You don’t have to be an anti-Dub to have left Croke Park on Saturday evening feeling utterly deflated at what you had just witnessed. This was the showdown we were waiting for with Mayo providing the litmus test for Jim Gavin’s charges.
This was the team who had been the most competitive against Dublin in the past decade and they were the side coming off a run of games, battle-hardened, tested, confident.
Throughout the first half, there were few points that would have helped you identify which of the sides were chasing five senior All-Ireland titles in a row from the one which is still searching for a first in the modern era.
Mayo were the early aggressors; they were winning all the key battles against their marquee opponents, throwing themselves into harm’s way as though trying to protect their family from a late-night intruder.
Paddy Durcan was the first man we’ve seen to put a harness on the flying Jack McCaffrey. Brian Fenton was being banged around by a plethora of different bodies in the midfield pinball machine. Con O’Callaghan, Ciaran Kilkenny, Paul Mannion, and Dean Rock were all largely marked absent in an opening half of hard-nosed defending from the Mayo men.
At half-time, everybody outside of Dublin had what they wanted... hope.
The country boys from the west were leading the aristocrats of the game by two points. Was the upset really on? Did Mayo have a realistic chance of getting it done? A Mayo victory would give some boost to Kerry and Tyrone playing the following day to know the dragon had been slayed. But hope is such a powerful and yet fleeting emotion.
Within 12 minutes of the restart, the Dubs brought everybody back down to earth with an almighty thud and reduced the atmosphere of Croke Park to that of people leaving a funeral home after shaking hands and sympathising for the passing of Mayo football.
It really had that feeling when people were walking out of the ground. Heads bowed, respectful but a little shook at what we had just seen. If Mayo were to be Dublin’s closest challengers, what hope have the others?
I wrote last week about how Jim Gavin might only be using Diarmuid Connolly as a sideshow to distract people’s attention and focus from their seemingly unstoppable drive for five.
But with his side struggling to find their rhythm on Saturday evening, he displayed his ability to refocus and re-energise his troops to come out and deliver a masterclass in the second half.
It would have been interesting to be a fly on the wall in the dressing room at half-time.
It certainly wouldn’t have been a time for any roaring or tea cup smashing as they were only two points down after a no show opening 35 minutes.
But whatever Jim and his coaching crew highlighted during the break, they couldn’t have hoped for a more impactful response from their players.
It was a similar story the following day as we watched Tyrone exert a tight defensive grip over the young Kerry attack and saw them jog in under the Hogan Stand leading their opponents by four points.
Over the course of the next 41 minutes of action, Kerry wrestled back momentum and became far more clinical up front.
They had kicked eight wides in the opening half under claustrophobic pressure but their decision-making and shot selection was much improved in the second half.
The seven-point swing that saw them advance to the final with three to spare was as much to do with the impact of their bench as it was Morley, Crowley, Clifford, and the rest. Gavin White and Jack Sherwood, in particular, gave Kerry far more urgency and ball playing in the middle third.
Suddenly, Colm Cavanagh who had been getting a free ride as a sweeper in the first half was exposed as Sherwood got on the world of ball and made great use of it. Then came the biggest game-changer or all. Tommy Walsh who had been a huge contributor through the league hadn’t been much of a factor since the championship began. A brief unspectacular cameo against Clare in the Munster Championship and another appearance against Meath last week were his only outings of the summer.
They possibly feared his wheels weren’t up to the hard ground and big wide-open space of summer football in Croke Park, but he showed in his near 30 minutes that he still has all of the attributes to make him a hugely valuable asset in meaningful games in HQ.
His presence, movement along with his ball-winning inside, coupled with Sherwood’s impact around the middle were two crucial facets of Kerry’s second-half surge and again highlighted the importance of having a strong punch off the bench.
There will be plenty of mull over for the next three weeks; will Stephen O’Brien get one of his black cards rescinded and be available for the final; how will Kerry deal with the likes of Con O’Callaghan and Paul Mannion inside; David Moran versus Brian Fenton; Diarmuid Connolly and Tommy Walsh — who makes the bigger impact off the bench?
Peter Keane and his management team have done an immense job in their first year in the driver’s seat, coming straight from winning three All-Ireland minor titles in a row, they have now guided a relatively inexperienced Kerry senior side to an Allianz League final, a Munster title and now to an All-Ireland final all in year one.
While the impact of the bench was most telling on Sunday, they’ve been brave with some of their calls and those decisions have largely worked out for them. While Killian Spillane wasn’t amazing against Tyrone, the Templenoe attacker came into the side during the Super 8s because of his form in training and has looked at home in the corner ever since.
They shifted Gavin White up to half-forward, inserted Adrian Spillane into midfield and gave plenty of other guys an opportunity to display their wares. All in all, they’ve developed a deep squad of players who believe they may have a realistic opportunity of claiming a spot in the 26 for the big show.
If you asked me on Saturday night after Dublin dismantled Mayo would either Kerry or Tyrone lay a glove on them in the final, I would have told you there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell.
That’s what hope will do to a person, it’s not so much a confidence that Kerry will stop the unstoppable, but after what we saw over the course of the two semi-finals, if the Dubs are to win five in a row, at least they might now be forced to earn it.