There are only a few certainties in this life; night always follows day, taxes have to be paid, and it’s always the referee’s fault when you lose a tight game.
I find that last one to be complete bullshit.
Now, I know the free count was 22-13 in Dublin’s favour. Also, I’m acutely aware that it was a stonewall yellow card foul committed by Kevin McManamon for his shuddering hit on a rampaging Peter Crowley in injury time that could have led to a potential Bryan Sheehan game-levelling free. I’m further aware that there were several other instances like the two 45s a minute apart in the second half (one each for Paul Murphy and McManamon) that were called incorrectly, in my opinion, and both in Dublin’s favour. More still, when you look at Brian Fenton jumping into a hop ball between Kieran Donaghy and Michael Darragh McAuley and stealing the possession illegally before either had touched the ball,… there was plenty that you could point to as a disgruntled Kerry supporter as reason why the referee had potentially cost Kerry the game or at least a chance of a replay.
However, again, I find such excuse-ridden thinking to be utter bullshit.
Don’t get me wrong, I get as frustrated with referees as the next person, but to make him the story is to give players a get-out-of-jail card that their performance does not deserve and a crutch they don’t want.
I’ve always steadfastly believed that no matter how much a referee influences a game, it’s the players that have the ultimate power to dictate the outcome of any contest by their performance.
Over the 78 minutes, in a game played at breakneck pace filled with bone-crunching collisions, Dublin won because they were the better team. Maybe Kerry supporters aren’t yet ready to accept it, but that’s the cold reality. They displayed the type of cool headedness and killer instinct in the final 10 minutes, under the severest of pressure, that Kerry were simply unable to find.
You can talk about fitness, or strength and conditioning, or the depth of their bench, but the facts are that Kerry had as many opportunities in that scoring zone in the last 10 minutes as Dublin had at the other end, but, crucially, Kerry couldn’t capitalise. Players kicked wides or coughed up possession in the tackle on at least 10 different occasions in the final tension-filled minutes and all of those mistakes were as significant as David Gough’s late non-whistle.
After last year’s All-Ireland final, or even this year’s league final, there was a different feeling after the game. In those previous encounters, Kerry never performed, and it left supporters with an empty feeling. Last Sunday was a different story. I thought Eamonn Fitzmaurice and his management team got a lot right in the way they set up and approached it. Obviously, Kerry spent the first 20 minutes of the game looking decidedly unsure of themselves, almost nervous, but what followed before the break was a period of dominance that came from a brilliant tactical adjustment that they must have introduced and worked on in training to try and confound Stephen Cluxton.
Essentially, after every dead-ball scoreable free awarded to Kerry, they used the 60-second break in play to flood 12 players into the Dublin half in a deliberate zone formation. Kerry defenders abandoned their primary duties and left their direct opponent behind them to close down the pockets of space that Cluxton loves to target. It left the Dublin keeper unable to find a flower in a field of thistles and you could see Kerry growing in confidence with their new tactic having such a profound effect on the Dublin talisman.
Unfortunately, Kerry were under the same kind of pressure to win primary ball from their own kick- out when Dublin forced them to go long. It was a struggle for Brian Kelly any time he went further than his 21.
Supporters’ only real gripe with Fitzy was the substitution of Kerry’s top forward on the day, Paul Geaney. Even he looked confused to be coming off.
In fairness to the Kerry management, it came in response to a clever tactical substitution by Jim Gavin and Dublin. They took off their midfielder MD McAuley and introduced Eoin O’Gara into the forwards, essentially playing with seven attackers. He pushed right up on Kerry’s sweeper at that stage, which forced Aidan O’Mahony into a direct man-marking job, thus taking away Kerry’s safety net in front of goal. By bringing on Marc Ó Sé at that point, they were obviously conscious of not coughing up a late goal which would have killed off any chance of getting a result. It was a gamble that ultimately didn’t pay off, but after making four offensive substitutions in Stephen O’Brien, James O’Donoghue, Barry John Keane, and Bryan Sheehan, the Kerry management must have felt confident enough in their reserves to think they had enough threats in attack to get the scores to see them home. You would have thought, though, that a tiring Gooch would have been a more prudent choice to replace rather than an ace score-getter on the day, but that’s why being a Monday morning quarterback is the easiest position in the world to play. Hindsight is 20:20.
When you consider the eye-watering numbers thrown out by former Dublin player Ross McConnell last week — that since the 2013 All-Ireland semi-final, in the last 10 minutes of each Kerry and Dublin game, collectively, Dublin have outscored Kerry 4-10 to 4 points — it’s hard to blame Fitzy for thinking safety-first entering injury time. Particularly, with the game hanging in the balance and with Dublin’s penchant for pushing up and going into attack mode for the last 10 minutes.
I make it a staggering 4-15 to six points after Sunday.
Kerry players will know the harsh reality this week. They won’t hide behind refereeing decisions or any other excuses. The bottom line: Kerry did everything they could to down Dublin last weekend, but it wasn’t enough. They punched them square in the mouth as hard as they could and wobbled the champions, maybe even dropped them to one knee and gave them a standing count, but this Dublin group are special. They lost an All-Star full-back and a footballer-of-the-year half-back and they can still produce the necessary resilience and class to get up and keep throwing haymakers.
Right now, it’s no consolation for Kerry players or supporters, but in a few weeks, there will be some solace taken from knowing they at least asked them the hard questions. Unfortunately for Kerry, Dublin somehow keep coming up with the right answers.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved