At least justice was served at Croke Park. Deserved has nothing to do with sport on the higher plains, but yesterday’s All-Ireland final signed off with the champions it, and the season, merited.
For that much we should be grateful.
An O’Byrne Cup to start, a 25th annexation of Sam Maguire to finish, and a National League and Leinster title in between - the latter being a fifth in succession. Sweeps don’t come much cleaner than that.
Dublin’s 0-12 to 0-9 success over Kerry was the lowest scoring final for a dozen years since 2003 and a sawn-off finish to the most underwhelming campaign in a similar timeframe. We bought the marketing sell and 82,300 thought they were queuing up for opera, but got vaudeville.
The aesthetes will groan, but the fate of yesterday’s box-office football final was sealed by a meteorological front sweeping across from the south west before the weekend.
Both Jim Gavin and Eamonn Fitzmaurice could lecture in pragmatism, and the ground rules veered wildly towards eliminating risk rather than taking it once they recognised a shoot-out was not an option.
Dublin’s success owes more to the fact that their errors were more infrequent and their players were less inconsistent. Where everyone in blue rated at 7, too many of Kerry’s hovered, benevolently, about 5.
Everything else is padding.
The winners’ stats are incongruous: no goal from a team, as Gavin said afterwards, for whom net- finding is part of their DNA. No winning player with more than two points. A dozen points in total.
So what does all that say of Kerry? We thought Kerry showing up on the big day was up there with Irish rain and taxes as lifetime certainties, but this was as close to a Kingdom no-show as we’ve seen since their calamitous 2001 All-Ireland semi-final collapse at the hands of Meath.
It also brings to a close an outstanding championship run without a loss since the semi-final defeat to the same boys in blue in 2013.
Eamonn Fitzmaurice was superb in his dignity afterwards, expressing his pride in how the players hung in there, but as a coach who demands a performance if little else from his troops, this was a really bad day at the office.
That they were a mere three points - one score - in arrears when David Coldrick closed the book on 2015, said more about the champions than their victims.
Five of their nine points came from form forwards, James O’Donoghue and Paul Geaney, who were taken off before the game had edged into its last ten minutes. Odd.
Substitutes Kieran Donaghy and Darran O’Sullivan juiced up their resistance a little in the second period, but last year’s champions had that resigned Roberto Duran ‘no mas’ sense about them all day - Dublin was their Sugar ‘Ray’ Leonard, their better.
Not that Jim Gavin’s men were an exercise in efficiency themselves. By late in the second period, Stephen Cluxton’s kick-outs had reached a point of conservatism where he was kicking laterally.
Kerry spooked him repeatedly in the first period on restarts but persistently handed the ball back to Dublin players. It meant that with ten minutes to the break, the sides had shared a mere eight points. It would have been fair to deduce at that stage that Brendan Kealy’s save from Dean Rock after only four minutes could prove pivotal. Not so.
David Moran couldn’t get up to the pace of the game, but his stuttering start was easy to camouflage amongst the litany of handling errors on both sides. The teeming rain could only account for so many spilled balls.
The first-half’s final ten minutes contained as many seminal moments as the other sixty. Kerry will quietly bitch with two of Dublin’s four points in that period, with Jonathan Lyne and Paul Geaney fouled in the turnovers that led to points for Brogan and McCaffrey, but the 33rd minute score for Paddy Andrews was a perfect package of Fitzmaurice’s problems - Crowley intercepted trying to find a forward in green and gold.
“Today for some reason we didn’t function, that can happen,” shrugged Fitzmaurice afterwards.
“You have to give a lot of credit for Dublin, they played it in such a way that they got the best of both worlds - they were getting a man back (Bastick) to allow Cian O’Sullivan drop back in front of our full-forward line and at the same time they were slowing us down as well because of how hard their forwards were working.
“When we look back on it we will accept that we did function as well as we can up front, took the wrong options, at times and didn’t execute as well as we can.”
Their poorest 70 minutes this season, someone asked?
“Yeah it is but you can be too critical of fellas as well. I’m very proud of the players, particularly with the way they went at it in the second half. We weren’t happy at half-time. At least we had a go in the second half, Dublin were just better than us, simple as. They out-worked us, out-thought us, out-fought us. The better team won.”
Jim Gavin recognised earlier in the week what lay ahead: “I did see the forecast from a few days out and I knew it was going to be a dogged game.”
Ergo, the prospects of this final igniting in the second half were next to zero.
Darran O’Sullivan tried his damndest for Kerry, and points from Lyne and the Glenbeigh flyer reduced it to 0-8 to 0-6 within three minutes of the restart. Paradoxically, though, Dublin’s hold around the middle was growing stronger, man of the match Brian Fenton augmented by the introduction of Michael Darragh MaCauley. The young Raheny man has proved one of the finds of the summer.
“Maybe a find to the outside world,” explained Gavin, “but in Dublin GAA circles we’ve known about him for a long time. He got injured a few years back and has recovered well. He’s been playing great football with UCD the last couple of years, and really came of age up in Clones against Monaghan during the National League.
He has built on his performances, each game. That was one of the key areas, that middle third.”
itzmaurice is right about Kerry’s stubbornness. Fenton hit the butt of a Kerry post, Paul Flynn pointed, but as the game ticked beyond 50 minutes, Kerry were only two points in arrears. Dublin were doing what suckers do - keeping the other team upright.
The haymaker the Dubs feared almost felled them in 67 minutes. Kieran Donaghy, who replaced Geaney with 20 minutes left, scattered all around him as he provided the mixer option for the Kingdom. He teed up an isolated Killian Young for the goal that might have turned us all on our heads - never mind the final - but the Renard man spilled the ball. Alan Brogan shut the lid tight with a point in reply at the other end.
“We were barely hanging in there and any time we got close to them, they pulled away,” Fitzmaurice conceded. “They missed a couple of goal chances but we didn’t really threaten them at all. Our lads never gave up but it would have been daylight robbery had we got out of it with a draw.”
Dublin’s third title in five seasons will kick off the inevitable talk about a dynasty - “yeah, they’ll be talking about 14 in a row now,” smiled Michael Darragh MacCauley - but it’s their strongest statement of intent since the three titles in 1974, 76 and 77. At the very least, they now deserve to be spoken of in the same reverential tones.
Kerry won’t go away, of course. Croke Park malfunctions are rare, and it’s worth noting their minors won back to back titles yesterday as they pleased against Tipperary.
There’s a little house-cleaning to be done, and they have the right man at the helm. As long as he stays at the helm. Said Fitzmaurice: “My term is up. I have three years done. A lot of us have a good bit of thinking and talking to do and we’ll do that in time.”
For the moment, they’ll retreat south west and lick their wounds.
The Dubs, meanwhile, lick their lips.