fter Saturday night’s game in Tralee, I strolled out of Austin Stack Park with 12,000 other bewildered souls and headed off down the town not knowing whether to be disappointed or delighted at what we had just witnessed. I pulled into Benners Hotel for a pit-stop with a few friends.
The hotel is now owned by the O’Sullivan family, and is run by three of the brothers - Alan, Brian and John. The three lads have serious sporting pedigree themselves. Primarily rugby men, John carved out a successful pro career with Munster among others, before injury stopped him in his tracks.
After years of service to Tralee rugby club, Brian turned his hand to boxing and quickly dominated his weight and age category within the county and Munster in the space of a year or two. The oldest brother Alan has long been Jack O’Connor’s most trusted deputy, acting as physical trainer under every Jack-managed Kerry team since the mid-2000s. He has been involved in successful senior and minor assaults at the title and is currently hoping this year can yield something for them at U21 level.
The bar was booming. I mean Rose of Tralee kind of booming. Dublin and Kerry all mixed together like some sort of footballing cocktail. The boys had the game on the big screens in the bar, the same game we had all just left moments earlier. And yet, there we all stood, staring at it again, just as captivated as we had been the first time around.
Standing in the long shadow of St. John’s church, we were like a crowd who had just come from mass and gone straight in to say our prayers. There was no escaping the near-religious experience of watching Kerry and Dublin slug it out. And slug it out they did.
For years, Kerry footballing sides had the perception of being too pure. Players with all the skills, but they were too nice. Too silky. Not enough nasty. No grit. No balls.
Dr Crokes were the very same. They didn’t have the fight to win the big one apparently. What we witnessed last weekend has surely dispelled any lingering threads of that myth forever more. And I’m sure there are still some Kerry supporters who believe we are always the victims who are only defending ourselves against the thuggery of other counties. But that’s not always the reality.
If Dr Crokes showed us on Friday in their grind-out victory over Slaughtneil in the All-Ireland club final that Kerry teams know how to win ugly, the senior county side reiterated the point under the dim lights of Tralee’s Austin Stack Park on Saturday evening. Well, nearly.
It started with Kerry’s Jack Barry man-handling Brian Fenton from the off. He pawed, pulled and prodded at him like a tiger playing with a lump of meat. Like the meat, Fenton eventually was either eaten or turned bad. Either way, he disappeared without a trace as the game wore on. That constant defensive grappling by Barry enabled his partner David Moran to put on a masterclass that lit up the night more brightly that the bulbs illuminating Austin Stack Park.
It was going off all over the field. Constant flash points, with both sides sharing the role of instigator, it was impossible to keep up with the ball and the wrestling at the same time. Yellow cards were flashed, but they did little to quell the unbridled aggression.
At times, it threatened to get completely out of hand, like some street-fighter movie, and it was a game where the players made it virtually impossible to for the referee to do his job with any degree of certainty of who to blame.
It reminded me of trying to adjudicate a row between my six-year-old twin boys… ‘he hit me first dad… no, he kicked me first, that’s why I knocked him’.
Try dealing with that without any yellow or red cards to use.
It may not be what Gaelic football is meant to be, but it made it no less absorbing and captivating - the dark side of modern football.
When I played, which wasn’t a million years ago, when the ball went out over the end-line and dead, it was a chance for everyone to catch their breath and get in position for the kick-out. It was a set-play and you might get a 60 seconds’ break or more for each one. I remember seeing a stat of the 2010 All-Ireland football final between Cork and Down that said that the ball was only in play approximately 32 minutes of the 70-minute plus game. I’d love to see the corresponding stat for last Saturday night.
I clocked Cluxton five different times with the ball down and gone off the tee within six seconds of it going dead. That adds furious pace to the game. He even lost it with Paul Geaney in the first half for kicking away the spare football he had stashed next to the goal to try and slow him down some bit.
Brendan Kealy was a little more pensive but still had it gone pretty quickly. There is no downtime for the players to catch their breath against the champions. With Dublin, even in March, it’s 100 miles-an-hour from the first whistle to the last and they try to burn you off with their fitness. It’s how they finish so strong, it’s more of a case of their opposition not being able to maintain the frantic pace of play for the entire game. Eventually, it catches up.
It would be remiss of me not to point out the obvious — Dublin are pretty damn good. Most other teams in the country would have taken their beating and rolled over when two points down in injury time. A 33-game unbeaten run is impressive enough. But not this stubborn bunch of jackeens. Talk about relentless. Kerry will also be pleased they went toe to toe with the champions and lived to tell the tale this time.
The O’Sullivans and the rest of Tralee’s beds, bars and restaurants will long remember the Paddy’s weekend Dublin came to town for a different reason. Before the yarn went that you could get an All-Ireland medal mixed up in your change in Kerry. Now some of the Dubs try paying with them.
How times have changed.