You could feel it building around Kerry all last week. A sort of guarded sense of hope. Nothing cocky - how could you be against your chief tormentors of recent years? But the optimism of a solid league campaign had started to seep its way into Kerry’s consciousness.
Basic logic would suggest Dublin had to be a weaker group than last September. They were now without their All-Star full back Rory O’Carroll, last year’s footballer of the year Jack McCaffrey and impact sub extraordinaire Alan Brogan…
You can’t just replace those guys without a few stumbles, right?
When you desperately want something to be true, it’s always easier to convince yourself that the chasing pack had gained ground on the champions. Kerry were on a roll after a spring burst that saw old legs rejuvenated, and an untypical spike in April confidence.
This was no ordinary league fixture. With a packed house in Croke Park, and an opportunity to knock the champions off their lofty pedestal and end their unbeaten run, this game mattered far more to the Munster champions than it did to Dublin. From the Kerry perspective, it seemed the time was right for a little pay-back.
But that’s what hope does to you. Lulls you into a false sense of security, you forget just how good these guys really are, and why exactly they are unbeaten for an incredible 22 games.
As Kerry people, I’d like to think we have an appreciation of good football and great teams. And I cringe listening to some of the nonsensical excuses about referees, missing personnel, or any other meaningless retort as to why Dublin have our number at present.
The harsh reality is they’re just better than Kerry. And that’s a tough one to swallow. They are the superior team and have harnessed a plethora of blue-chip performers that are still some distance ahead of Kerry and every other team. Dublin have always had athletes, gazelle-like humans capable of running hard for inordinate periods of time at speed. But this current pack have the traditional skills to match their athleticism. They have adapted to their new environment and can play ball with you if you want, they are completely unselfish in their defending for each other, and still manage to play the game with an attacking verve for 70 minutes that’s beautiful to behold.
Unsurprisingly, kick-outs again proved to be the imponderable conundrum for Kerry from both sides of the pitch. Brendan Kealy will be very disappointed with his distribution from the tee, with the second-half error punished by Paul Flynn the low point of a malfunctioning kick-out strategy that hurt Kerry all day. But it can’t be all on Kealy, there’s plenty of blame to be shared around. The first part of every successful kick pass starts with the guy who makes a run into space. When you compare the movement and willingness the Dublin players were showing Stephen Cluxton to the options facing the Kerry keeper, you can see why it was such a struggle to get enough ball up to the forwards. With a lack of options, Kealy made some bad decisions and started forcing kicks into very tight windows to find a man. Dublin had him - and Kerry - cracked.
Strangely Kerry decided to abandon the zonal marking that brought us relative success against Cluxton and go man-for-man on the Dublin kick-out. It didn’t work and probably contributed to Kerry’s lack of legs in the final quarter, such was the ground they were covering before the ball was even in play. Cluxton had acres of space to pop balls into to pick out his receivers on the run. Lesson learned.
If the result and second-half performance didn’t taste well on the palate for Kerry people, another aspect of the game that really turned my stomach was the portrayal of Kieran Donaghy as some sort of panto villain for the amusement of the Dublin supporters. The booing of an amateur player in a huge game in front of his family and friends in Croke Park should have no place in the GAA. This isn’t the Premier League; supporters don’t contribute to players earning huge sums of money every week. Don’t try to fool yourself into thinking because you paid for a seat in Croke Park you have a right to engage in that kind of mob mentality and boo a guy every time he touches the ball because you don’t like the way he acts on the field.
And before Kerry supporters get too indignant, there were plenty in green and gold who gave Stephen Cluxton similar treatment as he sauntered up the field to take frees and 45s during last year’s All Ireland final. That was equally distasteful. They’ll justify it by saying it was directed at the referee’s timekeeping as much as the player. Either way, it was wrong. Booing a player to the extent we heard last Sunday is a classless act and has no place in our association, whether you are Cluxton, Donaghy or anybody in between.
People will point to Aidan O’Mahony’s sending off as the crucial factor that led to Dublin twisting the knife, but I’m not buying that. No doubt it hurt Kerry - they had no chance of winning after his dismissal. But I never got a sense all afternoon Kerry would win the game, even with 15 players. They were always just about clinging on with our finger nails.
In fact, if anything Dublin got uncharacteristically sloppy after the sending off and had a number of unforced turnovers that kept Kerry in the game for longer than they should have been. It was a humbling day to be a Kerry player or supporter. Dublin did to us what we have done to so many down the years. We had hoped to see proof of what we were thinking… that we were getting closer to knocking them off their pedestal, but these Dubs are the real deal. They don’t care about Kerry. They’re too busy chasing history and silverware.
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