Early July and Tom Cribbin is sitting in the Annebrook Hotel in Mullingar wondering aloud about an audacious plan that could go a long way towards the impossible and overcoming the Dubs in the upcoming Leinster final.
An Aussie friend had visited earlier in the week. A keen AFL fan. Cribbin’s buddy told him about how Australian Rules teams routinely push up on the opposition, to such an extent that they leave forwards unmarked within kicking distance of their own goals.
Their International Rules team did it against Ireland too but the Westmeath manager can’t quite square such a chasm between risk and reward. This is only the county’s fifth senior provincial final. Could he really bet it all on such high odds?
“I don’t think we’d be brave enough because the lads wouldn’t commit to it,” he said. “They’d be so nervous they wouldn’t commit to it 100%. And maybe professional teams that are playing week in, week out, can commit to something like that. But this is a do-or-die situation for us.”
The stakes were just as high for Kerry yesterday but Éamonn Fitzmaurice shared no such qualms.
The Kerry manager would explain later that it was the sort of tactic that could only be pressed into action after a free attempt at the opposition’s posts and that moment duly arrived with Colm Cooper’s successful dead ball effort half an hour in.
Twelve Kerry players pushed up, cramming into the Kerry half like dates in a jar. For their supporters watching from the Davin Stand, the sight of at least two Dublin forwards left completely unattended so close to Brian Kelly’s goal must have been, well, disconcerting.
This was it. The house being bet on red or black.
Paul Geaney intercepting Stephen Cluxton’s kickout established the foothold, not just for Darran O’Sullivan’s goal, but for a whirlwind, unanswered 2-4 that left Kerry leading by five points in a firestorm of a game that had until then threatened to smother and die away.
The shadow of Dublin’s semi-final defeat to Donegal two years ago fell across Croke Park. They had led nine points to four before the Ulster county flipped the switch but Dublin benefited here from the firebreak that was half-time.
Gavin would play the panic down later.
He would claim that they had seen the tactic from Kerry before: In the league decider earlier this year, last season’s finale and in that epic last-four meeting in 2013. He all but painted the half-time dressing-room scene that followed as one of peace and tranquility.
Cluxton, he said, established the vibe.
“As a captain he spoke very well at half-time about sticking to our game plan. These things happen. The way we play our game, we don’t play that denying teams space in defence and that counter-attacking style of football.
“We’re very much, in some respects, open and vulnerable. We accept that. That’s part of our game plan. We accept that against a team like Kerry they’re going to score against you but we stood true to our values and that’s what saw us home in the end.”
If the game itself was an assault to the senses then the Dublin manager showed all the giddiness of an accountant opening a ledger in his dissection of it. There is no unravelling him and he stuck to his thesis that the half-time interval was of no great import to the outcome.
“In the national league, the championship, previous seasons, there’s been a lot of questions asked of them and, for me, half-time is just a break in play. What counts is when the referee blows his final whistle. The team demonstrated great composure at half-time.”
Kerry will look back on their failure to launch in the first quarter and a horrendous third when they launched 10 attacks on Cluxton’s posts and racked up just the one point from a free, a wide, another effort kicked short into the goalkeeper’s arms and seven turnovers. All that and they still fell just two points short.
“Yeah, it’s a fantastic Kerry team,” said Gavin. “Outstanding management. We have huge, huge admiration for them up in Dublin. That game — we realise it in the Dublin dressing-room — could’ve went either way.
“It was a fantastic test by a team who play very similar to ourselves. They go out and play football and all the skills of the game were demonstrated today: The physicality we want in our game, some great fielding, kick passing, score taking, great goals.”
The couldas, wouldas and shouldas must have snaked all the way back to the Kerry border last night. Among them will be the refusal of referee David Gough to award them a late free when Kevin McManamon clearly fouled the centre-back as he manoeuvred into a scoring possession.
Gavin dealt with a query on that as he did another on the legitimacy of Kerry’s second goal — by highlighting the need to maintain the physicality of what is a contact sport — Cribbin might have raised a smile at the thought that Kerry fell three points short of the victory.
“Any team that’s going to beat Dublin has to get goals,” he explained that evening eight or so weeks ago. “We reckon we’ve no chance of beating them unless we get three goals and we don’t concede a goal. That’s the way we’ll be planning the game.”
Mayo will have watched it all unfurl with interest.
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