Last year when Kerry played a Super 8s match in Croke Park, it didn’t exactly fare well in the TV channel-hopping stakes. At the same time they and Galway were offering up the drabbest and most disappointing game of the football year, France and Croatia were squaring off in the World Cup final.
In Thurles, a thrilling game climaxed in Tom Morrissey and Limerick surging past Kilkenny to announce hurling’s year of years could also be Limerick’s. If events from Moscow and Tipperary were being brought to you in technicolour and HD, matters in Dublin seemed to be stuck in black and white.
David Clifford’s superb senior championship debut in Headquarters and injury-time goal may have brought some joy to Kerry, but it was little consolation to the rest of us stuck in Croke Park and missing out on the spectacle that other prodigious young talents like Kyle Hayes and Kylian Mbappé had served up that afternoon.
This year, Kerry’s fixture in the Croke Park round of Super 8s also clashed with, and was overshadowed by, a massive sporting event, and one of even greater interest and significance to the Irish general public. And yet as Shane Lowry was closing in on possibly the most popular and celebrated victory by a single individual since the days of McGuigan and Roche, we found it extremely difficult to switch over from what Kerry and Donegal were serving up in Dublin.
There were many take-aways from last weekend’s Super 8s action in Croke Park, not least these six:
1. Kerry-Donegal was the best game of the decade not involving either Dublin or Mayo
When the story of this football decade is written, four standout characters will feature. Dublin will obviously be cast as the lead, with Mayo best in a supporting role, followed by Donegal and Kerry.
Dublin-Mayo have offered up so many epic games, Paul Flynn isn’t alone in feeling it’s as if they’ve all rolled into one. Dublin-Kerry also produced some cracking head-to-head encounters in Croke Park, most notably the 2013 and 2016 semi-finals, but also a rollicking league final in 2017.
Mayo-Kerry threw up two classics in the space of seven days in 2014, and another riveting semi-final in 2017.
Up to last Sunday, the other head-to-head pairings among that quartet hadn’t quite provided a pulsating classic. Donegal-Dublin in 2011 and 2014 may have been seminal, but not scintillating. Mayo-Donegal have also had some intriguing championship duels, but no cliffhanger. As for Kerry-Donegal, the kindest way you could describe their encounters in 2012 and 2014 would be grimly compelling.
Not so last Sunday. We thought we’d never live to see another game which would challenge the 2014 drawn hurling final (when there hadn’t been a wide in the 30 minutes prior to Bubble’s brush with Hawkeye) for such stunning shooting accuracy, but this did, with the sides kicking just three wides between them after half time. Never before has a side amassed a tally of at least 23 points and failed to win either an All-Ireland quarter-final, semi-final or final. It was that historic. And that great.
2. Kerry will win the All-Ireland
OK, so maybe not this one. Maybe this year is a little too soon for them, with Dublin probably too much for them. But as much as the prospect of Jim Gavin’s side achieving the five-in-a-row that eluded Mick O’Dwyer galls everyone in Kerry, Éamonn Fitzmaurice’s plea upon his resignation that the Kerry public remain patient is all the more valid now.
In all our obsession — and often depression — on whether anyone can or cannot catch the Dubs this year, there’s a danger we’ll miss out on enjoying the growth of a special young team.
Their path through Munster was considered underwhelming, but subsequent events have shown that Clare and Cork were better and grittier than previously ascribed.
The demolition of Mayo in Killarney was downplayed to the weeks and possibly years catching up on James Horan’s men, but it took a special performance and team to make a side as distinguished and resilient as Mayo look so old and hapless.
Last Sunday, Kerry had five different players score three points or more. The eldest of them is 28. Although it took longer than expected for him to finally make some impact in senior championship football, Killian Spillane is still only 23. David Clifford and Sean O’Brien are both just 20. Imagine just how good they’re all going to be next year, or the year after?
