What was going to break? Dublin’s run? Or another part of Kerry? Winning this game wasn’t going to make Kerry but losing it and confirming Dublin’s dominance would hardly have been ideal.
It may be April — Dublin and Kerry have eight and nine weeks, respectively, to their first championship outings — but this result was a bookend. Kerry had been the last team to beat Dublin before they embarked on this incredible 36-game unbeaten journey. There is something apt about them being the team to have brought it to an end but what will matter most is that the narrative, that buzzword during the week, is now theirs for the time being.
If Eamonn Fitzmaurice attempted to reshape it off the field, then his players reclaimed it on the turf. Denying Dublin a five-in-a-row, it could be said the shoe is on the other foot for Kerry but at least Dublin’s is off their neck now. This was the first win over their rivals in Croke Park since 2012, their first victory in six league and championship meetings against them, the first time since the 2011 Division 1 final that Dublin have lost a decider. Only the second defeat Jim Gavin has experienced as Dublin manager past St Patrick’s Day.
Did it make Dublin look human again? Well, it can only help Kerry and those Dublin have left in their wake, but Fitzmaurice wasn’t entertaining the idea that defeat yesterday would have damaged his team’s championship preparations. “You’re kind of portraying as if there is this psychological damage there that every time we go out, we’re going down the road and we’re banging our head off the window of the bus. We come up and give it everything we have,” he said.
“They’re a brilliant team and we’ve come up short. But we’ve come up short going at them. And bringing the best out of them. I think the Kerry-Dublin games over the last couple of years, some of them have been some of the best games that have been played in the last ten years. We’re realistic enough to go away and say, ‘That was good. This is something we need to improve upon.’
“If Dublin had beaten us, it wouldn’t have been the end of the world. We still have players to come back.”
So too Dublin, as Fitzmaurice knows only too well, and Gavin was keen to mention that a final place was “a bonus” for his men given they had only returned to training at the end of January.
“Of course, we wanted to perform and win today, but it didn’t happen and we have to reflect on those reasons and as I said, ultimately, that’s my responsibility.”
Obviously, it meant more for Kerry but that guaranteed nothing. Few had travelled from the county, which was understandable if not for the expense (a fourth game in as many weeks, the second away) then the trepidation of traipsing to Croke Park where Dublin hadn’t lost since August 2014. As Fitzmaurice had said himself, facing Dublin in Austin Stack Park was a completely different prospect than opposing them here.
The announcement of the starting team on Friday evening wouldn’t have elicited optimism either. Even though there were two late changes — tactical in respect of Jack Barry replacing Anthony Maher and enforced as Jack Savage took the place of hamstring injury victim Stephen O’Brien — this was a side that seemed made to absorb Dublin rather than beat them.
Without Shane Enright, Killian Young, and James O’Donoghue, not to mention the Dr Crokes contingent except for Fionn Fitzgerald, Fitzmaurice’s hand was forced and so it was that Paul Geaney often found himself as the lone ranger up front.
A game that had an exaggerated build-up was a phoney war for the opening quarter. Even when Jonathan Lyne and Diarmuid Connolly’s black cards and James McCarthy and Donnchadh Walsh’s row followed, it never turned into anything more than a pale sequel to what happened in Tralee. Players were on their best behaviour for the most part.
Kerry trailed by the minimum at half-time, a decent return given they’d had just one scoreable free. They trailed by three points on two occasions but their full-back line was coping admirably with what was coming their way. Tadhg Morley’s stature grew as the game developed. David Moran, for the third consecutive meeting against Dublin, proved himself the best midfielder. Kevin McCarthy’s workrate and use of the ball was beyond his experience.
In that third quarter, keeping Dublin scoreless and largely attack-less for 21 minutes while pushing five ahead, Kerry unshackled themselves of any obsession or baggage they had. Fitzmaurice’s tyros attacked Dublin through the middle. Cian O’Sullivan looked stranded.
“A lot of those lads started their first game in Croke Park today. They started off playing in McGrath Cup games. They’ve gone up then and the next step is, can you survive in a Division 1 League game? Which they did. The next step was Dublin in Tralee — can you survive there? Which they did. The next step is Dublin in Croke Park. And they survived again today.”
Fitzmaurice had seen those instincts when Kerry almost saw out the Tralee game. Here, they did albeit with the benefit of a Hill 16 post but few quibbled even with so fine a margin.
Shortly after accepting the Allianz Cup, Fitzgerald reverted to traditional Kerry rationale and mentioned that it was only a league final and they wouldn’t be losing the run of themselves. Fitzgerald, walking up the steps of the Hogan Stand for the second time in 23 days, was looking out at a bettered but brilliant Dublin side. He was right to temper his language. There were no three cheers, just words of respect.
Fitzmaurice, like Fitzgerald, himself has enjoyed a high time of it of late but was already pondering the repercussions of beating the beehive. “I think the unbeaten record, if anything it’ll probably be a relief to them that it’s gone,” he said of Dublin. “There’ll almost be a freshness about their championship preparation now.”
Worrying about doing Dublin a favour can wait, at least for now. Kerry did themselves one yesterday. An ever so timely one.