The penalty didn’t change the game. Stephen Cluxton changed the game. With 17 minutes gone, he had a kickout and had a quick and easy option to go short and wide.
He chose not to. Instead, he fired a ball diagonally, right across to the Cusack Stand sideline. There did not appear to be a Dublin player there.
In fact, there wasn’t. And then there was.
It was Jack McCaffrey and if Cluxton had sent out a team of waiters with the ball placed on a silver tray, they couldn’t have set it up more expertly.
McCaffrey made the ball just outside the Tyrone cover. He was away and free and his momentum took him inside the Tyrone 45m line.
He slipped a pass to Ciarán Kilkenny who shot a fine point. Dublin were rolling again. On the next play, Tyrone imploded from a kickout and a penalty was won. And that was that. In short, Cluxton changed the game. Again.
Tyrone were only average
The championship was a poor one, but the final was interesting. For all that, Tyrone started fairly well, there was never the sense that they might win. And they were very fortunate to be within six points of Dublin at the end.
The changes made before the throw-in were odd.
Two of Tyrone’s best players were also changed to positions where they didn’t work: Peter Harte at full-forward and Mattie Donnelly at centre-back just didn’t do it.
Taking Richie Donnelly out of the full forward line was a strange move. He offers a physical presence that might just have unsettled the Dubs.
The placing of Conor Meyler — just back from injury — on Brian Fenton seemed a huge ask and it quickly became clear that th
is was not going to work, despite the Tyrone man’s efforts at disruption on and off the ball. And the fact that Ciarán Kilkenny was being marked by Tiernan McCann is inexplicable. McCann is brilliant on the ball, brilliant going forward, a powerful, clever, decisive attacking player. Most of all, he is a very fine footballer — that is his strength. But as a man-marking defender, he would not be anywhere close to the top of the list.
The strength of McCann and Donnelly and Meyler and Harte is moving with the ball at pace through the middle, running angles and supporting and going at teams. Tyrone more or less took that strength away from themselves. Even still, it should be acknowledged that that strength was hardly going to be enough.
All the talk beforehand was that Mickey Harte would have a plan. The supposed evidence for that was that he had forged successful plans in 2003, 2005, and 2008. This was wishful thinking. At the end of the day, the players he had at his disposal back in the last decade were just better.
There are some very fine players in the current team, but how many of them would really get in the Dublin side? Pádraig Hampsey would, but how many more?
What a difference a year made for Jack McCaffrey. Last year against Mayo he was on the winning team, of course, but had limped off the field with a cruciate injury after five minutes.
So he was obviously delighted to have won a medal back then — but it’s not the same when you don’t play, or play only a little bit. You can talk all you want about it being a squad game and everyone being equal.
That’s maybe the ideal, but the reality of human nature is that everyone wants to play every minute that they can.
All squads have hierarchies and one of those hierarchies revolves around the number of minutes you spend on the pitch. Either ways, Jack McCaffrey’s return is a thing to celebrate for anyone who loves football. He plays with a spirit and a mindset that is thrilling to watch.
He is a driven competitor and does everything he can to win, but he is unafraid to smile and always says something interesting when he is interviewed. Basically, he is not constrained by fear in what he does in and around football.
He is also a reminder that all the nonsense that some people spout about Dublin football and how pampered the players are and how most of them ‘don’t even work’ is totally wide of the mark. He has a life and he enjoys it and lives it and he works exceptionally hard.
And he has also blown away any notion that he cannot defend. In fact, he went about that aspect of the game with an obvious relish.
Plenty of people have suffered from the dominance of Dublin in All-Ireland finals. Tyrone people are just the latest.
Allowing for the fact that Mayo have had their dreams shattered across the last few years, the hurt in Kerry is of a deeper order.
This lies at the heart of the outrageous attacks on Éamonn Fitzmaurice and it seeps into the conversation on almost every occasion you talk football to a Kerry person. It is true that every county produces a fair share of fools, but if you can avoid the ones that Kerry produces, you find a genuine respect and admiration for what Dublin are doing and how they are playing.
The flip side of that coin is a rank desperation to beat them. It was a desperation that revealed itself most obviously when the Munster final defeat of Cork was deemed to be of such importance.
There’s great fun to be had at the moment when you drop the prospect of a Dublin five-in a row into the conversation with a Kerry football person.
There is almost always a visceral physical reaction — everything tightens, the head and the shoulders shift and twitch, a rawness becomes visible.
And the pressure that is on Kerry players to deny the five in a row next year is only going to grow more and more intense. Given their forwards and the broader skill level of their players, it is Kerry who seem best placed to challenge Dublin. It takes time to balance a team, though, and — as well as sorting out a defence — Kerry need a balance in attack which sees Paul Geaney and David Clifford shine, rather than one or the other.
And who will do that? Nobody really knows the answer to that — it’s all, to a greater or less extent, a bit of a guess.
Although, with the benefit of hindsight, there will be any number of people who will tell you this time next year, that they knew well it would/would not work (delete as appropriate in September 2019).
The End of Empire
All Empires come to an end. There is no Empire in history that has not, or will not, pass.
From the Romans to the Ottomans to the English, the sheer scale of their power and prestige left it impossible to imagine that their Empire would fall away to dust. But all fell into decline and came to an end.
The same will happen to Dublin. It is true Dublin has advantages of population and commerce that are real and undeniable.
But Dublin also faces challenges of a scale unknown in other parts of the GAA. For example, there are plenty of Dublin clubs who do not have a ground of their own on which to play. And the cost of land in the city means that the purchase and development of such grounds is not a possibility.
But the story of the last decade and more is the story of Dublin doing enough things right to ensure it can harness the advantages of being based in a thriving city.
This essentially explains why Dublin is dominant now in a way that it has not been for 100 years.
But the might of the current team will pass. It is true that the team’s midfielders and forwards have been renewed with enormous success.
But — allowing for the arrival of Eoin Murchan — the defence now needs an influx of fresh blood. Cian O’Sullivan has been magnificent for Dublin, central to all their All-Irelands since 2011, but will his body hold out for much longer?
In general the defence is ageing. It is not that these players will lack for desire or for fitness, but the realities of getting older on the field are most often manifest in injuries that appear when intensity is at its highest.
The possible fallibility under the high ball is not going to be enough to undo Dublin on its own, but mixed in with a relentless, suffocating pressure, the Dublin defence might ultimately creak enough to break.
As it is, Dublin do give up a lot of chances already.
It will happen that time will end this run and Brian Fenton will lose a match and then he will lose more matches.
All empires end and this one will too. And the end can come to empire exactly when it is least expected.
History and Inevitability
In the days and weeks after Kerry won the 1981 All-Ireland football final, the idea of the inevitability of the five in-a row was commonplace. Kerry defeated Offaly by seven points and it was widely considered that no team could or would touch them.
There is no need to rehearse here what happened next – but it is a reminder that there is nothing inevitable in history.