The GAA Championship: Dublin’s Five-In-A-Row Prorogued
Two weeks ago, I wrote: “It is usually more satisfying, for the neutral at least, when the right team wins a sporting tournament.” And Dublin have undoubtedly been the “right team” to win 2019’s All-Ireland football title, thus becoming the first to win ‘five-in-a-row’ such titles.
However, the real prospect of Kerry winning last Sunday’s fabulous All-Ireland final stirred the soul beyond such reason. Alas, that prospect also stirred fear in the souls of the (very) young Kerry team, thus denying them a historic victory to file under ‘unexpected’ even in this God-forsaken year.
The bare facts of Sunday’s game, a medium-high-score draw, tell but a fraction of its epic tale. Sporting contests, as Kilkenny hurling supremo Brian Cody is fond of telling interviewers, often “take on a life of their own.” But at least some of the pre-match perceived wisdom usually proves true within that context. Last Sunday, very little of it did.
The wisdom was that a Kerry win would require a superstar performance from superstar forward David Clifford, and, as Sky Sports’ David McIntyre said on match commentary, “be goal-hungry.” Dublin would have to be complacent, leggy, ill-disciplined, or all three, to a degree which manager Jim Gavin and their strength and conditioning team would not allow. Yet while the occasion initially flapped the previously unflappable Clifford, Dublin were “all three.” And Kerry should have won. Times 94. In ten feet high letters, by almost as many points.
After Paul Mannion pointed for Dublin on 17 seconds (in tribute to the Cure’s 1980 debut album?), Kerry settled engagingly quickly, yet failed to make that count on the scoreboard. Clifford missed three shots which would ordinarily have yielded at least two points, before eventually landing one with his ‘wrong’ foot. Paul Geaney’s seventh-minute shot was cleared off the line by James McCarthy. They wasted a penalty opportunity. And although Dublin could have needed snookers after 19 minutes, they actually led.
This was nothing new for Gavin teams, even in All-Ireland finals. In 2018, Tyrone sped into a four-point lead but were hauled back after 20 minutes by a Dublin side which had played almost no football by then. In 2016’s drawn final, Dublin hadn’t even scored after 29 minutes, yet led by three, thanks to two Mayo own goals (and Gaelic Football own goals are almost as rare as rocking-horse sh*t). Against Cork this year, Dublin began slowly before eventually winning quickly. And they were even behind to Roscommon before winning by an innings. Almost as if killing the opposition with hope is a tactic.
Still, Dublin got lucky with penalties (part one). On 13 minutes, full-back Johnny Cooper dragged back Clifford in the penalty box and Paul Geaney’s firmly-struck kick was well-saved by 37-year-old keeper Stephen Cluxton (in 1982, Kerry’s Mikey Sheehy had a penalty saved into the same goal by Offaly keeper Martin Furlong, which helped deny Kerry…five-in-a-row). Geaney’s kick was at the cliched ‘right height for a keeper’ but Cluxton was at that height because he was two yards off his line when Geaney hit the ball (a run-up as long as Geaney’s). Soccer keepers face disgrace for being a fly’s toenail off the line. Cluxton “narrowed the angle,” as Sky co-commentator Paul Earley noted. Dublin got lucky.
The penalty would have put Kerry two-up. Instead, they were soon two-down. They put huge pressure on Cluxton’s kick-outs, to good possession-winning effect. But this left them horribly exposed at the back if Dublin won possession. Which, on 19 minutes, they did, with two forwards nearer the goal than any Kerryman, keeper Shane Ryan included (football’s ‘offside’ law is very limited). Kerry’s defence raced back into position, but Dublin sped unchallenged downfield. Half-back Jack McCaffrey, overtook Kerrymen as if he were a greyhound on a motorbike, received a perfect pass from Niall Scully and drove the ball home…140 yards from kick-out to goal, in 16 seconds.
