The last time Kerry won the National League was back in 2009 against Derry. That day, Anthony Maher and I were standing in the middle of Croke Park as the stadium announcer was calling out the teams.
As we looked around a near empty stadium coming up to throw-in, I said to Maher: “It would have been quicker to just introduce the crowd to the players, instead of the other way around. There’s less of them than us.”
That particular final never got out of first or second gear — the ultimate going-through-the-motions exercise played in front of a 20,000 crowd that generated about as much atmosphere as going to mass on a Tuesday evening.
It was the exact opposite of everything that was good about last Sunday.
If Kerry people were honest, they’d tell you that for those of us who travelled to Croke Park, we did so as much in hope and duty as we did in expectation.
Growing up in the Kingdom, you always felt you had more than a fighting chance against anybody on a football pitch — it’s bred into you from the earliest days. Like John B Keane famously coined: “A Kerry footballer with an inferiority complex is one who feels he’s only as good as everybody else.”
But John B had never seen a crowd like these Dubs before. The ‘invincibles’ had started to make us all feel somewhat inadequate in our own skin.
Ten times Eamon Fitzmaurice had faced Jim Gavin’s troops as manager of Kerry, and only twice had his side found victory. They’ve come close numerous times of course, but strong Dublin finishes left Kerry feeling blue more often that we would like.
For two years now, Dublin have dominated and cruised through league and championship games with consummate ease, establishing themselves as a truly great side, more so for the trophies they’ve accumulated rather than the number of wins they’ve racked up. But the numbers count too.
Unfortunately, the ultimate irony of all winning streaks is that they can only ever end one way — defeat.
It was appropriate that Dean Rock’s final 48m effort that came back off the upright finished up in the hands of Kerry’s Ronan Shanahan; a corner-back who has played only a handful of league games for his county, and a symbol of the new youthful breed Fitzmaurice has injected into his line-up. Most observers around the country would never have heard of Shanahan (in truth, most within Kerry would fall into the same category), but they know him now. Any man who can nullify an attacker with the pace and quality of Paddy Andrews in Croke Park is a serious operator and I felt their personal duel encapsulated the battle as a whole. Kerry’s newfound fearless zest against Dublin’s established relentlessness.
The same could be said about the two Jacks also — Barry and Savage, as well as Kevin McCarthy, Gavin Crowley, and Adrian Spillane. They are more of that new breed, before an even fresher breed unveil themselves from injury and under-21 duty later in the summer.
Jack Barry is a fascinating one for me. Last summer he spent his time sunning himself in the US, playing ball and enjoying life and but now finds himself in the driving seat to start alongside David Moran for the remainder of the year. Moran has used the league to propel himself back to the standard very few midfielders can ever reach. He is now Kerry’s most important player, and when he plays as well as he is right now, Kerry are a different animal.
For the second time during this league, he and Jack Barry primarily completely diminished Brian Fenton’s impact on proceedings and relegated him to the role of a frustrated fringe element.
The first time, it was put down to the fact that it was on a smaller pitch in Tralee under lights and Barry roughed him up. Last Sunday proved that he can really play and win at this level against the very best in the business.
Imagine, losing to Kerry was Brian Fenton’s first defeat in a Dublin senior jersey. Try to get your head around that for a minute. But no more than the rest of the Kerry new bloods, Jack Barry only sees Brian Fenton et al as equals. They played Sigerson football together for UCD, and he’d know as much about what makes him tick on the field as anybody. Hopefully, we can look forward to many years of great clashes between the two of them.
While it was just a league final in April, and there will be no carrying the cup around to the schools to celebrate, this result had to matter more to Kerry that it did to the Dubs going for their fifth league title in a row.
They were short established starters like Shane Enright, James O’Donoghue, Killian Young, and were much less experienced going into Sunday’s match-up. But from Kerry’s perspective, the younger guys really stepped up to the mark.
Tadgh Morley did as good a job as anybody could on a rampaging Ciaran Kilkenny, the Kerry full-back line obliterated their direct opponents.
Crowley did the same to Flynn, Cian O’Sullivan’s sweeping was exploited and eventually rendered redundant by Mikey Geaney’s power-packed display at centre-forward and he caused huge problems for the Dubs in the second half. Donnacha Walsh’s incessant running, chipping in with another two points from play (eight in the last two games). As he was replaced and taking his seat with the substitutes, the lad sitting next to me swore he saw smoke rising from his GPS device.
But for all the positives for Kerry, with so many guys winning their key individual battles, and standing up and showing huge fitness, energy, drive, and skill… Kerry could still only squeak out of there by a point and the width on an upright.
So don’t be fooled into thinking that Dublin are suddenly going to fall away now. No chance.
Kerry have just taken a huge stick to the biggest beehive in the woods. They’ve just pissed off the bees. But they’ve also shown that there’s honey in there if you’re really willing to get stung.
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