, involved in everything good that Armagh did. It was no coincidence that Armagh's best display of the season arrived with McDonnell's rejuvenation.
The story of the return to form of Owen Mulligan is even more striking, amounting almost to a rebirth. Mulligan was an integral part of the Tyrone team that won the All-Ireland in 2003. He was the young tyro on the team – the heir-apparent to Peter Canavan as the finest forward in Tyrone.
And this year – nothing. For much of the season he was playing so badly that he couldn't get a place in the team. When he was introduced, he seemed slow and awkward. Far worse than making mistakes, he was hardly seen in the action at all. Anonymity is the greatest crime for any forward.
And then, with Tyrone struggling badly against Dublin as the All-Ireland quarter-final reached its final quarter, Mulligan beat three defenders and struck a magnificent goal. It was enough to set Tyrone up for a replay and in that replay, Mulligan gave the forward display of the season. Forget the routine finish for the goal. Forget also the couple of frees kicked from the hand. What really impressed were the five points from play. Every one of them, he earned himself – all were kicked under pressure, all were kicked when the game was there to be won.
Why now? What has changed for Mulligan and McDonnell that has delivered their seasons from mediocrity? Not even they will know that. Nothing is more certain than that they both prepared for big games this season as they always have done, both trained with the same commitment, both took an attitude to the field that every day would be their day. And then, they were swallowed by ordinariness.
Confidence matters. So does self-belief. More than anything, though, form is what forwards look for. It's not like the defence where hard work, concentration and utter determination are often enough. Forwards can have all of that and do fine. But to star, you need form. And form seems to come and go at random. It's elusive, inexplicable, perishable.
All forwards dream of form. Form gives you that bit extra, the spark that makes the chances fall your way, the instinct that takes you into unlikely spaces, the freedom that inspires you to try the improbable – and succeed. Form is what lifts you above the ordinary. It doesn't matter who's marking you or what they try to do, you have them for breakfast. The ball finds you and you score. Again and again.
And then, eventually, it leaves you. Look at Stephen O'Neill. A month ago he was the best forward in the country and was being spoken of as the player of the year. Against Dublin he was poor the first day and little better than average in the replay. He'll do well against Armagh, but not as well as he did in the Ulster finals
It will be a rare treat to see both McDonnell and Mulligan in form and on the same field in the semi-finals. With O'Neill and Oisin McConville also on view, the prospects of some outstanding forward display are all the greater. Maybe, for once, the story of Ulster football will be one of glorious attacking football, dashing forward-play, a torrent of scores and a group-hug at the final whistle. Or maybe not.
So who will win? Anybody who offers an overwhelming argument in favour of either team should be disregarded. At this stage, the line between success and failure is utterly blurred. The simple truth is that a powerful argument can be made in favour of either team winning on Sunday.
This has been a season of draws. We note that the bookies have placed odds on the teams finishing level at 13/2. This looks a very appealing prospect. In case readers might think that choosing a draw is some form of fence-sitting, the belief is that victory will ultimately be claimed by Tyrone.
Village (ie Paul Rouse) would like to thank the many readers who have corresponded in recent weeks to offer a critique of our indifferent form in forecasting results. The unflattering comparisons with the former Iraqi information minister, Comical Ali, are rejected out of hand. And, for the most part, the rest of the jibes, the sneering, the harsh, bitter cuts are unworthy of reprint. Our season, too, might turn in a second.
At the same time, it must be admitted that tipping Cork to beat Kerry was an act of some stupidity, a costly rush of blood. Even allowing for the benefit of hindsight it seems ridiculous to have opted for a callow Cork team, with only a laboured win over Galway to their name, to go and beat the All-Ireland champions. Especially when those champions had a bench filled with former and future All-stars.
Kerry were excellent, back to a level reminiscent of their destruction of Mayo in last year's final. They tackled Cork off the field, denied them all avenues of attack, and hit them with quality attacking. It wasn't a mere question of The Gooch and his associates clipping magnificent points – though this did happen. More so, the quality of the passing and the dynamism and intelligence of the movement were far too much for Cork.
Cork have improved dramatically from last year, but they have at least as far to come again if they are to win an All-Ireland. They are obviously better than they managed against Kerry. Several of their younger players were frozen by the occasion, but even their established stars were unseen for most of the afternoon. They were given a tough lesson by Kerry, the kind of lesson Kerry themselves have been taught by the northern teams. Kerry came back stronger – Cork will endeavour to do the same, though without the same talent at their disposal.
Tipping Dublin to beat Tyrone was a different manner. Replays are all about attitude. Do you still want it as badly and have you learned the lessons from the first day? Tyrone could emphatically answer in the positive – Dublin couldn't. It was as if Dublin were somehow satisfied to have proven by their efforts in the drawn game that they were capable of performing with the very best. It is too much to say they settled for the modicum of respectability achieved in the drawn game, but they certainly weren't inspired by that draw to take a step further forwards.
Their first half performance was typical of a team that no longer really believed. Adrenalin allowed them to start with a flourish, but when the game settled and the real questions were asked, the Dubs were found wanting. The truth is that Dublin only played when all the pressure was off in the second half, when the game was as good as gone from them, when they could play like a team with nothing to lose.
When Dublin did finally stir themselves in that second half, scoring five points to leave just a goal between the teams, Croke Park was gripped by a fervour which was sensational. But it was all too late. They had no margin for error left to them. And, against the very best teams, you need to allow for problems in the last quarter of the game.
It does not seem unreasonable to have expected Dublin to have drawn enough momentum from the first match to see them prosper in the second. The failure to do do casts a serious question mark over the squad. This is not to say that their loss was not an honourable one. Far from it. They have moved a long way this summer and deserve the status of the fourth best team in the country. They remain several players short of what is necessary to win an All-Ireland – maybe the Dublin championship will throw up a few prospects. If it is ever played.p