KIERAN SHANNON: Gaelic football has rarely — if ever — been in better health

For all the many deserved plaudits last Sunday’s Kerry-Dublin game has had thrown its way, one doesn’t stand up to actual scrutiny.

More than one commentator has spoken and written about how the game “restored one’s faith in Gaelic football”.

To which we’d say, is it only now this Dublin team and this Kerry team have restored your faith in Gaelic football? Or did you mean reinforced rather than restored?

Look closely at football over the last five years and there’s been a discernible trend. Whenever two of the big three of Kerry, Dublin and Mayo face off in an All-Ireland semi-final, you get an epic.

It’s not just “absorbing” — a diplomatic term regularly used to describe a closely-contested but largely defensive game, invariably featuring at least one and often two Ulster teams — but full of rollicking, creative, attacking football.

Mayo-Dublin 2012. Dublin-Kerry 2013. Kerry-Mayo 2014. Dublin-Mayo 2015. Now Dublin- Kerry 2016.

These games haven’t just “absorbed” you; they’ve enthralled you.

After the game on Sunday Jim Gavin remarked: “I think it [Gaelic football] is one of the best field sports in the world when it’s played like that.”

And he’s right. And the thing we need to appreciate and cherish a bit more is that whenever two of those three meet, that’s usually what we get.

Last year’s All-Ireland final was an outlier, mainly because it was a game that conditions dictated would more resemble water polo than Gaelic football.

Far from being on the lookout for evidence Gaelic football’s heart is still beating, we should consider its ticker has rarely — if ever — been in better health.

At the moment in Dublin, Kerry and Mayo it has three brilliant ambassadors for the game and how it should be played (Ulster — time to change. You’re the best of the rest but you’re off those top three).

It’s just we don’t get to see these three teams clash and be tested enough.

In that sense it was a very good day for Paraic Duffy’s new proposals for a change to the championship format. On the way up to the game on Sunday, we heard him being interviewed on Today FM’s Championship Sunday programme in which he spoke about the general appetite for more games between the top teams.

We still think his proposal has fundamental flaws — namely that it doesn’t provide enough games for teams outside the last eight — but last Sunday validated the thrust of his argument.

Who after last Sunday — even Dubs — wouldn’t want to have seen a Kerry-Mayo game at some point this summer? Who wouldn’t have wanted to see them square off in championship again after their two matches in 2014? Yet the reality is, we’ll have to wait until next year at least for a return clash between the two of them in championship.

A sport looking to promote itself anywhere close to its optimum shouldn’t keep us waiting three years for a rematch between two teams with that history and of that stature.

We do have the league, of course, which is not quite the same thing, but last Sunday was further validation for the approach Dublin have taken to it under Jim Gavin.

The way in which they responded to being five points down at half-time or even three down with 10 minutes to go was a conditioned, automatic one.

Jog the memory and you might recall how they went about coming back from being six points down to Cork at half-time in this year’s league to win.

Or how they came back from being a point down with two to go against a Conor McManus- inspired Monaghan to win by one.

Or when they twice came back through Eoghan O’Gara goals from being three down to Mayo in a cracking drawn match under the lights in 2014. Or the following week when Diarmuid Connolly kicked a winning point up in Omagh to secure a league semi-final spot. The kind of clutch point he kicked last Sunday and the kind of storming finish his team had is just something that has become routine to him and to them. They stick to the process and their values: Keep playing, keep attacking and even if it doesn’t show after 70 minutes, it will after 73.

Connolly’s point off his left under the Hogan brought to mind another score from the recent past. In 2007 Kerry and Dublin played out another pulsating All-Ireland semi-final. That it was merely the fourth best All-Ireland semi-final of the last 40 years between the two counties (1977, 2007, 2013 and now 2016 — can we have some kind of law that they always meet in a semi-final?) — is no slight on it whatsoever; it was the best game of that year, and the de facto final.

It was ultimately decided by a late point that Declan O’Sullivan kicked from virtually the same spot with the same foot at the same juncture after the ball had gone through 10 different pair of Kerry hands, starting over by the opposite wing.

Only a special team and a special player could have produced and converted a score like that.

A month later that Kerry team would go on to become the only side since 1990 to do back-to- back titles. Now Dublin are one game from repeating that feat.

Do so and they probably usurp that magnificent Kerry team of the Ó Sés, Cooper, Donaghy, Galvin and O’Sullivan as the best team of the last 30 years.

Standing in their way though is a team hell-bent on winning an All-Ireland and being remembered as one of the teams of their era instead of going down as the best never to win one.

Physically Mayo have been ready to win an All-Ireland and beat Dublin since 2012. Mentally they’ve been ready to win it all since 2013. Now tactically they seem ready and adaptable enough to win one in 2016. But technically, for all their brilliance, have they enough players who can kick points off both feet the way a Kevin McManaman and Connolly could last Sunday?

Is the tackling to shooting ratio on their training ground that bit too high? Will Jason Doherty and Kevin McLoughlin nail their couple of shots from over 30 yards out the way you’d trust Paddy Andrews to? Either way it’s something to look forward to and cherish.

Two of the big three are going to war again and they rarely disappoint.


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