When Diarmuid Connolly sat back into the pocket, setting himself up for power fade with the outside of his right boot, in a similar way to Ronan O’Gara and the Grand Slam drop goal over a decade ago, I thought perhaps the story was written in the stars for the prodigal son to return home with the fattened calf.
Once his effort screwed wide, a Kerry supporter near me stood up and started chanting “USA…USA…USA” at the top of his voice.
It was a bit of a laugh to break the tension-filled final moments of an epic All Ireland, but it was also a timely reminder that this wasn’t the same Dublin that dominated the last decade. Connolly was headed to the States after a year of tipping away with his club, a short time later, he’s the wildcard selection entrusted with giving the Dubs the final push over the top of history.
In truth, it probably highlights one of the major challenges facing Jim Gavin and this great history-chasing side. Father Time remains undefeated.
With stalwarts Paul Flynn, Bernard Brogan and Eoghan O’Gara effectively deemed surplus to requirements this season, factor in the absence of Philly McMahon and Cian O’Sullivan from action on Sunday, and look at the minimal impact made by a less frightening Kevin McManaman off the bench, along with Paddy Small, Cormac Costelloe, Eoin Murchan and the aforementioned Connolly, there isn’t the same degree of dynamic cavalry waiting to be unleashed to close out the game in the final quarter.
Of course, people will say Kerry have missed their chance, that comes with the territory of not being able to seal the deal against a 14-man Dublin for over 40 minutes.
The anti-climactic nature of a final draw leaves everybody in both squads reaching for the positives from the wreckage, as well as pinpointing why exactly things played out the way they did.
There’s no denying Kerry poured every last drop into their performance and while they’ll be disappointed they didn’t take ultimate advantage of their extra man, they will surely look at the scoring opportunities they were able to create and see no reason why with greater efficiency next Saturday week that they won’t add to that final tally.
In truth, Kerry only spluttered and their sloppiness in attack was their ultimate undoing in terms of not getting the result. Crucially though, that is something they control. A defender’s leg, a brilliantly-saved penalty and a ridiculously good stop denied Kerry another three goals along with a series of uncharacteristic misses from the likes of David Clifford et al.
From the green and gold corner, I can’t imagine that once the dust settles it will take them long to rise themselves. The chances that Kerry were missing were of the gilt-edged variety. Bread and butter for forwards of the quality they have in their ranks. And they will know that even when the game was 15 v 15, they were the ones creating the clear chances — but just didn’t execute.
Dublin, to their immense credit, showed the kind of champions they are with their final surge. Despite putting in a herculean type effort to stay ahead in the second half, once Kerry assumed control and took the lead late in the game, the Dubs never panicked.
Picture it; down to 14 men, Kerry with all the momentum and legs feeling like they were carrying lead boots. One point behind, and with all the five-in-a-row hype resting on their shoulders, they still somehow managed to find a way.
Jack McCaffrey was the shining light and a final tally of 1-3 from half-back tells you everything you need to know about his man of the match performance. Kerry tried in vain to stymie his leadership and his relentlessness showed the way for his teammates when more than a few were flagging.
He was the stone in Kerry’s shoe all afternoon and the run he made for his goal was amazing to watch and highlights the appetite and drive he has in his locker.
Once Brian Howard was on his way back to terra firma after securing a highlight reel catch from a Cluxton restart that travelled over the Kerry press, McCaffrey put his head down and look off like a sprinter exploding out of the blocks in the 100m Olympic finals.
The Kerry kick-out press was a high-risk strategy that was bearing fruit in the form of a couple of Jack Barry catches and a general sense of pressure on the Stephen Cluxton and Dublin restarts.
When teams ask those kinds of questions of the Dublin goalkeeper, Brian Fenton or Howard tend to be his preferred targets over the top to an overloaded area where they have more players than the opposition.
In fairness, it was a spectacular leap and fetch by Howard but it was the blistering pace of the Dublin transition from back to front that caught Kerry out.
Both kickouts were fun to watch all day and Dublin managed to put equal pressure on to Shane Ryan. At times the wall of blue jerseys forced him into trying to find very thin slivers of light in between several Dublin players, but while it creaked over the 80 odd minutes, it never quite cracked.
It will be fascinating to see what adjustments are made on the kickouts by both teams heading into the replay.
The opposition kickout remain the most effective attacking platform available to either side, so the battle to maximise possessions of the tee will be crucial, especially now both teams know exactly what the other is going to throw at them.
Momentum is such a funny thing, and with nigh-on two weeks to a replay, both teams can make a strong case for surfing the wave.
Dublin showed an immense capacity to fight on their backs when everything looked to be slipping from their grasp. Jim Gavin regularly mentions the character and resilience of his players in post-match interviews, but it was clearly evident for all to see when the chips were down last weekend.
They stood up proudly and said, ‘not today Kerry’. It was an admirable act of defiance by great champions who will know they performed well below their own high standards.
For their part, Peter Keane and his troops have wind in their sails to carry them back to Croke Park. Some slicker attacking execution combined with the fast-tracked experience they will have garnered from a first senior All-Ireland final appearance (for some) should help.
For the rest of us, it was genuinely a privilege to be in Croke Park. The players and management from both sides deserve immense credit for the way they performed under such pressure and it showcased some of the very best that the game has to offer.
All that’s left to do is book the hotel and get back into the ring in the scramble for tickets. An All-Ireland final on a Saturday evening, potentially under lights, should make for an incredibly special atmosphere, and if both teams can recover and produce something like we got last Sunday, we could well be treated to an even better classic.