Dublin living in the past
A few years back I was talking to a former Mayo footballer when I mentioned the great rivalry which existed between my county, Sligo, and his. The Mayoman looked at me as if I was insane and did his best not to collapse with laughter. "We wouldn't think we have a rivalry with Sligo," he said, "there's no rivalry when you're winning all the time. We'd have a rivalry with Galway."
That chastening encounter came back to me on Monday when Kerry once more proved that talking about the Kingdom's great rivalry with Dublin is a bit like talking about the great rivalry which exists between Martin Scorsese and a man who shoots videos of his local junior team on a camcorder.
There is no rivalry, or at least there hasn't been since Mikey Sheehy chipped the ball into the net to put Kerry into the lead in the 1978 All-Ireland final. It's almost as though Paddy Cullen's famous look of despair on that occasion was prompted by the terrible knowledge that this was one lead Dublin were never going to get back.
Since 1978, we've had Kerry-Dublin championship jousts in 1979, 1984, 1985, 2001, 2004, 2007 and 2009. The score is eight-zip to Kerry (though I suppose you could give the Dubs credit for a draw in Thurles in 2001. The end result was the same though). Dublin are not Kerry's rivals, they merely provide regular opportunities for Kerry to win in front of a huge crowd.
So perhaps it's time we gave up the pretence that there's something epochal about these games and that they are mouth-watering occasions of infinite possibility. And perhaps it's also time to inter for good the ghost of the 1977 semi-final. Those bones have been exhumed and dragged round the block once too often. This skull will smile no more.
There's something embarrassing about the constant return to the well of 1977, indulged in less because of the undoubted excellence of the match but because it offers the rare sight of Dublin beating Kerry. I have a sinking feeling that in 20 years a game involving the sons of Alan and Bernard Brogan will still be previewed with clips of a goal scored by their grandfather back in the days when you could buy a new house for £5,000, The Black and White Minstrel Show was prime-time viewing and there hadn't been a non-Italian pope for several hundred years.
Dublin fool us. They fool us because the Leinster final fools us. The huge crowds, the fact that they're played at Croke Park rather than some provincial ground, the hype which attends them make us think we're watching something significant in terms of the All-Ireland. But the sad truth is that the Leinster final means very little in the grand scheme of things.
The Dublin-Kildare match was lauded as a game for the ages. And, as usual, the Connacht final between Galway and Mayo was treated as a vaguely disappointing local scrap with no repercussions beyond the borders of its province. There's still a notion that the Connacht championship is helplessly second-rate.
Okay, it's not the best. But it probably means slightly more than its high-profile Leinster equivalent. Because there hasn't been an All-Ireland winner from Leinster since 1999 or even a finalist since Meath got hockeyed by Galway in 2001. Connacht hasn't done much better, but it has done better. The last Connacht winner was in 2001 and the province produced finalists in 2004 and 2006 when Mayo were laughed at for losing by the unimaginably large margins of eight and 14 points to Kerry, the second of which was three better than the Dubs managed on Monday.
The sad fact is that Dublin's five Leinster titles in a row don't mean much more at national level than Galway's impressive run of Connacht hurling titles. Only twice have the Dubs made the semis, when their path was smoothed by handy draws against Westmeath and Derry.
Yet before Monday the conventional wisdom seemed to be that Dublin deserve to be treated as serious All-Ireland contenders every year. Compare this with the treatment afforded to Cork and Mayo footballers, portrayed as doyens of under-achievement, handy fodder for any pundit who wants a cheap laugh. Yet while Dublin have gone without an All-Ireland final appearance this decade, Mayo have managed two. While Dublin have managed two semi-final appearances, Cork have had five. That tells you where the team from the capital stand in the pecking order. Never mind rivalling Kerry, if they could catch up on Cork and Mayo it would be a start.
I don't mean to take away from Kerry's terrific performance by pointing out that Tyrone did much the same thing to Dublin last year. Kerry were wonderful, as were Tyrone, because the big match atmosphere the Dublin fans bring to Croke Park and the massive hype which surrounds the team bring the best out of their opposition. Thus the two excruciating hammerings of 2008 and 2009. It is not so much that the players are psychologically brittle as that they are ill-equipped to cope with two of the greatest teams ever to play the game operating at full throttle. As Mayo found in their ill-fated final appearances, Kerry have gears available to them that their rivals can't even imagine possessing. The same goes for Tyrone.
In a strange way, last Monday was a vindication of Paul Caffrey. Because, fickle beasts that we are, all season there were media suggestions that Pat Gilroy had added some new dimension to Dublin, that he was getting it right in some unspecified areas where Pillar had got it wrong. Monday proved that Dublin's problems are not to do with management, they're to do with players. And Dublin just don't have the players to prosper outside the minnow kingdom of Leinster.
Take Dublin's four most experienced defenders, David Henry, Paul Griffin, Bryan Cullen and even the excellent Barry Cahill. How they do shape up against Tom O'Sullivan, Mike McCarthy, Tomás ó Sé and Marc ó Sé? Or against Ryan McMenamin, Philip Jordan, Davy Harte and Conor Gormley? See?
When we say Kerry are having problems at full-back, we mean that Tom O'Sullivan, one of the greatest corner-backs ever to play the game, is not adjusting perfectly to the specialised role of number three. Or we mean that they might have to draft Tommy Griffin, a multiple All-Ireland winner who'd be the best player in more than half of our counties, into the position. When we say that Dublin are having problems at full-back, we mean that they're playing Ross McConnell, a decent footballer but absolutely inadequate in this position, there or that they've pressed into service Denis Bastick who . . . Ah well, you saw Denis Bastick. There is no comparison.
It's a sad situation because the Dublin fans deserve better. Increasingly, Croke Park seems too big, too cavernous for the matches which grace it. The exception is when Dublin are in action and their fans make it a great sporting arena by atmosphere as well as architecture. Those fans deserve a big day in September. But until time travel is perfected and they're all zapped back to 1977, they're not going to get it.
Now, did I tell you the one about Jimmy Keaveney and Kevin Heffernan?