In US sport, there’s an understanding among players, followers and organisations about taking a longer view. In Philadelphia, the 76ers’ charismatic franchise player Joel Embiid is renowned for echoing the call to ‘Trust the Process’. In Kerry, they should not just trust, but enjoy it. As promising as the 76ers are, there’s no guarantee they’ll win a championship in the coming years. With Kerry, there is.
3. Brian Fenton is a freak of nature and history
Last autumn this column shone a light on Brian Fenton’s championship tally for 2018 being the most a midfielder had ever scored from play over the course of a single summer. Well, this year he’s on course to score even more.
Last year, the Raheny man racked up 1-13 from play over the course of seven games, an average of precisely two points a game.
This summer he’s already notched 2-7 in just five games, for an average of 2.6 points a game. His midfield partner Michael Darragh Macauley is also enjoying a purple scoring patch, plundering for three goals this summer.
But Fenton’s scoring rate is even more remarkable. He’s kicked at least one score in all five games. In fact, with the exception of the Leinster semi-final against Kildare, he’s notched either 1-1 or 0-2.
Oh, and on top of that, he’s still yet to lose a championship game. In all the collective brilliance of Dublin, we can lose sight of the individual magnificence and consistency right in front of our eyes. But in Fenton, we’re witnessing an all-time great.
4. The Dubs might need Connolly and Brogan yet
Although Dublin are clipping along at possibly an even better rate than they were this time last year, their bench doesn’t quite seem to have the same aura about it as in previous years.
In their one reasonably close game so far this summer — their opening Super 8s game against Cork — Jim Gavin only made his second substitution with just five minutes of normal time to play. Paddy Andrews and Kevin McManamon have scored just one point each from play this summer.
Although Paddy Small has provided some instant scoring power, racking up six points in just 70 minutes on the field, the bench doesn’t quite have the same scoring or star power as in previous years. Which is why Jim Gavin’s deployment of his playing personnel against Tyrone will be so interesting.
Bernard Brogan was promoted to the matchday 26 against Roscommon, but still wasn’t afforded his first bit of game time of the summer. Diarmuid Connolly wasn’t even on the team bus last weekend, having just returned to the panel.
If either of them are to feature in the All-Ireland semi-final or final, it’s safe to say they’ll need to get playing time against Tyrone. And it could be just the perfect scenario to see if either player still has it, or at least has something to offer.
So far this year it’s formed part of Dublin’s aura, to say they’re going so strong that even a Brogan can’t get playing time. But when an All-Ireland semi-final or final is in the fire, they might need some of that aura out on the pitch. If it’s ever to be unleashed, it has to be unleashed in Omagh.
5. Try telling Roscommon and Cork their game is a dead rubber
In international rugby, pride is everything. A slam or championship might already be beyond you, but that inconvenient fact is not going to stop you prepping and playing as well as you can the following week. So it is now with the Super 8s.
Meath have fought too hard to break into the top eight in both league and championship to just roll over at home to Kerry. And both Roscommon and Cork will be determined to register a Super 8s win as confirmation and a measure of the progress they’ve made from last year.
6. Mayo and dogs and walls
With the exception of 2013 when they were impressively blowing teams like Dublin sky-high on their way to that year’s All-Ireland final, Mayo have tended to run only as fast as the dog that’s chasing them, and only when absolutely required.
But when their back’s against the wall, they have a remarkable capacity in both league and championship to produce and survive. In six of their last nine league campaigns, they had to get a result in either or both their penultimate or last round-robin game to avoid relegation, and each time they did.
One of those close scrapes was last year’s league in Ballybofey when Kevin McLoughlin kicked an injury-time wonder point to rescue a draw against Donegal, stay up and send Declan Bonner’s men down instead.
A draw won’t be enough for Mayo in Castlebar on Saturday week, but it would be just their form to eke out a last-gasp win. We might yet get that classic Donegal-Mayo game their rivalry, as well as this decade, deserves.