The GAA Championship: Dublin’s Five-In-A-Row

by | Sep 21, 2019

They did it, then. As predicted throughout by everyone who’d been paying attention, Dublin won their fifth consecutive All-Ireland senior football championship, an unprecedented achievement in Gaelic Games. They won last Saturday evening’s replay convincingly enough in the end. But beaten finalists Kerry supplied more evidence that talk of “seven, eight, nine-in-a-row,” in which Sky Sports pundit Peter Canavan indulged post-match, might be premature.

Kerry’s kindergarten team would have been the story of any other year. But Dublin are not any other team. The stats don’t Boris Johnson lie. Previous winners of four football titles in-a-row (Wexford 100 years ago, winning the delayed 1918 final in February 1919, and Kerry in 1929-32 and 1978-81) played far fewer games. Kerry played eight over the 1932 and 1981 championships, Dublin played eight, plus the replay, this year alone.

Past scorelines suggest that Dublin dominated their glory years more than all of the above. And Kerry’s 1978-81 team should never have beaten ‘my’ team Roscommon in the 1980 final…he says without bias or bitterness (“you couldn’t look at a Kerryman but there was a free,” Roscommon County Board chairman Micheal O’Callaghan memorably opined afterwards). The debate over whether Dublin are the “greatest-ever,” hasn’t “raged.” They are the greatest-ever. Although there are ‘reasons’ for that, to which I shall return.

The replay was as good as the drawn game…for an hour. And there were similarities to 1982’s final, when Kerry’s second drive-for-five was emergency-stopped by Offaly (whose team included British Open golf champion Shane Lowry’s dad, Brendan). Both games had high-scoring first halves, with outstanding points from all angles. And both drivers-for-five held a shaky four-point lead going into the closing stages.

There, though, the similarities end. Kerry had a penalty saved with 18 minutes left in 1982 and got nervous and defensive as history beckoned, if less so than in this year’s drawn game. Two Offaly points halved Kerry’s lead and Offaly won with sub Seamus Darby’s late goal, which should have been disallowed for a foul – just as THAT ball landed on the line in 1966. Last Saturday, Dublin kept their four-point lead as history beckoned. And THEY got the two late points to seal a six-point victory.

If there were doubts about Dublin’s tribute to the Cure’s debut album in the first game, when Paul Mannion opened the scoring after 17 seconds, they were surely dispelled when Con O’Callaghan did it again on Saturday. That suggested a frightening control of proceedings, which played out as they led 0-5 to 0-1 after seven minutes, Mannion landing one effort while edging halfway back to the city centre to make a better angle for himself.

Then Kerry changed tack. The high ball into the full-forwards, which got them a penalty 13 days previously, wasn’t working, the first of 94 lessons Dublin learnt in that time. Patient build-up, allied to brilliance from Adrian Spillane and wonderkid David Clifford, hauled Kerry to within a point within 13 minutes. And there were fifteen scores in the first 22 minutes. Nothing in hurling, but a shedload in football.

It wasn’t yet clear if this game would continue to live up to the drawn game. But replay ref Conor Lane wasn’t quite living up to drawn game ref David Gough. Lane was good overall, correctly not giving one early free when thousands of nearby Dublin fans were as convinced as TV viewers, commentators and pundits that a dirty deed had been done.

But he made a howler on 27 minutes, when Kerry’s goalbound Tadhg Morley was dragged to the ground just outside the penalty area. Lane merely warned Dublin’s Michael Fitzsimons. But it was a black card offence…committed by Con O’Callaghan. “A bit of a let-off,” noted RTE commentator Ger Canning, understating heroically. VAR would have sorted it.

Kerry scored the resultant free (Lane got that right anyway) and it was 0-10 each at half-time, although Dubs on Hill 16, Croke Park’s massive sole terrace, were booing again when O’Callaghan fell under a penalty area challenge which looked stronger than the foul for Kerry’s penalty in the drawn game. Still, O’Callaghan was lucky to be on the field. So…all square everywhere.

And it remained all square in the second half for…nine-and-a-half seconds. Eoin Murchan was Dublin’s only team-change from the first game. And, suddenly, the change was a(nother) master-stroke from Dublin’s master-manager Jim Gavin. Murchan won possession almost straight from the throw-in, ran for goal and wellied the ball into it as soon as he was in range (“his first-ever time to score ANYTHING in the Championship,” shouted an amazed Canning).