The momentum swing looked decisive as Dublin approached half-time five points ahead. Then Cooper grappled again with Clifford. The robust defender was on an off-day. Amusingly dispossessed as he motored out of defence early on, he wasn’t yellow-carded for conceding the penalty but was for a second drag-back on Clifford moments later. And when he did it again, referee David Gough had no option but to send Cooper off. Or so we thought.
RTE TV’s Dublin-centric pundits Ciaran Whelan and, yes, the controversialist Joe Brolly spotted another option. Whelan played for Dublin from 1996 to 2010 (that Dublin didn’t win an All-Ireland from 1995 to 2011 is a statistical quirk reflecting not a jot on Whelan himself). So he could be excused seeing a non-existent foul ON Cooper. Brolly might as well be a Dub, the way he verbally dribbles over them, in multi-media. Hence his hallucinations (Whelan has since changed his mind about the incident. Brolly, shock, has not, although he HAS apologised to Gough for doubting his “integrity and honour”).
The third of RTE’s punditry triumvirate, Pat Spillane, had excuses-a-plenty for only seeing Cooper pull Clifford’s arm and drag him to the ground (nearly a black-card offence, let alone a yellow). Spillane starred on the four-in-a-row team (1978-81) whose record a Dublin win on Sunday would have eclipsed. AND he had two nephews, Adrian and Cillian, on this Kerry panel. So he backed Gough because of course he did…and because it was a bloody foul (“they’re the facts,” he declared, correctly, after a note-perfect analysis of the encounter).
Sean O’Shea’s placed-ball brilliance had kept Kerry on Dublin’s coattails, amid strategically-timed distractive roars from the Dubs massed on Croke Park’s ‘Hill 16’ terrace. They were four points behind at half-time, the same deficit they retrieved to beat 15-man Tyrone in their semi-final. And they were in a position to make the tactical and personnel changes which won that game. Yet Sky Sports’ pundits all still predicted a Dublin win. No surprise this from Senan Connell, Whelan’s erstwhile team-mate, or Tyrone’s Peter Canavan, who’d predicted a “10-or-11-point” Dublin win. But the third of this punditry triumvirate was another Kerry multi-All-Ireland winner, Kieran Donaghy.
However, Dublin victories have often been predicated upon post-interval surges, such as their eight-minute dismemberment of Mayo in last month’s semi-final. And such a surge was unsurprisingly beyond 14-man Dublin against an athletic Kerry team timeously boosted by Cooper’s departure. Instead, Kerry would have been level within five minutes but for Cluxton finger-tipping Paul Murphy’s right-foot piledrive flush onto the crossbar.
Still, Dublin got lucky with penalties on Sunday (part two). On 44 minutes, Stephen O’Brien was twice pulled by the arm as he set to shoot for goal, the second time inside the penalty area. Yet Gough gave nothing. Earley went from “not much in that” via “definite foul” to “penalty, clear penalty” faster than a jumbo jet could got from 0-to-60. And he surmised that having given one Kerry penalty and sent off a Dublin player, Gough might fear giving a second penalty. True irony, this, as Gough’s choice as final ref was hugely criticised within KERRY because he lives in Dublin. He just missed the foul, one blemish on a day when his decision-making and communicating was outstanding. Dublin got lucky.
Thus reprieved, Dublin regained the momentum over the next 11 minutes, Dean Rock’s placed-ball prowess and McCaffrey’s on-going brilliance masking Dublin’s human-resource deficiency and restoring the five-point lead they had when Cooper saw red. But said momentum returned to Kerry on 57 minutes, via Killian Spillane’s destructive left-foot finish to a pitch-length move started when Ryan clutched a point-bound shot just before it cleared the crossbar…140 yards from keeper’s clearance-to-goal, in 21 seconds.
With Tommy Walsh largely replicating his semi-final impact from the bench, and Clifford approaching true form, the momentum shift to Kerry looked permanent. O’Shea’s fine point from play drew them level with eight minutes left. And, four minutes later, Spillane gave them the lead for the first time in 50 minutes, after midfielder David Moran caught a ball from among the clouds. But…er…that was it. Kerry didn’t score again, or have another shot or, seemingly, even try to fashion another scoring chance. In TWELVE minutes of football.
