Eugene McGee: Demise of High Kings heralds new dawn
Published 02/08/2010 | 05:00
You can have all the experts you like in your training camp -- managers, trainers, masseurs, physiotherapists, psychologists and even parish priests -- but there comes a time when your race is run and it's time for the team to step aside because age calls a halt and the show is over.
This brutal reality was exposed with a vengeance on Saturday when Kerry and Tyrone -- who shared the last seven All-Irelands -- ran out of steam and were decisively beaten by two younger sets of players who were raring to go and were fearless of reputations, with no regard for some of the icons of Gaelic football who have been heroes in Croke Park so often for the past decade.
When champions come to their natural end, defeat is usually decisive and so it was on this occasion with both Down and Dublin shattering the remnants of two once-powerful teams. Doubtless some followers of Tyrone and Kerry will be adamant that these results are but a temporary aberration, but that is wishful thinking.
You cannot replace icons such as Ryan McMenamin, Brian Dooher, Conor Gormley, Tom O'Sullivan, Tomas O Se and Mike McCarthy and possibly several others, without marking the end of an era for their respective teams. New men will fill their shoes all right -- but how long will it take them to match such heroic figures?
Like all great teams, and Kerry and Tyrone WERE great in the past decade, inevitably some folk heroes stay on too long and pay a high price, as their departure from the big time is never easy. At least both counties were beaten decisively enough to stifle any ifs or buts about Saturday's games.
Recent events, of course, played critical roles in these results and it was astonishing that after all the hullabaloo regarding the handpass last spring, the only two occasions in the Kerry v Down match in which referee Joe McQuillan blew illegal passes were to cancel two excellent goals, one from either side.
So we can now start analysing the newcomers -- Dublin and Down. GAA fans all over Ireland, with the exception of Tyrone and Kerry, will welcome their emergence, as the game badly needs new players and fresh teams to challenge for the Sam Maguire.
Instead of the Gooch and Sean Cavanagh, we will be waiting for heroics from the Brogans and Clarkes, Gordon and O'Carroll, Macauley and Rodgers. Some of these names are shocks to the system, but will engender new-found enthusiasm for football fans generally, not just from their respective counties.
Down's achievement in destroying Kerry was verging on the incredible, but there's no denying that tradition proved a huge incentive. Any other county playing Kerry over the years tended to be intimidated to some extent by their tradition, but Down is the one county where the boot is on the other foot. In two finals, two semis and now a quarter-final, Down have beaten Kerry with a 100pc record.
But in truth, it was superior football ability and a far greater hunger which saw Down crush Kerry. They worked a lot harder and they cashed in on the previously known weakness of Kerry in defence and as their confidence grew, the old Down panache came to the fore. Their manager, James McCartan, has had a truly remarkable year in guiding Down to such a high level in his first season, emerging from the debris of quite a bit of infighting and the chopping and changing of managers in recent years.
Kerry were in trouble from the throw-in as their midfield was inadequate, their backline leaked like a sieve and with Declan O'Sullivan well held by Kevin McKernan, their attack was leaderless. Down got the vital good start and led by six points after 10 minutes and really Kerry were hanging on for dear life after that.
And only getting one score -- a penalty -- in the final 20 minutes showed the extent of Kerry's collapse. Has such a statistic ever appeared on the Kerry CV before? Indeed a paltry four points from play by Colm Cooper and Bryan Sheehan confirms the dire straits of Kerry.
This Kerry panel will rate with the best the county ever had -- including in the 1970s and 1980s -- because the competition has been much tougher in the past decade than back then. Many of their best players will go on to even greater things and there will be no 10-year famine as happened at the end of the Mick O'Dwyer era.
Dublin's victory had been brewing for a few weeks, with three back-door victories allowing Pat Gilroy to lay down new terms of reference after the five-goal debacle against Meath. Big-name players were reined in or clobbered altogether and 'ordinary' players were given the pivotal jobs as work rate replaced flair to good effect.
The fact that Dublin stopped the play around 30 times through fouls made it clear that this was to be hard labour over style. Finesse, so often the trademark of Dublin teams, was jettisoned for expediency. Gilroy has been totally vindicated and now he can, if he wishes, inject a bit more flair -- but hardly in 2010. Make no mistake, Dublin could win the All-Ireland by the same methods as they disposed of Tyrone.
The Red Hands, as with Cork last year, suffered the ignominy of being beaten at aspects of the game that they themselves had perfected and that must be the hardest thing to accept. Crowding the backline, surrounding the Tyrone player in possession and such like seems to have come naturally for Dublin, just as they showed against Armagh recently.
A meagre two scores in the final 20 minutes from Tyrone shows how much they were trampled upon in a pattern remarkably similar to Kerry's demise. Like Kerry, Tyrone were great champions in the past decade and while some big names will not play in Croke Park again, they still have plenty of outstanding players. But the magic of the past decade will be hard to reproduce and they will never have another Dooher.
But for Dublin, the sky is the limit now and wouldn't it be ironic if this team of hard workers, with a few thoroughbreds thrown in, reach the All-Ireland final after all the failures of the past 15 years with so-called star-studded teams? Football really is a funny old game and tears can so quickly turn to smiles on Hill 16.