Monday 25 September 2017

Vincent Hogan: Kingdom fliers lay down a big summer marker

Donnchadh Walsh and James McCarthy exchange words during Kerry’s victory over Dublin. Photo: STEPHEN McCARTHY/SPORTSFILE
Donnchadh Walsh and James McCarthy exchange words during Kerry’s victory over Dublin. Photo: STEPHEN McCARTHY/SPORTSFILE
Donnchadh Walsh and James McCarthy exchange words during Kerry’s victory over Dublin. Photo: STEPHEN McCARTHY/SPORTSFILE
Donnchadh Walsh and James McCarthy exchange words during Kerry’s victory over Dublin. Photo: STEPHEN McCARTHY/SPORTSFILE
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Eamonn Fitzmaurice's studiously opaque expression is telling us to look away, nothing to see here folks. He sits, hands in pockets, intercepting questions with an answering-machine voice.

He wants us to know that the world hasn't exactly blown apart here. And he's right, it hasn't. But Dublin being taken down after an unbeaten run stretching beyond two calendar years still registers pretty high on the Richter Scale.

After all, Kerry's first National League crown since '09 comes at the expense of Dublin's attempted five in a row. So many ghosts in that line for the Kingdom.

No matter, Fitzmaurice wants to decommission any brewing giddiness. He reckons we've been over-thinking this idea of the Dubs keeping opponents wide awake in the dead of night.

"You're kind of portraying as if there's this psychological damage there," he sighs. "That every time we go out, we're going down the road kind of banging our heads off the window of the bus or something.

"I mean we come up, we give it everything we have. They're a brilliant team and we've come up short, but we've come up short going at them and bringing the best out of them.

"I think the Kerry-Dublin games over the last couple of years, some of them have been among the best games played in the last ten years."

Conventionally

League finals tend, conventionally, to be pre-occupied affairs. Popcorn viewing. Games that can be distilled down into some kind of dilatory process. A suspension of truth almost.

But this one deviated from that course.

It had edge. It had tetchiness. It decanted little pools of blackness as, all through, you had a sense that it meant more to the protagonists than any mere pursuit of silverware.

One incident: approaching half-time, Paddy Andrews made a billowing run towards the Canal End goal only to be halted for over-carrying.

As he dropped the ball, Andrews ran into a sequence of bullocking Kerry shoulders in much the same way you might remember Ruud van Nistelrooy once falling foul of a belligerent Arsenal defence many moons ago.

"It would be the third competition on our list of priorities," says Fitzmaurice now. Any other day against any other opposition? Perhaps. Not yesterday.

Dublin-Kerry had become personal, maybe above anything, because it had become one-sided.

Deference isn't a natural setting in the big houses and, for Kerry, playing second fiddle to perhaps the most ruthless team of the modern age hasn't sat easily. Especially so when they'd see what they considered a bear being paraded through town as Goldilocks.

That was the gist of Fitzmaurice's tossed grenade last week. A declaration that maybe there was more to Dublin than some kind of collective commitment to the arts.

He wanted the world to know they had two faces.

And he was right, of course. Great teams don't put any purchase on the public's affection. They'd happily beat you over the head with an iron bar if that's what it takes to bend a script in their favour. So maybe it wasn't quite breaking news that Jim Gavin's Dublin haven't been plucked from the pages of an Enid Blyton escapade.

But a Kerry manager tub-thumping?

That was different. The equivalent of a curate swinging windmills at parishioners on the church steps.

"I don't think it was too bad today was it?" he says now, responding to a suggestion that neither team had been 'whiter than white'. "I didn't think it was as incident-packed as the game in Tralee.

"Look, I said what I said during the week because I wanted to provoke debate. And I succeeded, whereas I think if I hadn't said something, which I would have preferred to be honest with you… because I'd prefer to just focus on the football… there wouldn't have been a debate at all.

"So there was a debate and, from my point of view, it was mission accomplished. But we were just coming up focusing on the football today and I'm sure Dublin were the same.

"I don't think there was an undercurrent there today, there were probably incidents and there was physicality, but I don't think there was any negative undercurrent to the game. My reading of it was that it was a very good game of football.

"I just felt if I didn't say something the narrative of the week was going to be that Kerry were overly physical in Tralee and that that's the only way that they can compete with Dublin. And then you possibly won't get any break anywhere from anyone.

"So I just wanted to point out that they are an unbelievable football team, but that they know what they have to do as well.

"I'd prefer not to be going back into it to be honest. It's water under the bridge at this stage."

That it is and, to be fair, no county parks the past quicker than Kerry. They were the last ones to beat this Dublin team (in February 2015) and despite suffering an unprecedented four consecutive Championship defeats to the city boys, there was always somehow a faint suspicion they'd be the most likely to catch them again.

That, in doing so, they snared silverware seemed almost academic. Eight days ago, Kerry awoke to the final round of League games lying sixth in Division 1A and seemingly just looking to see out business. Today, they have their 20th League crown.

True, it went right to the wire, Dean Rock's injury-time free rebounding off a Hill End post. Yet, for the younger breed in Fitzmaurice's group (and a third of his starters were new to this level) the psychological benefits of victory cannot be under-estimated.

One of them, centre-back Tadhg Morley, does not sound like a man in shock.

"We hadn't got much luck against the Dubs lately, so it was nice to see that ball come back off the post," he says. "But it doesn't really change much for the summer. They'll be there again, they're a great team, obviously the best in the country.

"It's a big confidence-booster to come up here and beat them. Still, it's only the League. The Championship is the main one. But it's going to be an interesting summer!"

If there was any disbelief doing the rounds, it possibly centred on Kerry's complete dominance through a third quarter in which they turned a one-point half-time deficit into 0-15 to 0-10 lead. During that period, Dublin looked to be playing in quicksand. An image that may embolden others.

"We were on top, we were winning breaks, we were getting scores, we had got them on the back foot, which is hard to do," says Fitzmaurice without shining any forensic light on the secret.

"Look, this Dublin team…" he reflects with a mild hint of irritation, "it's not as if we're the only ones that has trouble with them. They're one of the best teams that has ever played the game. I think there's a consensus on that. And we've been very, very close to them the last couple of years, particularly in Championship. Not so much in League.

"So we knew we weren't a million miles away. To get the job done, absolutely, was great. And I think for the belief of the players themselves it will be a big boost to them.

"But if Dublin had beaten us today, it wouldn't have been the end of the world. We still have players to come back. It's still the month of April. There's still a lot of work to be done before Championship. But the fact we've won it… it's a positive, of course."

A positive? Like philanthropy, I suppose. And sunshine. And Halle Berry's smile.

Fitzmaurice does allude to the possibility, mind, that Dublin might just run on lighter legs now that the record has been ended. That maybe there'd been a danger of it becoming sacrosanct in their minds.

"If anything, it's probably a relief to them that it's gone," he says. "There'll almost be a freshness about their Championship preparations now."

No more, we imagine, than that radiant in the young stags bounding into Killarney these coming weeks.

Irish Independent

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