Tuesday 28 March 2017

Croker braced for epic culture clash of old rivals

DERMOT CROWE

FOR a time in the 1970s it seemed as if there were only two counties playing Gaelic football -- or two that really mattered.

If you weren't from Kerry or Dublin, you didn't feel excluded; their contests became the subject of national fascination and ownership. You went to the matches with fervent interest or you settled down at home to catch the latest twist in the saga that began when Kerry, young and brimful of energy, usurped the reigning champions in sky blue in 1975.

The football played wasn't as impeccable as we tend to remember and some of the veneer has been stripped away with repeat showings in later years. But the era of Kerry and Dublin had a distinctive magic and cosmic appeal and weaved a spell that can never fade outright.

This afternoon, Croke Park welcomes back the once familiar rivalry for the first September confrontation since 1985.

Why has it taken so long? The fault lies mainly with Dublin. Since the counties' meeting 26 years ago the capital's footballers have contested only three finals, winning one; in the same period Kerry featured in 10 finals, winning seven. After defeating Kerry in the 1976 final and retaining the title the following year with a win over Kerry on the way in, Dublin have become used to barren spells. The Sam Maguire has wintered Liffeyside just twice in 34 years. There was the '12 Apostles' win over Galway in 1983; the next was in 1995, the 'Year of Jayo'.

And the time since has seen failure after failure -- a string of Leinster titles leading to a succession of painful defeats. None was more painful than their annihilation by Kerry two years ago.

But they have reinvented themselves, decompressing the notorious hype that tends to strangle their ambitions and returning to the basics and the fundamentals, the modern template of rigorous hard work. They have rejected the capitalism of the past and built a small and eager socialist republic. They don't have a fleet of big-name stars although they do possess the Footballer of the Year in Bernard Brogan.

Pat Gilroy has taken them from the "startled earwig" day with Kerry in 2009 to a point in their rejuvenation where there is a growing sense of optimism that they are ready to exact their retribution. Today also sees the county's minors in the curtain-raiser hoping to end a drought that winds back to 1984. Football is beginning to reclaim the city's affections. Tickets are being devoured in the frenzy to see this long overdue re-enactment.

The rivalry that existed in the past, exalted as it was, hardly regales the modern player and the more youthful supporter. Yet Dublin and Kerry remains an attractive clash with its convergence of two distinct football cultures and worlds. Dublin is the only county within remote distance of Kerry's 36 All-Irelands, making them their greatest rivals outside the provinces.

The jacks are back. Now wait for the noise.

See Pages 2-5

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