Last Sunday’s All-Ireland final was the epitome of edge-of-the-seat viewing. The fact that the build-up was more subdued than normal is likely to have contributed to the surprise element of such heightened tension on the day.
Dublin did well to curb the Drive for Five furore that started on the final whistle of their 2018 triumph against Tyrone, and Kerry’s Peter Keane was the perfect front man for the Kingdom’s run-of-the-mill nonplussed narrative.
Yet, when Pat Spillane began to speak of his experiences as a Kerry player going for the five in a row in 1982, in the RTÉ studios at Croke Park on Sunday, it became apparent very quickly how significant the afternoon ahead was potentially going to be.
Spillane, a genuine legend of the game and, to his credit, the only man on the panel who managed to keep his bias out of the equation for those of us not fortunate enough to be in the stadium in person.
However, his comments and reminiscing spoke of a different time and an altogether different team to the Dublin present in the here and now. He was a central character in arguably the greatest team the game has ever seen. Still to this day, people from all over the country speak about that Kerry team and rightly so. And yet, when he mentioned the fear they felt with 20 minutes to go against Offaly, while being four points ahead, it made you realise the perils that come with rewriting history.
This was the most dominant, all-conquering team of all time, and yet to hear one of their stalwarts speak about fear of winning is where the differences between that great team and this great Dublin team begin. Of course, Dublin would love to be the first team in the history of the GAA to win five in a row, but you get the impression that they do not fear doing it, or more importantly, do not fear not doing it.
In contrast, the current Kerry team, a team in their infancy, may have showed signs of fear of being the team to finally topple Dublin at the most critical stage of their recent dominance, when a win would have robbed Dublin of the very history their own county may feel is a birthright.
The fortnight between the draw and the replay scheduled for Saturday, September 14, will serve both counties equally, and will once again leave Dublin as raging favourites for the win, and an unrivalled place in the history books. Experience affords quality teams and coaches the capacity to learn at a greater rate. It was the main reason Kerry beat Mayo in the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick in 2014 in their All-Ireland semi-final replay.
However, back to the musings of Pat Spillane. He went on to speak about the ‘unknown unknowns’ that can present themselves in games and in finals in particular, and even went so far as to mention a sending-off and some other possible game-changing moments, before suggesting that great teams can overcome these unknown unknowns.
He may have been speaking about his own experiences but it did not come across in a boastful way. Although there must have been many unknown unknowns during his 17-year career in the Kerry jersey, that earned him 12 Munster titles and eight All-Ireland medals.
Again, this Dublin team have no doubt been thrown any number of unknowns over the last five years, but none more affronting than the appropriate sending off of Jonny Cooper for his second yellow card offence on David Clifford towards the end of the first half. And yet Dublin were five points clear 20 minutes into the second half, even after a stronger restart from Kerry to bring them within two points.
But that is what made for such an intriguing match last Sunday. Kerry were always likely to make a game of it because of their tactical awareness of how to make the extra man pay off, but that was always going to be met with Dublin’s game awareness of how to cope with the extra ground to be covered in Cooper’s absence.
Kerry would have won that game against any other team, even with their so-called inexperience at this level. But Dublin were never going to accept defeat. And that is one of the defining characteristics of this Dublin team. They’ve had close shaves in finals and none more so than against Mayo, but even in their one-point victories and in last weekend’s nailbiting draw, they never appeared rattled. There is always a sense that they’re figuring things out, and even had they lost on Sunday, one can’t help thinking it would have been because they just ran out of time, but not ideas. Never.
Finally, Spillane spoke about Dublin’s leadership and unselfishness all over the park and how their players appear to have a sixth sense about where to be, even if it is not part of their predefined role. There was a real feeling that greatness was recognising greatness when he spoke. However, he did say one thing that was wide of the mark and a comment that is best left to those pundits who speak more to hear their own voice than to offer insights to inform those of us who would otherwise not know.
He said that you can’t coach qualities such as leadership and unselfishness, but of course you can. In the same way you can coach spatial awareness, decision-making, tackling and bi-lateral skills and anything else you’d like to throw into the mix — apart from something like height, now that is one thing that you can’t coach.
But none of these Dublin players were natural born leaders or natural born anything, because there is no such thing, there never has been. They are household names because of what they have become, not because of who they’ve always been. They will each have had coaches in their respective practice history profiles who will recall a time when one player or another could not kick-pass and handpass with equal efficiency off both sides, or catch overhead with poise and balance. Such skills are the result of many variables, none of which we were born with.
It would be crying shame if Pat Spillane and other eight-time All-Ireland winning medallists such as Páidí Ó’Sé, Mikey Sheehy, Denis Moran and Ger Power were to dismiss their brilliance as some gift and not recognise the enduring impact of the environment and coaching that moulded them.
And for this Jim Gavin and his backroom team deserve the highest of praise. Their appreciation of the importance of the environment that engages the attention of their players is evident in everything that they do. It may not make for tabloid fodder, but it is a recipe for success.
Soundbites are few and far between and clichés are kept to a minimum, but the one consistent standard that each player has to measure themselves against is the undefinable environment that holds every man to account.