IN HIS column in the Irish Examiner on the Monday after the Armagh-Galway All-Ireland quarter-final, Oisín McConville encapsulated how absorbing, intriguing, but draining the match was.
It was more emotional for McConville because his nephew, Rian O’Neill, was playing for Armagh. By the time penalties were looming, McConville was exhausted. “The life had effectively drained out of me,” he wrote.
It was a neat metaphor for the mood around the ground, because it felt like the air had been sucked out of the place. McConville didn’t know what to feel, but everyone just knew that one team was going out of the championship in the worst way.
“I won’t say I really had an opinion on the whole concept beforehand, but I do now,” wrote McConville. “And it’s not contaminated by Armagh losing. Even if we had won, I’d have felt the same way: Penalties just doesn’t feel right.”
Galway manager Pádraic Joyce admitted as much. “It’s no way to lose a match,” he said. “It’s something the GAA need to look at, because we’re not soccer.”
Before Derry’s semi-final with Galway, Derry manager Rory Gallagher weighed in. “Absolutely ludicrous, farcical, unfair,” he said.
A championship win from a penalty shootout can leave a bittersweet taste in the mouths of the victors. “I still think it’s an awful way to bloody well end it,” said St Finbarr’s manager Paul O’Keeffe, after his side defeated Castlehaven in a penalty shootout in the Cork senior football semi-final last November. “I still think we should have a mechanism where we finish the game through some kind of play, even if it was another five minutes of extra-time or golden score, or something where, at least, you feel like, ‘OK, they scored more than us, we were beaten’.”
O’Keeffe was better equipped than anyone to make a judgement, because his side had lost the 2020 semi-final replay to Castlehaven via a penalty shootout.
A sizeable number of big club games were decided by penalties at the business end of the local championships over the last two seasons. Yet the real test was always going to come when a big inter-county game went to penalties.
It happened in the football championship for the first time back in late April, when Limerick defeated Clare on penalties in the Munster quarter-final in Ennis. But a marquee All-Ireland quarter-final in a packed Croke Park, live on television, was always going to be a more accurate barometer of the attitude towards penalties.
There is never an easy way to lose a game. A player could miss a free or a penalty with the last puck or kick and suffer even more pain than in a penalty shootout, because it was all on him.
Twenty years ago, in an All-Ireland semi-final against Armagh, Dublin’s Ray Cosgrove hit the post with a close-in free and failed to equalise with the last kick.
Cosgrove was outstanding that season for Dublin. He was an excellent player, but that miss will be indelibly linked to his Dublin career.
Adjusting to the culture change is difficult. Joyce said that Galway had been practising penalties. Replicating match-day pressure is impossible, but players can work on technique and routine as a safeguarding mechanism, if they are forced to step up in a shootout.
Yet, where do you draw the line? The brilliant Clare-Tipperary Munster minor hurling final in May was decided on penalties. Similar to the Armagh-Galway game, the atmosphere was strange. The game was live on television. Clare missed their three penalties.
“I’m nearly glad all three were missed,” tweeted Anthony Daly. “We won’t let seniors play U20 and we put 16-year-olds through that. All wrong.”
U17s should be exempt from such pressure, but what’s the alternative? Do they play an additional period of extra-time or a ‘golden score’? Or should that extend to all championship games?
The golden goal or golden point is a rule used in baseball, lacrosse, field hockey, and ice hockey, where the team that scores that goal or point during extra-time is the winner.
In soccer, the golden goal came to prominence in European and world football between 1996 and 2004. UEFA introduced the ‘silver goal’ to decide a competitive match for the 2002-03 season, where the team leading after the first half of extra-time would win.
The golden and silver goal were removed from the Laws of the Game after Euro 2004, but the golden-goal rule is still utilised in NCAA soccer championship tournaments in the US.
It has been introduced into the GAA: For the first time, during the Connacht FBD League in January, the winner was set to be decided by a ‘golden score’ if the teams finished level at the end of normal time.
The concept may work well in football, but it’s hard to see it ever being applied in hurling, when a point could be scored just seconds after extra-time begins.
On the other hand, that could be counterbalanced by a tweak of the ‘silver goal’ principle; whichever team is ahead at half-time in a second period of extra-time would win.
Those alternatives are worth looking at, especially when there will be more championship matches next year under the new format, which will mean far less scope again for replays.
For the moment, penalties look here to stay.
But they remain a massive sticking point in the split-season debate.