Anybody fortunate enough to be in Croke Park last Saturday evening, well, anybody from Dublin and the vast majority of neutrals, will have a cherished memory forever, writes
In years to come, would I get away with telling the grandchildren I was half-there, given that the drawn game was attended? Silly, I know, but in Irish sporting terms, Dublin completing the elusive five-in-a-row will hardly be matched as an achievement again, in our lifetimes anyway.
Therefore, to be able to say ‘I was there’ is, itself, special.
The sense of occasion in Croke Park the day the teams could not be separated was unique, and the match was as exciting as people across the country would have hoped it would be.
The atmosphere, on September 1, was tension-filled, to say the least and, as a neutral, you can really appreciate all of what is going on around you in the stands. You see the faces of hope and fear and just know it is exactly how you would look if your own county were involved.
But if the drawn clash was all about the occasion, due to the fact Dublin left the door open for Kerry, there was something a lot more clinical about the display of Jim Gavin’s men last Saturday. And that, according to 2002 All-Ireland SFC winner with Armagh, Aidan O’Rourke, was epitomised by Mick Fitzsimons.
It was easy to appreciate Fitzsimons’ contribution.
However, maybe I underestimated the degree of his influence until watching the game back, keeping a close eye on his performance as, initially, I felt he was a little fortunate to be in the three shortlisted for the RTÉ Man of the Match award.
Yet, he really was excellent, illustrated by O’Rourke in his RTÉ column.
O’Rourke explained: ‘Standing head and shoulders above everyone in leading Dublin's resistance is Mick Fitzsimons – the most complete defender in the game at the moment and, for me, the footballer of the year.
‘Fitzsimons’ quality was never as clear as in a vital passage of play in the 48th minute. Kerry has closed the gap to two points and turned the ball over for a counter attack. Racing from centre forward across to the right wing, Sean O’Shea collected a pinpoint outlet pass as he spun John Small and exploded past him towards goal.
‘Luckily for Dublin, the mercurial Fitzsimons had sat in the cover position and, sensing the danger a marauding Sean O’Shea posed, left home early to meet the threat. This is an impossible task. Meeting a playmaker and finisher of O’Shea’s quality in space as he drives at you while you go the other way is a recipe for disaster.
‘Fitzsimons’ footwork and changes of direction are not only scarily quick but also instinctively perfect to close off space and take options away from an attacker. O’Shea, who may be the best possible man to create something from that position tries to get into shooting range but Fitzsimons closes the space and will block if the shot comes.
‘As O’Shea turns back onto his left, Fitzsimons is quicker and squeezes contact and pressure on him. After trying to wriggle left and right to find some passing space and finding not even a yard, O’Shea swings a left foot at something vague and possession is Dublin’s again.
‘That 15 seconds may have been the most pivotal in the psychology of the game. Dublin would keep the ball for fully three minutes in a clinical example of control under pressure before Paul Mannion splits the posts to squeeze the gap out to three points. The score was important but the message from Fitzsimons even more so.
‘Every era produces its own emblematic players and the list usually starts – at the farthest – at wing back then through high fielders, play makers and mercurial finishers. Appreciation for the value of high quality defenders – out and out defenders – is more difficult to find.
‘For his mastery of marking, positioning, sense of danger and the tackle, Mick Fitzsimons is a once in a generation talent. It may have gone largely unseen but without their talisman at the back both battles with Kerry could have had very different results.’
Strong sentiments there from O’Rourke. But, with the exception of him saying Fitzsimons was in footballer of the year territory, which I disagree with, O’Rourke’s admiration for the Cuala man is understandable.
Speaking of the footballer of the year award, Stephen Cluxton should be the man handed such a prize this year.
The Parnells stopper was simply outstanding for the entire summer and made a number of crucial saves in the two final encounters with Kerry.
In fact, given Dublin were leading 1-13 to 0-13 at the time, the fact he denied Stephen O’Brien from close range last Saturday essentially broke the resistance of Peter Keane’s side.
O’Brien will probably rue not handpassing the ball inside to Paul Geaney as the latter was in a far better position, but Cluxton narrowed the space at which O’Brien had to aim at and duly pulled off a defining moment in the campaign.
Cluxton should be the main man this year, especially as it could be his final one with Dublin.