It was natural that of all the previous All-Ireland finals that last Sunday’s conjured comparisons with, 1982 was the easiest from the archive to reach for, but for long periods, it felt an awful lot like 2011 to us.
Just as was the case eight years ago, a fearless young contender initially put it up to a wily, seasoned, and great team — for that’s what Gooch and Tomás et al were, probably the greatest the old game has known, behind only Micko’s and Gavin’s teams of all-talents — before the champion side then wrestled control and for a good stretch of the second half, appeared to be cruising.
Then all changed with the introduction of a super sub or two. Even its build-up as well as execution, Killian Spillane’s goal was a virtual remake of Kevin McManamon’s famous effort, only this time with an overran Brian Howard playing the role of a dazed Declan O’Sullivan.
Big Mo suddenly had a brand new friend and when Tommy Walsh kicked the equalising score, Croke Park seemed to quake with a sense of historical anticipation, much like it did when a boomer from Kevin Nolan levelled matters between the counties back in 2011.
This time, though, the bold upstarts didn’t close it out, at least at the first time of asking, nor did the Dubs, Dean Rock understandably failing to emulate Stephen Cluxton as his free was from a more challenging angle and distance.
Which has meant that ever since exiting the stadium and all the more so now to get some read of what might happen the next day, the year we keep going back to most is 2016.
Mayo that year were a lot like Kerry this year.
Before the (drawn) game, people were fearing that they could be in for quite a beating, forgetting that any time they — Kerry or Mayo — had encountered Jim Gavin’s team previously in championship, they’d always fronted up to them, brought it to the wire.
After the game then, the same people were fearing that was there chance gone, that Dublin would make no mistake the next day. Yet, in the replay, Mayo were right there to the end, having taken considerable confidence as well as lessons from the first day.
With Donie Buckley now in the Kerry war room, it’s hard not to believe that Kerry will be similarly buoyed and informed from going face-to-face with the Dubs and seeing for themselves that they’re mere mortals.
The real relevance of 2016 now though is in how it offers us some clue as to how Jim Gavin might react and rearrange his troops.
His comments after last Sunday’s match mirrored those following the drawn 2016 final.
Three years ago, he admitted that Dublin “didn’t deserve to win” and hadn’t played “to the standards we would go after”. Last Sunday, he spoke about how “the performance wasn’t good enough, simple as that” and was “just not good enough from the standards the players set for themselves”.
Tellingly, though, on both occasions, he highlighted the mental fortitude of his players. In 2016, they had shown “great mental resolve to hang in there” in the face of a Mayo onslaught; last Sunday, he felt an “impressive piece” was “the resilience the Dublin players showed, to be on the ropes and still keep moving and creating scoring chances and turning the ball over” when down to 14 men.
What was most telling in 2016 though, were his actions, not his words. For the replay, he made three notable changes. Michael Fitzsimmons hadn’t started a championship game in over two years yet, was suddenly drafted in to mark Cillian O’Connor, Mayo’s standout forward in the drawn game, with Davy Byrne making way.
Michael Darragh Macauley was dropped, but in the most sensational development of all, Bernard Brogan, who had collected his fourth All Star only the previous winter, was also omitted from the starting 15, replaced by Paul Mannion.
To seal the five-in-a-row, he’ll likely need to similarly shake up his line-up, even if it hasn’t been his custom of late to do so and exhibit what we’ll term ‘sensible daring’.
Over the last couple of seasons, Gavin has given this column the impression of someone less obsessed about winning the next All-Ireland as someone with an eye to even the one after that.
Tonight, Gary Neville is back in Dublin for an Off The Ball roadshow, just like he was last year when he stated the genius of Alex Ferguson was in how he ensured a team never grew old together.
And so he’d gradually wean out the veterans, either using them as squad rotation players or selling them on while drafting in or signing on the next star on the block.
Gavin has gone the same way about empire building. Last year, he won an All-Ireland without having to depend or even call upon what we might term the ‘Gilroy Gang’ or ‘Gilroy Galacticos’. Bernard Brogan, six months after doing his cruciate, couldn’t make the match-day 26.
Paul Flynn, despite being outstanding in his last start against Roscommon, similarly didn’t see any action against Tyrone in the final. Not only were that duo no longer the side’s go-to-men or leaders, such status being now occupied by the likes of Fenton, Kilkenny, Mannion, and Con, they weren’t even among the key complementary class of the likes of Howard and Scully.
Even an Eoin Murchan Murchin now had greater value, blending into and bolstering the backs.
There’s a case now though, that in 2019, Gavin has taken it a step too far, that he’s been a little bit too clever for his good and he just about got away with it last Sunday.
Dublin faced no battle in 2018 — this column has written before that last year’s championship always had more the feel of a national league campaign — but it was evidently clear from this year’s league, that in 2019, a war was coming with how Mayo and especially Kerry, had reassembled and reinforced their troops.
And yet, last Sunday, the first forward Gavin turned to was Paddy Small, unproven at this heat and level, while Brogan, the decade’s most prolific scorer from play and one of its greatest big-game players, wasn’t even on the bench.
Likewise, a Peadar Ó Cofaigh Byrne made match-day 26 while Eoghan O’Gara and Eric Lowndes didn’t. You can get away with that against a Louth or a Meath in Leinster, or even a Cork or Roscommon in the Super 8s, but against a Kerry in an All-Ireland final?
Ó Cofaigh Byrne and a Small can wait until next year’s league to prove their spurs, just like the 2020 All-Ireland itself. To win the 2019 All-Ireland final and war, Gavin will need to turn and return to his dogs of war.
As long as he’s able to stand on more than one leg, expect Cian O’Sullivan to return to the starting line-up, drop back and offer his full-back line protection from that direct ball Kerry will target, now that officials have copped onto the grappling tactics an undersized Dublin defence has long deployed against the likes of Kieran Donaghy and Aidan O’Shea (a development that might restrict the usefulness of Philly McMahon).
Drafting in O’Sullivan would release James McCarthy to midfield in place for Michael Darragh Macauley who might be better utilised providing that injection of bustling energy that he crucially offered off the bench in the 2016 final replay.
That same evening, Cormac Costello and Bernard Brogan combined for four critical points when introduced.
Brogan is three years older now, but in his cameo against Tyrone last month, seemed to be moving with the same intent and fluency he showed against Kildare in the opening league game of 2018 before doing his cruciate. If he’s anywhere close to being back to that player, who wouldn’t want that player?
Who would Kerry fear most warming up on the line with 20 minutes to go: a Byrne and Small or Brogan?
So far, the main purpose of Gavin retaining Brogan for 2019 seems to have been to prop up the myth of Dublin’s depth and Gavin’s ruthlessness; how often have you heard the line ‘Bernard Brogan can’t even make the 26’? But last Sunday underlined that, if anything, the aura and effectiveness of Dublin’s bench has been considerably diminished.
All year, even through the league, their bench hasn’t been empowered or unleashed as readily as it was in previous years, as mostly obviously measured by their faltering scoring return and, Kevin McManamon’s diminished role and impact.
Dublin needed a bench and some tweaks to their starting 15 to edge past Mayo three years ago.
They’ll similarly need the cavalry, as well as a rethink of their strategy to end on the right side of another battle on Saturday week.
Because have no doubt about one thing, Kerry, with a lieutenant like Buckley and a general like Keane in their ranks, will bring war again.