For all of Kerry’s frustration - and much of it must be with themselves - the scale of Dublin’s resilience is truly a thing of wonder.
It was a word used about them by Eamonn Fitzmaurice yesterday and it’s as good as most to provide a picture of the irresistible insistence they compete with every minute and with every fibre. Dublin teams, back to Joe McNally and Barney Rock and Bernard Brogan, in that epic semi-final of 1977, all had momentum. But that was fleeting. This is constant, relentless.
Perhaps Kerry are struggling against Father Time now in these 78-80 minute titanic games, but they were five points ahead of the All-Ireland champions at half-time, and three in front with nine minutes remaining in a seismic semi-final at Croke Park. Their legs didn’t look to be deserting them as Fitzmaurice and company rang the changes - Paul Geaney’s withdrawal more mysterious than the others - but at no moment did anyone think, or the Kingdom believe, they were out the gap and readying for a final with Mayo.
Dublin have that choke-hold on the senses now, and it’s a priceless extra bullet in the chamber. Mayo may disagree, but for sure Kerry are now under Jim Gavin’s spell. Three of the last four defeats, when it mattered, to the Dubs at Croke Park were winnable for Kerry, but each time they coughed up the moment and came up short.
The Dubs have their old friends spooked. And with that comes the confidence of Kevin McManamon to trust his weaker left side that has wounded Kerry more than once to clip the lead point in the 70th minute of a thrillingly intense duel. That made it 0-20 to 2-13. It was the first moment Dublin led since the 30th minute of the first half. Kerry levelled through Stephen O’Brien but we didn’t need a builder’s level to measure everything tilting towards the Hill in those final dramatic moments.
Three times now in five seasons Kerry has blinked in the red zone, where those that went before them seldom did. Hence it was relevant to ask Fitzmaurice afterwards whether he believed Kerry left this one after them, or did Kerry succumb to a better team. Pausing he replied: “Probably the latter.”
If there is an inter-county team structure in the country better tooled up to refocus on the final, it’s Gavin’s machine. And for all the Mayo chatter you’ll hear about Kerry providing a template for getting at the champions, consider the value this slugfest will be to Dublin. Gavin as good as admitted afterwards their structure will give the opposition chances. Not so much of an issue when you’re kicking 22 scores, 12 from play, yourself.
Kerry’s frustration will exist on many levels, and Fitzmaurice was cognisant enough of their own inefficiencies not to rail against the last-quarter decisions of referee David Gough.
Undoubtedly, the physicality Jim Gavin enjoys so much in the game might have been less palatable if it was a Dublin player at the business end of the hit McManamon put in on Peter Crowley in the dying minutes. But the rap sheet against Kerry in those frantic last 10 minutes says everything.
When Dublin got busy, Kerry got dizzy. A bad shot choice from David Moran, an inexplicable substitution of Paul Geaney with Marc Ó Sé on 66 minutes (equalling his brother Tomás’s appearance record of 88 championship games) a fist out over the sideline when intended recipient Barry John Keane was covered soon after.
Maybe the Geaney substitution betrayed Kerry’s declaration of intent for a draw. Why else would they take out a forward so at the top of his form, so sharp in telephone-box spaces, and the one scoring sniper whose points might keep Dublin at bay? Meanwhile Eoghan O’Gara thundered through for Dublin and Diarmuid Connolly applied the coup de grace - again, despite an afternoon when his kicking was patchy.
However if ever Dublin savoured the sound of a half-time whistle, it was yesterday. Two Kerry goals had shaken the champions and rattled their captain Stephen Cluxton. Of greater import was they had convinced the Kerry players what they were telling themselves all week: We will win. A 2-8 to 0-9 interval lead looked implausible in the 24th minute when Diarmuid Connolly eased Dublin 0-9 to 0-4 ahead. They were winning breaks and turning Kerry defenders, but 14 minutes later the Kingdom had added 2-5 to Dublin’s zero.
Think then of the second period: Dublin 0-13 Kerry 0-7.
“They are brilliant at using half-time to right the ship and we had them on the ropes at half-time,” mused Fitzmaurice. “We won the (second-half) throw-in, it looked to me like David (Moran) was fouled, he didn’t get a free. They went down, got a point straight away, and gave them belief straight away in the first 15 or 20 seconds of the second half. You have to give them massive credit. We did have them on the ropes but they really showed the stuff of champions in the second half.
“It’s s only a break in play to me,” shrugged Gavin, who clearly believes he requires a stake through Kerry’s beating heart to be finally rid of their traditional foes. “It is an outstanding Kerry team, an outstanding Kerry management team. We have huge, huge admiration for them up in Dublin. It was a fantastic test from a team that play similar to ourselves, they play football and all the skills of the game were demonstrated today.”
All of which will be of absolutely no comfort to the Kerry players and their manager. Losing classics is the conversation that seldom gets debated with gusto in the Kingdom. For now, the concern is that Fitzmaurice decides his mind and heart have given their all after five years at the helm in Kerry - four as senior manager.
With the Kerry chairman Patrick O’Sullivan - a staunch Fitzmaurice ally and friend - also stepping down this winter, it will be a matter of some relief if this management is persuaded to remain for 2017. Not least because there is no new and obvious contender to replace him. No such anxieties for Dublin.
However, if a final opponent was to blend the ingredients available to create an underdog’s cocktail, Mayo could hardly conjure a sweeter concoction than this. Limping into a decider against the unbackable heavyweight champions of football. 25 wins and 2 draws in their last 27 competitive games.
“That is just noise outside the group,” Gavin smiled. “The narrative outside, people’s opinions. They have absolutely no influence as to how we approach our game.”
An overwhelming volume of evidence supports his claim.
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