A tale of two prophecies to begin with. The evening after Jim Gavin’s ratification as Dublin manager in October 2012, I went to Banna beach for a stroll with my wife Tina.
I was in the Kerry job two months at that stage and the planning for the 2013 season was well underway. We both refer to it to this day as the evening I said to her I expected Dublin and Jim Gavin to be our biggest problem over the next couple of seasons. That is one prediction I’d have been delighted to have got wrong.
I had admired Jim’s work and manner with the Under 21s from a distance and I knew they had some top-class players coming through to augment the All-Ireland winning group from 2011.
Three years previously I was on the sideline as a selector with Jack O’Connor for the All Ireland quarter-final in 2009, Kerry’s last championship victory against Dublin. He turned to me at one stage during the second half as we witnessed Kerry deliver close to a perfect display and said: ‘Enjoy this Fitz, it doesn’t happen too often’.
What Dublin have achieved in the last decade is phenomenal and they deserve all the plaudits that come their way. They are an outstanding squad, led and guided by outstanding people.
The scary thing for the rest of us is they aren’t finished. They tightened up uncharacteristically in the drawn game as history beckoned but now that they have galloped into the record books they will be even more of a threat next year. It is up to Kerry and the rest to improve sufficiently to go and take Sam Maguire off them
Dublin’s body language from the off on Saturday was of a group that meant business. It was clear they were disappointed with their performance first day out. Their accuracy and physicality were significantly up on the drawn game.
James McCarthy was like a wrecking ball as he bashed into Kerry players on and off the ball and this was happening all over the pitch.
They raced out of the blocks and Kerry’s early flirtation with an aerial assault suited Dublin. The decision to adopt this long ball strategy from Kerry probably came from the success they’d got from that approach in the league game when a high ball in was broken down by Diarmuid O’Connor and Stephen O’Brien goaled.
This time around it was blue jerseys that were gathering all the breaks as Dublin had either Jonny Cooper or Eoin Murchan sweeping and having secured possession they counter-attacked at pace. When Kerry started running the ball in swift counter-attacks it worked a treat and they hauled themselves back into the game.
The accuracy from both teams during a first-half that flew by was astonishing.
I thought it was interesting also the way Dublin players, again and again, ran forward bringing their Kerry markers with them, often on dummy runs.
James McCarthy took David Moran on a few spins and Cooper or Murchan raced forward forcing Seán O’Shea to track them. Moran and O’Shea were Kerry’s key men first day out and it was no coincidence that Dublin targeted the pair in an attempt to burn them out chasing and restrict their influence on the game.
While we are on the subject of fatigue, Kerry’s fluid counter-attacking game is, physically, hugely demanding. They work back together in numbers and then counter-attack at pace when they force turnovers. Think of the lightning counter for Tadhg Morley’s goal chance when he was fouled.
It is very hard to sustain this level of up and down the pitch for 80 minutes though. In both finals, Kerry didn’t score for the last 12 minutes.
Late on, in possession, it was harder to get bodies up the field to support attacks and without the ball, Dublin made sure to work them hard by moving them around the pitch with some keep ball that eventually opening up high percentage scoring chances for their finishers.
It’s something I’m sure Peter Keane and his management will look at for next season. Dublin probably do it best with the way they mix attacking set plays from kickouts, rapid counter-attacks from turnovers and with periods of possession when they calm everything down, work a score while recovering physically in possession.
As captain of Manchester United, Roy Keane embodied Alex Ferguson on the pitch and in the dressing room. Despite their ongoing spat, they shared a vision of the game.
Similarly, Stephen Cluxton and Jim Gavin share a vision and appreciation of standards.
This is powerful in a team dynamic, a strong player leading by example with his own performances and demanding the same from his team-mates. It is what every manager dreams of. The less the manager has to go after his team the better. It is far more powerful coming from a team-mate.
Declan O Sullivan was that presence for me in 2014.
I was interested to hear after the game Gavin describe how Cluxton had worked obsessively on his positioning because he wasn’t happy with his positioning or footwork for Killian Spillane’s goal in the drawn game, having analysed it forensically on video.
I smile to myself when I hear former greats speak of how technical the game is gone and why can’t teams just go out and play anymore. Why is there so much thought and video etc put into it? This is why. The best keep getting better and if you don’t improve, the gap is only going to get bigger.
For Kerry and Peter Keane, it has been a good season. Losing two national finals is going to really sting and hurt long into the wintertime but progress has been made. So many players have been exposed to a huge amount of high-level football that their development has been accelerated. Keane will know now what he needs to do, both from a playing personnel and gameplan point of view.
He will also know Kerry need to score more goals. Right back to the first championship game in Ennis, the pattern of chances being created but not converted has been evident. He will look to tighten up further at the back and develop a few more specialist man-markers.
He will want continue to improve his midfield options to provide more support for David Moran. The Keane project is up and running though and Kerry are in a great position going into next year. Does this mean they will win the All Ireland in 2020? If only it were so simple.
Comparing teams from different eras is always a tricky business.
The debate about the greatest team of all time for some reason (probably the Golden Years video) has been narrowed by almost everyone to Mick O’Dwyer’s Kerry and Jim Gavin’s Dublin.
I always felt the original Kerry four-in-a-row team from 1929-1932 should form part of any debate.
I felt the context of that team was remarkable bearing in mind that they were built around protagonists such as John Joe Sheehy and Con Brosnan, who had been on opposite sides in a viciously bitter civil war in Kerry.
They went 34 games unbeaten between league and championship, a record they held until Gavin’s Dublin overtook them during the 2017 league.
Up until Saturday evening, we in Kerry could argue the toss with either of those great Kerry teams but now we have to be gracious enough to concede that this Dublin team is the greatest gaelic football team of all time.
I certainly have massive respect and admiration for what they have achieved.