The least Dublin’s history makers have earned was choosing how their greatness would be validated. Doing it in the face of a piercing probe from the winningest football county – and the one snapping at your heels - is some way to frank it.
Kerry have a long winter to be rueing and ruminating over many moments in Saturday’s throbbing All-Ireland SFC final replay, most of all catastrophic defensive switch-off 12 seconds after half-time, when Eoin Murchan sprinted unmolested from behind to claim the only, and by extension, game-defining goal.
Whether it can be classified as another of the champions’ famed second-half surges is a moot point, but Murchan’s goal, and a Con O’Callaghan point a minute later gave Dublin the arms-length distance they required to subtlety alter the tempo and the psychology of the second half.
Dublin had started the game with vigorous intent, going 0-5 to 0-1 up in jig time, but by the break, Kerry had wrestled the momentum from them.
The final paused with 20 points evenly divided. It was a spellbinding first half, sharp and sure in almost everything on display.
Any objective assessment at the half time break would have had Kerry resuming on the front foot.
Ageing legs can get tired in a hurry when the game is getting away – and as we shifted excitedly in our seats for the start of the second period, either that fate would befall the five-in-a-row-chasing Dubs or a nascent Kerry would start getting panicky and lose poise.
As events transpired, Kerry blinked first.
The Kingdom had seemed nerveless after hesitant starts to both halves, but they never got their noses in front in this replay, and once again their last score of the final came in the 62nd minute from Sean O’Shea – that’s a full 13-odd minutes from referee Conor Lane’s call of time.
They were three down, 1-13 to 0-13, but arguably the better side as the clock ticked past 50 minutes with Stephen O’Brien closing in on Stephen Cluxton. Paul Geaney was already picking his finish across the square but the pass never came. When Peter Keane spoke afterwards about those little moments, that was the most obvious.
All that, however, threatens to distort, or at least ignore the fact that Dublin once more faced down a proper threat to their decade of dominance. They may not have the rush of youth anymore – how could three? – but by the hour mark, they had the whiff of history in their nostrils, and they weren’t relinquishing it.
Mannion pointed, Scully blasted over, James McCarthy was unerring from the Hogan side.
Suddenly the lead was five, and Jim Gavin’s side had Kerry precisely where they’ve had so many of their victims – pressured, pinned and struggling to breath. Paul Geaney tried to engineer a goal on 67 minutes for the Kingdom when they need a point at four points down.
Dublin led 0-9 to 0-7 after 24 superb minutes, when Kerry won back possession and broke with alacrity. Tadhg Morley found himself closing on on Cluxton but was hauled down by Con O’Callaghan.
It was an important moment and Con O’Callaghan escaped sanction though he was the perpetrator – but either way referee Conor Lane had neither deemed it a penalty (correct) or a black card (dubious). O’Shea pointed the free but it felt like an escape for Gavin’s men.
If the Murchan goal was the breathing space Dublin craved, they utilised it as only great sides can. They slowed down the play, worked good openings and defended the heart of their rearguard to ensure Kerry’s sights on goal would be as limited as possible.
Their manager understands the game’s heritage better than most, and beating Kerry in the first and last of the five in a row finals will only sweeten the achievement.
“They are all unique,” Gavin said afterwards, “but Kerry asked questions over both days and I know how much it meant to the people of Dublin. When there was questions asked, (our players) were able to come up with the answers. They showed their character over the two games.”
They’ve been showing it a lot longer than that.