On Monday night I brought my two small boys down town in Tralee to take a look at the most dreaded aspect of losing an All-Ireland final for the players – the homecoming. The dark grey weather matched the sombre mood on the streets and in the second bus.
It’s bad enough when the final whistle blows in Croke Park and somebody else is celebrating and about to take home ‘your’ trophy. Your whole body feels numb. Unsure of where to go or what to do, you go into a kind of shock.
You instantly think of the people you’ve left down - your family, parents and grandparents who have the house nearly burned down several times with the amount of holy candles they have lit during the month. A million thoughts racing around your head. ‘How could this happen?’
It’s like getting dumped by a girlfriend live on television with the whole country watching, you just want to hide and not try to make sense of it all. It’s all far too raw for rationalisations.
It wasn’t so bad a few years ago, the pitch invasion always gave players an excuse to head straight down the tunnel and into the sanctuary of the dressing room. Nowadays, without the over-eager supporters storming the hallowed turf, you’ve just got to suck it up and stand out there and be a good sportsman.
Those immediate moments hit you hard, but nothing like when your open-top, trophy-less bus turns the corner at the top of Denny Street, and what was a vision of joyous celebration only 12 months earlier, now has all the atmosphere and excitement of a funeral… and you’re in the back of the hearse.
Some players do a better job than others of putting on a brave face. In truth, it is the very last place in the world that any Kerry player wants to be - front of house, facing a few hundred supporters when all they want to do is skulk away into the shadows with their own inner circle of friends and become faceless for a few months.
You stand on the stage, trying to find somebody tall to hide behind, - I always proved a popular camouflage - as some character with a microphone bellows out hollow assurances on your behalf that ‘we will have Sam back home on this stage next year’, cue the loudest cheer of the night by the crowd of die-hards in attendance.
It’s the most uncomfortable spot you could possibly ever imagine and a tradition that I would have liked to see done away with in my time. Parades are for winners.
The game itself was as lifeless as the homecoming. The box of matches was too wet to light the fuse. Players on both sides struggled badly with the underfoot conditions and the game descended into an error-ridden scrapfest. You would have thought Kerry should have had the superior wet weather skills considering they had played two big championship games this season in a deluge of rain. But not last Sunday.
If someone had told me before the game that Kerry would again crack Cluxton from the tee and secure nearly 45% possession from the Dublin kick-out; that Kerry would concede no goals; and restrict Dublin to only 12 points over 70 minutes of football, I would have bet my house and all my worldly belongings that there was no way Dublin would win the game.
Of course today, I would be living on the streets.
Dublin turned the tables on Kerry and did a bit of hammering of our hammers. David Moran was bookies favourite for footballer of the year before the throw-in and he found himself replaced early in the second half and suffered the further ignominy of his marker picking up the gong for man of the match later that night.
Philly McMahon played Gooch the very same way that Tyrone did back in the last decade. Ryan McMenamin would bomb forward every time they had possession forcing Colm to do the disciplined thing and follow him the length of the pitch. McMahon did the very same and Gooch was seen as often in a defensively role as he was an attacker. Johnny Buckley, who was Kerry’s best player in the semi-final, was given none of the freedom, space or time he had enjoyed the last time out and struggled to impact the game.
Dublin went after where Kerry were strong, and turned the tables. They won more of those key individual battles and left Kerry short of leadership. It was crying out for somebody to take the game by the scruff of the neck but Kerry just couldn’t find have that guy.
Dublin kept grinding Kerry down. Cian O’Sullivan dropped as the sweeper like we knew he would and did a great job of discouraging the type of popped kick pass into Geaney and O’Donoghue that they thrive on.
The movement of the Kerry forwards was not what we have become familiar with under Eamon Fitzmaurice and that lack of inside targets made it difficult for the guys out to field to move the ball on as quickly as they would have liked.
It slowed down Kerry’s whole attack and forced half backs and midfielders to go lateral and we lacked any real penetration in that crucial scoring zone.
The crazy thing was, as poorly as Kerry performed, when Donaghy won that hop ball and presented a great goal chance across the square to Killian Young, it would have been daylight robbery if Kerry had snatched a draw out of it, such was Dublin’s level of control over the game.
It was a three-point margin at the final whistle that flattered Kerry far more than it did the victors.
As always in Kerry, the post-mortem will be a slow excruciating affair. As well as the players, Fitzy won’t be happy with the performance of the management team either. They are all in it as one unit – players and management, they go up together and down together. I never get too hung up on substitutions, sometimes they work for you, and sometimes they don’t.
One day you are inspired and the next you are a dunce. But, what may disappoint Fitzmaurice the most is that the work they did for the previous four weeks never manifested itself into a quality performance. They under-performed. It’s obviously impossible for management to legislate for high quality footballers kicking 13 wides total from some good chances, and coughing up 36 turnovers over the course of 74 minutes of rain-soaked action, but we never showed Dublin anything different.
Management will conduct a root and branch assessment of their build-up to determine whether they were undercooked or overcooked, or maybe it was just one of those days. But they’ll search for the answers to try make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Dublin fully deserved their victory and secured their second title in three years.
But with the recent domination of the Kerry minors, and Fitzmaurice’s decision to remain on at the helm, this is a rivalry that is set to roll on all the way into the next decade.
As an aside, and I want to emphasise that this is not a bitter Kerry man spilling sour grapes all over his lap top. Dublin were miles the better side and could on another day have been double-digit winners, and the late incident of alleged eye-gouging had absolutely zero impact on the outcome of the game. That being said, what Philly McMahon did to Kieran Donaghy was the nastiest incident I can ever recall seeing on a football pitch and should be punished as severely as the association allows. I can recall the day Paul Galvin knocked a notebook out of a referee’s hand and received a ban that held him out of most of that year’s championship. This was a far more serious incident and requires a strong message from headquarters to make sure this type of incident never again occurs.
It’s irrelevant whether Donaghy and McMahon want to let it slide - things wouldn’t be so kosher if Donaghy was walking around with no sight out of his eye this week.
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