In sight of victory, they became tactically paralysed, reverting to timid keep-ball, even with seven minutes’ stoppage-time left. Their lead survived halfway through stoppage-time and they only survived overall because, in sight of victory, Dublin’s shooting boots disappeared. Oh…and Hawk-Eye ruled out Dub sub Cormac Costello’s 70th-minute point, although Hawk-Eye’s graphic suggested the shot might have gone over the bar off the post (“that is in, isn’t it?” asked briefly disoriented RTE commentator Ger Canning).
Rock had a half-chance with the game’s last kick. Sean O’Shea fouled Paddy Small near the touchline 25 yards out, his immediate thumping of the ground showing that he knew the potential enormity of his error. But Cluxton couldn’t have narrowed the angle any greater. And it was no surprise that Rock missed, although had he been on target, the mountainous Walsh was on the goalline ready to lift the mountainous Moran into the skies to stop it.
The draw was indisputably a fair result. Neither side deserved to lose a game containing so much good football…or win one with so many players failing to hit form. A fabulous match, nonetheless. “Twenty-nine minutes of this game left. Hallelujah,” RTE’s famous commentator Micheal O’Hehir famously commentated during 1977’s epic Dublin/Kerry All-Ireland semi-final. And the prospect of 2019’s replay could raise a hallelujah chorus.
However, prospects of a repeat nail-biter seems slim. By every available metric, Dublin should win. “Underdogs only get one chance” is a cliché based on statistical reality. Gavin was “disappointed” with Dublin’s showing, which he declared “not good enough to get the result,” head-explosion stuff, given Gavin’s understated public persona. And they will surely be extra-careful to keep 15 players on the pitch for more than 34 minutes (Cooper is available for the replay, having received two yellow rather than one red card).
Kerry’s vast inexperience only briefly told last Sunday. Such things aren’t the preserve of the inexperienced. AND Kerry are far less inexperienced now. Yet they seemed almost kindergarten alongside Dublin’s gnarled veterans, many of whom are hardly old. McCaffrey is 25, for God’s sake, easy to forget as he grinned carefreely through the pre-match parade. Other Dubs, though, have two-rooms-knocked-into-one for improvement. Brian Fenton has never lost a championship match in five years on the team but was near-anonymous on Sunday. Similarly Ciaran Kilkenny, Paul Mannion and Con O’Callaghan. While Kerry’s main men/boys were mostly on-song or thereabouts.
The weight of history, though, is a fascinating imponderable. Kerry’s 1982 side, and Kilkenny’s 2010 hurlers, fell at the fifth after being as below-par as Dublin on Sunday. Yet, freed of history’s weight, Kerry won three All-Irelands, and Kilkenny four, over the next five years. History would have to weigh heavy indeed to keep this Dublin side from five-in-a-row. But the same could have been said last week. And here we are. Hallelujah?
One of Joe Brolly’s most fired-at targets in Gaelic Football is former Donegal and Fermanagh manager Rory Gallagher. Gallagher’s teams have employed hideously defensive tactics, which slid Donegal down football’s ranks and produced limited success for Fermanagh, who more entertainingly punched above their football weight under Gallagher’s predecessor Peter McGrath. So, Brolly’s criticisms had considerable merit. Although he had one good thing to say about Gallagher, noting last week that “he forced Arlene Foster to sit through a fcuking awful Ulster Final,” the DUP leader being a guest as Donegal wore down Fermanagh’s blanket defence in the 2018 provincial decider
However, Brolly, as per one of his modi operandi, has flogged the issue to near-death, making his criticisms almost as boring as Gallagher’s teams. So, many Gaelic Football observers will have taken great delight at this week’s news that Gallagher is the new manager of Derry, the native county of… Joe Brolly Esq. Schadenfreude, the Germans call that great delight. Brolly might have another German word beginning with ‘Sch’ for it. (Scheisse, people, scheisse).