How far are Kerry, football’s No 1 challenger, behind the undisputed and long unbeaten champions? And beyond the Munster champions, how far back are the pack? Dublin are now 22 competitive games without a loss, 20 of them wins. They are lean and athletic and the only thing outside a laboratory setting Jim Gavin must concern himself with is appetite. There was nothing to indicate complacency is an issue as things stand. “That is not a language we use,” he said last night.
For as long as yesterday’s Allianz League final retained its full complement of players on the pitch, Kerry provided the now four-in- a-row League champions with some worthwhile problems. Kerry’s structure was good and defensively they have developed the football form of rugby’s choke tackle behind the closed gates of wherever was dry enough to train in winter and spring.
Eamonn Fitzmaurice will slice and dice this 2-18 to 0-13 defeat for every sliver of worth, and they know they are a James O’Donoghue return away from a better-optioned attack. But one inescapable fact remains, and becomes more transparent every time they go rutting head with the dynamic Dubs.
Trying to sidestep Father Time is a losing docket all day long. Marc Ó Sé, and Aidan O’Mahony with him, are in it for one last day on the mountain top. Kieran Donaghy and Colm Cooper know too if it’s not done with 20 minutes to go, they might struggle. Bryan Sheehan and Donnchadh Walsh’s birth certs won’t limit them to the same extent, but the long winters and long chases could.
Yesterday was a sobering confirmation for Kerry that they have what they have, and they’re not going to jet-propel the legs of their thirty-somethings in the Algarve or anywhere else before July and August. Paul Mannion and man of the match Ciarán Kilkenny bucked their way through 70 minutes like a Montjeu colt, while Paul Flynn and Diarmuid Connolly hardly broke sweat - for one reason or another. While Dublin options in attack multiply, Kerry could do with some help behind.
So does Fitzmaurice, and any other innovator, realistically have to come up with a reconfigured game-plan, one that does not expose their players to a freewheeling shoot-out that will suit Dublin six days a week and twice on Sundays? Does than mean Kerry throw away the deeds in the safe and go the road of Jimmy McGuinness and that momentous semi-final masterplan of 2014?
Aidan O’Mahony’s 49th-minute red card may be advertised as the tipping point yesterday, but Kerry was already holed below the waterline at that point. For sure, they were only 0-13 to 0-11 behind at the time, but as Dublin opened the throttle, the Kingdom’s forays towards the Davin Stand end of the ground grew sporadic.
Defensively, Kerry’s sextet manfully held their end up, even after O’Mahony’s foray beyond what’s deemed acceptable to the ref and, one would suggest, even his most ardent supporter. If keeper Brendan Kealy didn’t do himself any Championship favours with his errors, neither did the Rathmore man.
Of course, there’s a persuasive case to be made that though Dublin brought away the booty, Kerry learned more from the spring excursion to the capital.
But not every question the afternoon threw up has a readymade answer. Paul Murphy, alongside Donnchadh Walsh and Johnny Buckley, has a persuasive look to it as a modern-day half forward line, but is Murphy needed in the backline when Fitzmaurice is already flush with attacking alternatives and shapes? Whatever configuration Dublin’s opponents come up with this summer, a seventh defender is likely to figure early and often. Perhaps even for Kerry Brian Fenton is looking every bit the formidable talent who captivated neutrals watching last year’s All-Ireland final, and he offers the bonus of manning Kerry’s Donaghy when the latter ventures into hell’s kitchen. If Dublin look remotely vulnerable at the moment - and we are venturing into picking nits at this stage - it’s the full back line but Kerry failed to create a goal chance worthy of the description yesterday.
Two rounds of the Dublin county championship and their tour of Leinster will hardly derail Gavin’s grand plan for the summer. He spoke afterwards about management being on the players’ coattails, fine-tuning, cajoling. At this moment, everybody else is struggling.
“The way we view it is we have a very player-centric approach. It’s my job and the management’s to empower players and facilitate their intentions. They’re a very focused group of men and they take great stock and pride in representing Dublin and the clubs and communities they come from. They’s leading this drive and it’s a privilege to be with them. But we’ve got big challenges ahead."
Fitzmaurice admires the manner in which Gavin "flies under the radar"; and while he will never be characterised as colourful, the Dublin manager has put a pretty bullet-proof structure and "process", to use one of his managerisms, in place in the capital.
“They’re a serious outfit,” agreed Fitzmaurice, “but Jim’s obviously brilliant at his job because for him to be able to keep the levels of hunger he has in a group that has been so successful over the last couple of years, it’s remarkable. There is a gap there, evidently, but I don’t think it’s a huge gap. But to beat Dublin you have to be on top of your game.”
From first to last too. Kerry trailed 0-10 to 0-8 at the break and waited until the half hour mark to shunt Donaghy into the edge of the square. Referee Eddie Kinsella had a fine game, but his umpires seemed to have their hands in cement when it came to what we’ll call the Aidan O’Shea syndrome - aka Big Fella No Free Thanks.
“It was part of the reason we decided to play him out the field during the League because it frustrates him, it frustrates us looking in at it and never mind when the ball is coming in, before the ball comes in he gets a lot of treatment,” the Kerry manager argued. With a degree of legitimacy. “There was basically rape and pillage going on inside in front of the goals in the second-half and we got nothing. It’s frustrating but it is what it is.”