The first instalment was one of those rare games that seem to get inside your soul and suck you into the emotional rollercoaster that was playing out before your eyes. It felt like the 2014 replay between Kerry and Mayo in the Gaelic Grounds all over again.
You could feel your heartrate jump like it was on a trampoline, with legs that curiously wouldn’t stop shaking with the excitement and tension. It’s impossible to replicate those kinds of situations with anything else in life. A complete cocktail of emotions for the 82,300 supporters lucky enough to have found a ticket.
Sitting a few rows in front of me in the Cusack Stand for the game was one of the greatest players that ever laced them up. Seamus Moynihan was always as good a guy off the field as he was the complete footballer on it. Classy, humble, hardy, he had the full package.
After Sean O’Shea committed the late foul out by the sideline to present Dean Rock with one last chance to secure the historic five-in-a-row with the last kick of the ball, I noticed Seamo standing tall when most other people around him were sitting and watching through their fingers.
His head was bowed, hands raised high over his head with his fingers crossed. I’m not sure if he’s a regular in the Glenflesk parish church on Sunday mornings, but he looked like a man calling in all his favours for some kind of divine intervention.
I can still vividly remember him telling our dressing room many years ago about the need to improve after a drawn championship game against Cork and how it would be the team that learns the most from first game that will win the replay. .
There’s a lot of truth and sense in that logic, and while individual players will have underperformed for various reasons the first day out, both management teams and sets of players will have spent the past week reviewing the match to search for areas of improvement to try to find those marginal gains that could make all the difference next Saturday evening.
If you were Jim Gavin or Peter Keane this week, what are the work-ons you would be focussing on with your players?
The last couple of sessions would have been all about accentuating the positives and framing everything in the affirmative to try and keep the mood as upbeat as possible. It was about recovering from any knocks and making sure everybody was in a good place, mentally and physically.
Both groups will know that victory or defeat were only a whisker away given the incredibly resilient performance of the 14-man Dubs for over 40 minutes after Jonny Cooper’s dismissal, matched by the second-half surge from Kerry to go from five points down to a point up in what seemed like a blur.
Once you start to drill down through the initial anti-climax, Kerry will be disappointed with their late-game composure and inability to create any scoring chances for the final 12 minutes of action.
During that period, with Dublin drawing on their deep reservoir of energy and never-say-die attitude, they hounded Kerry into a raft of crucial turnovers. Kerry had five key losses of possession in that time and it enabled Dublin to build a wave of momentum to finish out the contest.
Perhaps Kerry got mentally caught in between two stools; push on and attack for the ‘nail in the coffin’ score, or play keep-ball and take time off the clock and have the Dubs chasing shadows. You would imagine, the players and management will have examined those final turnover-filled minutes and will settle on an agreed strategy should they find themselves in a similar position next weekend with the finish line in sight.
Both sides will look at the success and failure of their kick-out attack and defence as two of the key facets of their gameplan that can be improved.
Shane Ryan was playing in his first senior final in Croke Park and despite facing the well-organised Dublin zonal press, he managed to retain 75% of the restarts and it gave the Kerry attack a steady supply of ball all through.
On the other side, Kerry re-released their 4-4-4 kick-out press from every dead-ball, free-in or 45 to try to disrupt Cluxton’s and Dublin’s flow. According to statistics by @Dontfoul, Dublin were coming into the final retaining 81.5% of their own kick-outs in the past four games. Kerry’s set up forced that number down to 76% (19 of 25) and generally caused a sense of unease that you don’t normally associate with the champions.
Crucially, as they always seem to do, the champions adapted and survived long enough to find a solution. You’d imagine Dublin will have highlighted what they perceive to be the weakest pocket of the Kerry press to overload with blue jerseys to attack next Saturday.
The key match-ups all generally went the way both management teams will have thought. The pebbles in the shoe for Kerry were obviously the brilliant Jack McCaffrey from half-back, the understated Brian Howard, and the constantly underrated Dean Rock.
Rock’s three points from play to go along with his six pointed frees and 45 will cause Kerry management to take another look at Jason Foley to see if he’s the best guy for the job. The free tally has nothing to do with Foley, but that defensive ill-discipline inside the scoring zone will be something they will focus on as a group this week.
Kerry need to be physical and aggressive with the Dublin attackers without giving away frees unless it’s the best option left on the table.
McCaffrey is an altogether different dilemma – a nightmare match-up for whoever he is picking up. And as a defender, Dublin have the luxury of putting him on whatever Kerry forward they feel they can exploit the most.
While Gavin White is physically a good fit and has the raw pace to match McCaffrey, playing as a half-forward is a relatively new experience for the Dr Crokes man and he hasn’t looked his usual dynamic self since playing the role. Whether Kerry go with him again, or try to re-shuffle their deck to force the Dublin flyer to have to do a little more defending, remains to be seen.
Jim Gavin will look at whether Johnny Cooper is as good a fit for David Clifford as they previously envisaged, or if James McCarthy is the best-suited to curb the influence of Sean O’Shea. Perhaps Michael Darragh could be under pressure in the middle, too, given the dominance of Jack Barry and David Moran in that sector.
The Dublin management will surely examine ways to get Brian Fenton more involved in the play and will have highlighted that his paltry 15 possessions was one of his lowest since he came into the team. His teammates will be actively encouraged to get him on ball early and often to help him forge his way into the game.
The Xs and Os of kick-out adjustments and rejigging of marking assignments will fill the whiteboards and the column inches of the next week, and both teams of decision-makers will provide as much information and guidance as they can draw upon. Ultimately, as it always does, it’ll come down to what the players deliver once the ball is thrown up.
No doubt Kerry will take huge confidence and experience from having gone toe-to-toe with the beast from the east and lived to tell the tale. He is sure to come back with a fury, and while surviving his brutality is one thing, taking his head to mount on your wall is at least a more realistic prospect than it was a fortnight ago.