I spotted him from a distance, and I knew instantly something was coming, I just wasn’t sure exactly what. This walking into town after a Kerry game was a whole new ball game to me: “Go home to youz bleedin’ cows and leave the football to us… Up the Dubs” was the exuberant proclamation that greeted me as I skulked away from Croke Park.
‘Thanks for that’, I thought to myself. That’s just what I needed. He was like a town crier, hanging out of a bar door, head to toe in Dublin blue… all he was short was the ringing bell and tricorn hat. He had the thickest Dublin accent, and he repeated the same line over and over and never skipped a beat while I was in ear shot. He bellowed at every sign of green and gold he laid eyes on, as many Kerry supporters as he could hit, like a verbal car-bomb.
That was 2011, and it was the last year I played football with Kerry. I had come back late during the league after we had lost a couple of key guys around the middle of the field to injury. It was about the time Dave Moran was side-lined with cruciate number one. I had Jack O’Connor on the phone at his cajoling best.
In truth, I had had enough; with twin boys that were only a couple of months old, sent to upscuttle any footballer’s chance at routine, and deprive my wife and I of any notion of ever sleeping again. As well as that, I had a job that involved a lot of evening work, and coupled with deteriorating knee and back issues that were aching louder with each passing session, I somehow made the ill-advised decision to give it a go for a few months, allowed my heart to rule the head.
The final time I ever played for Kerry was against Cork in that summer’s Munster decider in Killarney for the last 20 minutes and I was terrible. I liked to think I was able to affect the course of a game coming off the bench, and always appreciated the importance of that role, but that day, I never got close to the pitch of it. I knew then that my race was run. We played Limerick in the quarter-final that year and I saw no game-time. And let me tell you from experience, being an unused substitute in Croke Park on a big day is the most disgusting seat in the house.
You are lost in a kind of limbo; people congratulating each other after a great win and you feel thoroughly undeserving of any pat on the back. For what? Sitting on your arse?
I understood it had to be done. But there are stages to everything. And when you are in a county like Kerry, it is unavoidable that there will be games where your particular skill-set is not required as much as against another opponent. But I had served my time sitting and wasn’t for reliving that stage for even another two games.
Jack and I met in the Fels Point Hotel in Tralee the following Tuesday so I could hand over my letter of resignation, and he could get cracking on my severance package. I’m still waiting on that actually.
One game later and Kerry had progressed to meet Dublin in what turned out to be an epic final — a game Kerry should never have coughed up after leading by four points inside the final 10 minutes. I felt the sickest I ever have leaving Croke Park that day. Having been so closely removed from the group, I thought for sure in my head, I could have still helped get them over the line. I was probably just deluding myself.
Dublin brought on a substitute that day whose contribution was lost in the grand scheme of late scores and heroic performances. He was a big unit called Eamon Fennell who came on with about seven minutes to go. With the game level in injury time, referee Joe McQuillan decided after Ger Brennan retaliated to a foul by Donaghy by pawing him in the face that he would reverse the call and hop the ball on the Dublin 45. A potentially great attacking position for Kerry if they could secure possession.
Up stepped the fresh Fennell against a weary-legged Donaghy — a big difference between seven minutes played and 70. There was only going to be one winner, and a constructive tap down by the giant Dublin substitute gave them the ball which saw them break up the field, and led to the foul and subsequent free that allowed Cluxton to display his coolness under pressure.
Small, almost insignificant incidents, like Fennell’s touch are sometimes invisible to the crowd and highlight packages, but those ‘grains of sand’, as Paidí described them, tend to determine the outcome of massive games more often than spectacular scores. A seven-minute cameo from a Dub who most supporters wouldn’t even remember playing, had a pivotal role in determining the destination of Sam Maguire that season — and next Sunday will be no different.
The substitutes bench on both sides are laden with medals, All-Stars, game-changers and match winners. The timing, and the amount of impact they bring to proceedings could swing this heavyweight battle one way or the other. One touch from a hop-ball could tip the scale. The finest of margins.
Kevin McManamon has ripped the heart right out of Kerry’s chest in the last two championship meetings; surely Fitzmaurice will have an experienced dog like Mahony ready to pounce as soon as he comes sniffing around the house this time. Lightning never strikes trice, right?
Tactically, Sunday’s All-Ireland final will be as fascinating as the pace will be frenetic.
As they did against Mayo, particularly in the replay, Dublin will want to keep the tempo high all day. They really backed their fitness last time and they’ll push the pace on Kerry to the limit again in the first half. Try to blitz them early, and test out some of the older legs.
Not wanting to labour a point that has been flogged to death, but how Kerry deal with the Cluxton kick-out will obviously have a huge bearing on who dictates the pace of play and ultimately the outcome of the game.
The populist talk is that Kerry must ‘push-up’ at kick-out time, but I’m not sure exactly what that means and how it could be a good idea for 70 minutes. Pushing up all day will give Cluxton too many of those pockets of space 30 and 40 yards from goal to make heroes of Flynn and Connolly etc by pinging chest-high ball for them to run onto.
Kerry must box cleverer than that. Against that kind of accuracy off the tee, you must treat him like a great quarter back in American football; you have to mix it up, keep showing him different looks so he never gets comfortable with what he’s seeing in front of him. Kerry will sit in a zone at times, but must be flexible enough to switch it up to a more aggressive man-to-man.
Particularly Kerry’s inside forwards will have to be touch-tight and physical with their direct opponent as soon as the ball goes dead. Concentration must be high, and they automatically become the team’s first line of corner-backs, and must not allow their marker a free 15 yard run for a short one, with half forwards and midfielders behind them still protecting their designated area and not specifically following their man.
Mayo gave up possession too readily in the semi-final replay and it hurt them. Cluxton doesn’t want to kick it out into a contest, so if Kerry can force him to put four or five up for grabs, that’ll be a success in itself.
This is a clash of two superpowers. The aristocrats of the game. Both teams are at the peak of their powers and nothing would surprise me Sunday.
My weekend kicks off Saturday afternoon at the GPA ex-players’ luncheon in Croke Park, where the great Micko is justifiably being honoured for his incredible achievements and longevity in the game.
The Kerry tables will spend the afternoon telling the Dubs how much we think they will beat us by and how they have far too much money for us to compete against them on a level playing field.
They always like jumping for that bait.
I only hope their current footballers crack as easily on Sunday, but I doubt it.
Kerry’s cuteness in attack may get them home by a whisker. If so, I’ll skip off down the road on the look-out for my town crier to explain the difference between farmers and footballers.
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