There was a time when the mention of Dublin’s senior footballers in a Kerry pub didn’t compel patrons to drink deep (to paraphrase the Austin Clarke poem). That was when the idea of a Dublin manager extending his record against Kerry to seven wins from eight meetings would have been ridiculed.
With one kick, Stephen Cluxton, in 2011, ended a run of nine championship games in which Dublin failed to better Kerry. Between 2001 and ’09, Dublin faced Kerry 12 times across league and championship, losing 10 and drawing twice.
In his seven seasons with Dublin, Conal Keaney never enjoyed a win over Kerry. He didn’t play when Pat Gilroy’s side eventually broke their losing streak, in Killarney, in 2010. All he had for comfort were the 2006 and ’09 Division 1 draws. Did he ever imagine Dublin would be sallying into Tralee with a 33-game unbeaten run, and with Kerry the underdogs? For so long, Kerry were the kingpins and they would let him and other Dublin players know it.
“There was always a bite in those games, because they certainly didn’t want to lose to Dublin. There were no friends on the field and you’d meet them afterwards and they would be your best friends, real condescending, more than anything, because they were getting the upper hand and felt they were better all the time and results were going that way. There were a couple of years in the bigger games, when they overpowered us, but there were times when we were very close to them. But they had better quality all around the field than we did, at the time. They had serious leaders. We had, maybe, four or five who were leaders, 12 or 13 players of real quality and, after that, we were struggling.”
Keaney wouldn’t offer Kerry advice, but he has some insight into their mindset, having previously been the neck under the boot.
“I don’t know if you’re playing history, but when you’re playing a team so dominant, you felt you had to start well, everything had to go well, and you have to get the luck and the referee’s decision, or else they were going to do what they did all the time to you. You’d know, 15 minutes in, if you had a chance or not, whether you would compete or they would overpower you, pretty much like Dublin are doing now.”
Keaney says Dublin have more class, now that they are the top team, than Kerry had. “Dublin have earned the respect of the Kerry players, and past Kerry players, now. But it probably makes it easier on Kerry, now that Dublin aren’t gloating. There isn’t any of this swagger. There’s no big deal about it. They are going about their business, playing the right brand of football.
“It maybe makes it easier to take, when you’re beaten by the better team and there are no gimmicks involved. This Dublin team, they’re all good men off the field. They’re not looking to make a name for themselves and all very level-headed.”
Gilroy took several measures to limit the individualistic tendencies that damaged Dublin previously and which fed into the stereotype of them prioritising fame over football. Entitlement was eradicated.
One member of the backroom team likes to contrast the difference between Alan Brogan celebrating scoring a goal when Dublin were nine points up on Wexford to his almost emotionless reaction after scoring the clinching point against Kerry in the 2015 All-Ireland final. Gavin then took it to another level, but Keaney admits what’s happening now is in stark contrast to when he joined the panel in 2004.
“When I started first, there was big hype with the championship, and that ‘Dublin Daily’ newspaper, the year before, was blowing everything out of proportion.
“Every single thing was analysed, pretty much like the soccer and, maybe, to a degree, the manager (Tommy Lyons) and the players, at the time, were feeding into that. Because we were being blown up, if we didn’t win it was coming right back at us. The way the players conduct themselves now, the way they speak in interviews and about players in other counties, they have the height of respect for them and that stems from Jim Gavin. You have to respect the county, the game, who you’re playing, and, if you don’t (he says), ‘Well, I get somebody who will’.”
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