By PJ Cunningham
Isn’t it funny, as in peculiar, that despite the unprecedented sea change in Gaelic football over recent years in terms of style and systems, that tradition still has such a bearing on an All Ireland final outcome.
There are many who believe that our national football game pre-2000 was pretty Neanderthal, adding that it is only the intervening years that count when it comes to factoring in what influences games.
And yet a young team from the Kingdom, like the one Mick O’Dwyer brought to Croke Park in 1975, almost got across the line because they had that Kerry tradition as an integral part of their match-day make up.
Of course, they had all the modern stuff learned off as well, but it just goes to show that a lot of football is played in the head.
And make no mistake about it, for all the nutrition, for all the video analysis, for all the stats on completed passes and kick out success rate, the one imponderable will be which group of individuals benefited more from the drawn encounter and its aftermath?
As always you can make compelling cases as to why both Dublin and Kerry should improve, and which one might even improve more than the other.
Let’s look at the holders first – and I think we are all agreed that it wasn’t Jim Gavin’s finest hour.
Indeed, if Dublin end up falling short on their drive-for-five the blame will be laid firmly at the door of their supremo.
The first chink in the previous impervious Dublin armour appeared in his preferential treatment of Diarmuid Connolly.
This guy would be in Boston playing club football but for the fact that he had a problem getting into the US.
He was immediately brought into the metropolitan’s squad, got a lot more game-time than the likes of Bernard Brogan and Eoghan O’Gara, both of whom have been extremely loyal, despite suffering marginalisation in recent years.
However, when both were jettisoned from the panel of 26, and the St Vincent’s forward was not just included but brought on against Kerry in the All Ireland final, the tight impenetrable band around this Dublin set-up was loosened – not by much but still enough to notice.
While accepting that the manager has a tightrope to walk with the decisions he makes, the word is that Connolly’s return was done without other selectors knowing this was happening.
This further undermines the sense of unity, even among the management team.
Another chink in the Dublin make-up is the way they have picked their team.
I appreciate that Cian O’Sullivan has an on-going hamstring problem but not using either his or Philly McMahon’s experience against Kerry was shown to be a mistake.
You could also make the case that Rory O’Carroll has the bulk to mark Tommy Walsh and the fact that he wasn’t even in the match day panel meant Dublin had to rob Peter to pay Paul, by deploying James McCarthy as an emergency man marker, thus losing his ability to sweep up around the half-back line.
Neither John Small nor Davy Byrne would figure in my Dublin team if I were picking it.
They are fine athletes for sure, but there is no ‘divil’ in team that all top-rate defenders must bring to their play.
Midfield was comprehensively beaten while the attack worked around rather than through the defence.
Dublin will address their midfield problem with one change in personnel and I can see their forwards chomping at the bit to get back out and make up for a poor day at the office.
They were lucky that Jack McCaffrey was the best forward on view, operating from wing back, though Dean Rock’s fetching and kicking from both play and placed balls was exemplary.
Paul Mannion flattered to deceive, and Con O’Callaghan threatened every time he got near the ball. But that was the problem – Dublin didn’t feed him enough opportunities to run at the Kerry defence.
Ciaran Kilkenny has stopped scoring and is only worthy of a place through his link work, but he also has a lot more to give and which Dublin will require if they are to become the immortals.
Brian Howard was immense and no one worked harder going back than Niall Scully, but there was a dearth of scoring with none of the outside line – Howard, Scully or Kilkenny, leaving a mark on the scoreboard.
Kerry’s perceived weakness was their defence and maybe it is unfair on them by claiming so many Dub forwards had an off day.
It might be more accurate to say they were subdued by tight, tenacious and intelligent marking.
Certainly the stock of the likes of Tadhg Morley, Jason Foley and Gavin Crowley soared on the strength of this showing.
Similarly, I didn’t see the Kingdom winning midfield but they lorded it for most of the 78 minutes.
Indeed, it was only when Barry got tired and Moran’s work-load proved too much that Dublin, fortified by the fresh legs of several subs, began winning dirty ball in the middle third.
If you were to measure the level of dissatisfaction of the Kerry forwards on how they performed, I’d be surprised if it wasn’t very similar to the Dubs sextet. As a unit they know they underachieved in this game.
— The GAA (@officialgaa) September 2, 2019
The good news is they have the chance to redeem themselves. Stephen O’Brien played little more than a cameo, David Clifford came good but only after fluffing his lines over the first stanzas of the epic while Paul Geaney had a ‘mare’ in the way he missed his penalty and other goal and point scoring opportunities.
By game’s end he appeared to have lost his confidence and that will need to return swiftly for Kerry to go one better on Saturday.
Killian Spillane made a compelling argument for inclusion with his impact as a sub while brother Kieran will probably now only see action as a replacement.
Jack White caught a real tartar in McCaffrey and it looks like the skipper will be starting on the wings next time around.
So it will all boil down to the team which learnt more from the first encounter and how those who played under par bounce back.
Dublin can point to at least seven or eight players who will up their game and while Kerry will expect Clifford and Geaney to be much better, I expect that with 15 players this time, Dublin will finally pass through the portals to Valhalla.