Like water running downhill, Dubs prove they’ll get around anything

MIKE QUIRKE: Like water running downhill, Dubs prove they’ll get around anything
Kerry supporters Pat, aged 10 and Kate Costello, aged 11, from Killorglin, with Dublin players, from left, Brian Howard, Cian O’Sullivan, and Rob McDaid on a visit by the All-Ireland SFC champions to Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital, Crumlin. Picture: David Fitzgerald.

It’s hard to beat Croke Park when it's packed to the rafters and bursting at the seams with colour, noise, and hope. It can be the most intoxicating place in the country one moment and the most cruel hellhole only a short time later.

The great fear from a Kerry perspective leaving the drawn match was that they were after leaving a great opportunity behind them, and could the stars align in the same way again?

When you factor in Jonny Cooper’s sending-off, and the fact that so many of Dublin’s top players didn’t perform anywhere close to their optimal, in the drawn game, undoubtedly Kerry left that one after them with their inability to create a few scores in the final 10 minutes.

But Dublin hadn’t won four All-Irelands in a row to that point without deep reserves of character and resilience.

The players that underperformed were always going to bounce back — the great ones never do back-to-back sub-par performances.

Ciarán Kilkenny was a case in point. He could easily have been replaced in the first game, given his ineffectiveness against the unwavering Gavin Crowley, but the Castleknock man responded with a man-of-the-match performance and four points from play in the replay that saw Crowley switched off him after about 20 minutes. The psychology of sport can be funny like that.

Kerry clearly approached the opening half with a gameplan to test out Dublin around the square with high ball early on. We saw a number of floated diagonals towards one-on-one match-ups, but crucially, the Dublin defence coped with each attempt without much fuss and it took the early sting out of the Kerry attack.

Mike Quirke's replay podcast: Dubs add personality to history. A new failing hurts Kerry

At the same time, Kilkenny, Paul Mannion, and Con O’Callaghan were looking much sharper with ball in hand and raced into an early lead. It wasn’t until Kerry changed tack and started to carry ball more than launch it, that they really started to punch holes in the Dublin rearguard.

Some of the score-taking from play from both sides in that opening period was of a ridiculously high standard — players taking the ball on the loop, working a yard of space for themselves off a screen and finishing off left or right with ease. It was peak football.

Unfortunately for Kerry, they were unable to sustain that level of play in the second half, and their attacking efficiency fell off a cliff from 78% in the first half to just 27% in the second. That saw them outscored 1-8 to 0-5 in the second period.

Dublin did what they’ve done so many times in the past, they think on their feet and win the game whatever way they have to. If you want to press up on their kick-outs, no problem. If they have a man sent off, no bother, they’ll play for 40 minutes with 14 and still be the team pushing for the win at the death. Jack McCaffrey hamstring injury at half-time? Sure, why not? All of their blue-chip calibre forwards fail to perform… it’s grand, sure Deano will bail us out.

My point is, they are incredibly resourceful when it comes to dealing with perceived adversity. Nothing is game-defining for them, not a sending-off, not a crucial momentum stealing goal, nothing. They’re like water running downhill, no matter what impediment you put in front of them, they always find a way around it.

That ingenuity was probably the reason Kerry decided to largely abandon their zone kick-out strategy, fearing the Dubs, and particularly Stephen Cluxton, may have found the antidote and expose them in the way they did for the Jack McCaffrey goal in game one.

You can have all the tactical master plans in the world, oftentimes big contests can turn on key moments during games. Momentum is such a huge part of competitive sport, and a huge score or save can define the shape of game.

When Stephen O’Brien bounced off a couple of tackles and was bearing down on the Dublin goal in the final quarter with a chance to level the game, Jonny Cooper edged across towards him but didn’t over-commit to the ball to give O’Brien an easy decision to make.

The Kerry attacker was left with little choice but to take on the shot. Cluxton quickly closed down the space, stood up tall and made a crucial if unspectacular save. That’s what the best ones are capable of, making a game-defining play look almost rudimentary.

At that point, a goal for Kerry would have been worth far more than the three points it would have contributed to the scoreboard. Think of the surge of energy and belief they would have garnered from it.

The difference between the ball hitting the back of the net and Cluxton batting it away is immeasurable and had such a huge impact in the flow and direction of the final moments.

Great players make big plays in the biggest of moments and the Dublin captain again showed why he is long regarded as the best in the business, not only because of that timely intervention, but also dealing with any high ball sent his way early on, as well as his usual assuredness with his kick-outs.

Kerry have played 16 games this season and have lost on only three occasions. Mayo bested them twice during the league, once in the final, and Dublin ultimately got the better of them last Saturday evening.

Playing in three national finals in the same season is a huge amount of experience gained for a relatively youthful side with a new management team.

The challenge for them moving forward will be to try to harness that learning and use it to close the gap even further in 2020.

For Dublin, they are what we thought they were.

They may lose some of their most experienced servants but unfortunately for the chasing pack, none of them had much of an impact on this All-Ireland victory.

Bernard Brogan has been one of the greatest forwards to ever play the game and has been a central hub of their success of this decade.

He saw no game time. Paul Flynn exited after the national league and Eoghan O’Gara hasn’t been making the matchday 26 for much of the championship.

Philly McMahon, Cian O’Sullivan, Kevin McManaman, and Diarmuid Connolly all played, and while they have moved into the autumn of their illustrious careers, I’m sure there won’t be many of them voluntarily choosing to walk away from the fantastic situation that Dublin have going on.

Stephen Cluxton is the only one of that brigade that is a potential game-changer should he depart the scene, but given the way he’s playing, there’s no reason why he wouldn’t keep Evan Comerford as his reliable understudy for another few years.

Kerry and Dublin showed the way Gaelic football can be played when you have two relatively evenly matched teams who approach the game with an attacking mentality.

There was an abundance of quality on show and the challenge for every coach in every club and county in Ireland is to take what you can from those games and aspire to have your team playing, if not as well as them, at least in their image.

Because what we saw over the draw and replay was the very best Gaelic football has to offer and both squads and managements deserve immense credit for doing justice to the game.

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