Maybe more than a Kerry victory to save the game from the evil empire, maybe more than a phenomenal Dublin team winning a historic five in a row, Gaelic football needed a game to remember.
Somethings are bigger than ultimate victory; and this game with its endless ebbs and flows had enough to remind us all that, regardless of the consistent diagnosis of a sport in terminal decline, when two teams are prepared to die with their boots on, it is a beautiful and brutal game.
Fear of making history — Pat Spillane told the viewers at home — was the thing he felt subsumed his Kerry team that fateful day in 1982, when, with 20 minutes to go they were four points up and staring down the barrel of immortality.
It seemed perhaps an overly harsh assessment for a team that were caught by a brilliant goal by a brilliant Offaly team, but nevertheless, his words hung in the RTÉ studio for a second, before all of us remembered this was a final Kerry had little hope to win, and fear was unlikely to paralyze this Dublin team who had long ago proved to have the insecurity of the original Terminator.
The optics of both teams in the warm-up did little to dispel the skepticism of the impartial observer. Dublin just looked themselves.
— The Sunday Game (@TheSundayGame) September 1, 2019
Kerry looked barely older than the victorious Cork minor team that had just departed the hallowed turf.
Maurice Fitz looked like the only guy on the field who was old enough to start. Their natural ability has not been in question all season long, however, you feared for them when you considered their opposition.
The vintage maxim “you can’t win anything with kids” has been made look stupid an occasions since Alan Hansen uttered it on Match of the Day in 1995, but, considering Kerry’s all-conquering opposition yesterday, you felt it would be coldly apt.
Retrospect is a powerful thing, but watching David Clifford chew his gum like he was a teenage skateboarding sensation during the ceremonial shaking of hands, we should have had more faith in these whippersnappers.
He genuinely looked like he was in the schoolyard with his pals drinking cans of Lilt, and could care less about what breed of rottweiler was coming for him.
Dublin make it look so simple as Cluxton's free is caught by Howard and within seconds Jack McCaffrey put the ball in the net.— The Sunday Game (@TheSundayGame) September 1, 2019
To the game then, and Kerry at least gave us hope in the opening exchanges that there would be maybe an hour of entertainment.
Bankruptcy, Hemmingway told us, usually comes in two steps, gradually, then very, very suddenly.
A brave Mayo team had found that out weeks before in a semi-final that had their fans and half the country on their feet at half-time, and sitting with thousand-yard stares four minutes after the restart.
You still feared the same fate for Kerry, who despite some massive performances in that opening half were still being undone by an inferior conversion rate.
Paul Geaney’s missed penalty was an all too familiar totem that, if you come at the King, you better not miss.
Shane Ryan, the Kerry keeper, must have received a prank phonecall the morning of the game threatening him that if he kicked the ball out long his family would be kidnapped, such was his reluctance to do so in that first half, which was surprising given how well Jack Barry was doing in the air.
Conversely, Stephen Cluxton was once again proving different gravy — not just with his penalty stop but his incredible restarts, which were proving the launchpad of almost every productive Dublin attack, not least a brilliant goal by the peerless Jack McCaffrey, one of a few players yesterday who proved the greatest players produce on the greatest days.
On any other occasion, McCaffrey’s breaking of the 100m record sprinting down the tunnel at half time would’ve been the most remarkable act of another mundanely brilliant performance. But, he hit 1-3, from play.
Before, there was little doubt, but yesterday he cemented his place on Mount Rushmore.
Jonny Cooper’s sending off will divide opinion, but the decision of the Dublin sideline to leave him on David Clifford after getting pinged for successive fouls — and on a yellow card — was bizarre.
It was as plain as the class in Clifford’s boots that he would use those ticks against Cooper’s name to his advantage. He did, and it almost won it for them.
The second half was memorable for countless instances of herculean bravery from both sides: Dean Rock kicking countless Dean Rock-type scores, Cluxton’s fingertip save to Paul Murphy’s goal-bound screamer, Sean O’Shea’s sublime kicking display under ridiculous pressure — I mean, sure, we were all told we had it in him, but who has ever given an exhibition as an underdog as pure as he did yesterday.
But there were few moments as totemic to a generational talent as when David Moran, not for the first time, bounced off three tackles, hit the deck winded and breathless, only to rise like a phoenix and somehow summon the otherworldly energy to hit a 60 yard pass of such exquisite beauty, you would stand in the downpours of rain just to look at it.
Tommy Walsh fetched and handed off to Sean O’Shea who pointed to finish a score for the ages.
Moran, though game and brave all through the first half, looked a yard off as his usual ball striking was not its usual flawless self.
His performance in the second half was nothing short of heroic, and befitting of his talent. Those present should be privileged they witnessed it.
Likewise the game itself.
Most analysis will justifiably point to this being Kerry’s opportunity missed. They may be right, but sometimes in sport, it’s best just take a moment, suspend rationale and not process the grandeur just witnessed.
Better just enjoy it for it’s imperfect unpredictability.
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