“No man has ever covered so much ground in Croke Park with one solo and two hops,” RTE pundit Colm O’Rourke noted darkly, insisting that Murchan had taken twelve steps (“though only little ones”). He had only taken eight after his second hop of the ball. But that still left Gaelic Football’s “four-step rule” not so much broken as shattered into a thousand tiny pieces. Murchan covered 60 yards in what could legally have been no more than 16 “steps. And O’Rourke was right in that he’s only a little fellow. So, you know, do the math…

Still, it was an almost impossibly quick goal for Gaelic Football, especially as Kerry’s David Moran won the ball from the throw-in. “The second-half surge, it seems, has begun,” noted an overexcited Canning). And when O’Callaghan parted the Kerry defensive waves and fired just over in the next attack, they looked ready to repeat the score-splurge which did for Mayo in the semi-final.

But Canning had come too early. Kerry hauled themselves back from four points down to within a point, for the second time in the match. “Each time, I would have said ‘burst ball, game over’” noted RTE co-commentator Kevin McStay, who clearly played football as a kid with some right bastards. But, within seconds, the game’s pivotal moment, of brilliance, arrived.

The match-unfit but talismanic Diarmuid Connolly had replaced the injured drawn game man-of-the-match Jack Mc Caffrey at half-time. And this match-unfitness was initially evident. But cometh the 44th minute, cometh the (talis)man. Kerry won a kick-out and drove forward. But Connolly dispossessed Spillane before somehow drilling a laser-accurate 50-yard pass over Ciaran Kilkenny’s left shoulder AND straight into his stride, giving the soon-to-be-man-of-the-match the chance to take an excellent point on the run.

A second glance at the score revealed that Connolly was more likely trying to fins O’Callaghan, who was running out towards the pass when Kilkenny crossed their paths. But that merely downgraded Connolly’s contribution from sorcery to brilliance. From threatening to level, Kerry were suddenly two points down, never to get so close again. Dublin stretched their lead to four for a third time, one of their scores arriving after they’d held possession for…eeek…175 seconds. If only Kerry had done that 13 days before… And now, it WAS “burst ball, game over,”

However, the gap only became five with two minutes left. Kerry missed decent point chances. Dublin keeper Stephen Cluxton made a vital 53rd-minute save when a goal would have levelled things. And Dublin bossed the denouement as per. Niall Scully blazed one goal chance over (he was subbed instantly – co-incidence or ruthlessness?) and Kerry keeper Shane Ryan’s fine stoppage-time save from Connolly halted a Dublin march to an umpteenth double-figure win in 2019.

Dublin’s five-in-a-row and seven titles-in-nine, might seem less remarkable than a county with 20% of the island’s population, playing their big games at home, winning ONE title from 1984 to 2010. That ‘failure’ panicked the GAA into a 2002 “Strategic Review” which recommended “sizeable” investment in “finance and personnel” in Dublin and splitting Dublin into North and South teams, so as to avoid Dublin dominating every resource before a ball is kicked. The investment happened. The split…didn’t. And…here we are.

So the narrative now is that Dublin’s dominance is not “about money.” This has required considerable intellectual gymnastics, as money was half the solution to Dublin’s ‘Failures.’ Canavan called other counties “amateur” in “ethos…and practice” and Dublin “amateur in ethos but professional in practice.” He noted his native Tyrone losing their strength and conditioning coach to Ulster Rugby, while Leinster Rugby lost a strength and conditioner, 2011 All-Ireland winning captain Bryan Cullen, to Dublin. And those moves, between professional rugby and GAA, were NOT about money?

“2012’s Irish sports reporter of the year Ewan MacKenna had ‘contrasting’ views, likening Dublin’s success to “a guy thinking he’s a ladies man because he paid a prostitute,” labelling Dublin’s “drive-for-five” follow-up the “fix for six” in his Irish Independent newspaper column and lamenting the “Manchester City-fication” of Gaelic Football. But, as per, the truth lies in-between. Listing Dublin’s great footballers would explode my word count limit. But their “strength and conditioning” undoubtedly helped them against Kerry…twice.

It seems churlish to pursue this narrative when Dublin, since 2011, have become the greatest-ever inter-county Gaelic Football team because of natural ability, amazing attitude and managerial brilliance. But that “sizeable” investment didn’t half help.