Monday 25 September 2017

Hand of history is leading Kerry to the Hogan Stand

Dublin have much more to overcome today than 15 players in green and gold, writes John O'Brien

Silencing the Hill on All-Ireland final day? A new generation of Kerry footballers waiting to discover that it simply doesn't get any better.
Silencing the Hill on All-Ireland final day? A new generation of Kerry footballers waiting to discover that it simply doesn't get any better.

IN Killarney last week Tom Carr was reminded of an age-old, essential truth about the relationship between Dublin and Kerry.

He had travelled south to play in a golf fundraiser for Kerry football, to help ease the financial burden of a seventh All-Ireland final appearance in eight years. Old comrades and rivals came face to face again, as they did occasionally through the years, a legacy of the deep bonds that were formed and the friendships that endured.

As ever they competed ferociously on the fairways and swapped banter and stories between shots. At one point his non-football companion asked how Kerry could be so consistently strong while the Dubs often languished and, as chance would have it, Carr looked across and saw two smiling Kerrymen alighting onto an adjacent tee-box. Mikey and Darragh. Even on a golf course they walked with a casual swagger that seemed only semi-conscious. Just watching alone was enough to understand.

"How do Kerry do it? I said 'well just look back there'. Mikey Sheehy and Darragh ó Sé were on the tee-box. Like, you go to Armagh and there's only 30 All-Ireland medals in the entire county. These two guys had 14 between them. But the thing is it's no big deal in Kerry. It doesn't make you special or unique. Having a few All-Ireland medals is no reason to walk around with a big head."

There is a celebrated photo of the day Dublin came within seconds of clipping Kerry's wings in the 2001 All-Ireland quarter-final in Thurles. Maurice Fitzgerald lines up the sideline ball that would haul Kerry back from the brink while Carr lurks a few paces behind him, fearing the worst, cursing earlier chances his team had missed, sensing the hope of a famous scalp was ebbing away. Earlier the usually unflappable Carr had lost his cool with the referee, Mick Curley, after a dubious free had gone Kerry's way.

In a way it summed up the fortunes of two teams that had parted at the fork in the road that appeared at the end of the glorious 70s. Kerry with their legendary calmness and sang-froid and the bit of extra class they could count on that, more often than not, would settle the issue in their favour. And Dublin with the turbulence that would sweep through the capital city each summer, the excuses and grim post-mortems following each championship dismissal, the pressure cranking up as 1995 and Jayomania faded ever further into the distance.

History always favours Kerry and never more than when Dublin provide the opposition. It has become fashionable in recent years to heap scorn on the old rivalry and to deny any hint of relevance to the modern-day players. But that is to miss the point about tradition and how it can nourish future generations, even in a sub-conscious fashion. Those who forget about history etc . . . How enriching it has been in Kerry and the crushing burden it has placed on the shoulders of generations of Dublin players.

"The thing about Kerry," Carr says, "is that they don't have inhibitions or inferiority complexes about anybody. Not Dublin or any team. They inherently believe they can overcome any team. Even if they get a hammering off Tyrone or Armagh they'll come out the next day and expect to beat them. They have no sticking point. No mental block. They won't mind the hype about Dublin. In fact they'll relish it. For Kerry's there's more romance about winning an All-Ireland against Dublin."

Wade through the acreage of newsprint and broadcasts in the build-up to today's final and the truth of Carr's assertion is resoundingly borne out. In Dublin, by and large, the natural instinct is to play things down while Kerry treat it like an annual festival to be savoured, a diversion they'd feel empty without, and all the better for the Dubs filling the role of gritty underdog rather than Tyrone or their Cork neighbours who, for all their progress, still feel like the business of early summer.

In Dublin, partaking in hype or seeming to enjoy the build-up is akin to an admission that the game had gone to a player's head. The clamour for under-statement has seemed strained, if not downright false. Asked about the golden years one celebrated Dub was instantly dismissive: "It has absolutely no relevance to this Dublin team," he said. "Most of these lads weren't even born when Dublin and Kerry were playing in the 70s. It means nothing to them."

This seemed to be the default mode. History was bunkum. Dublin players could stroll freely around the city unrecognised, blissfully free of historical baggage. Pat Gilroy used every available opportunity to talk Kerry up to an exaggerated degree, an old tactic that even Kerry abandoned years ago with Micko and Páidí. Collie Moran, a former Dublin defender, spoke of "grounded hype," an oxymoron that neatly summed up the energy it was taking to manoeuvre their heads into the place they wanted.

Kerry don't waste mental energy on such concerns. A few weeks before the 2005 All-Ireland final Sheehy penned a column for The Kerryman in which he hailed the genius of Colm Cooper. At the time Cooper had just one All-Ireland to his name yet Sheehy was still compelled to describe him as the "best corner-forward the game had seen." Such outlandish praise didn't cause a stir within the county. The Gooch didn't buckle under the sheer weight of it. He just got on with the business of destroying opposing defenders.

Fast forward six years and now Cooper, seeking his fifth All-Ireland, is happy to talk today's game up as a "glamour tie." Darragh ó Sé didn't feel the need or inclination for cuteness when he tipped Kerry to win "by five or six points" in his newspaper column. Aidan O'Mahony, Kerry centre-back, considered the nature of the opposition and all the stories and history that came with them and felt moved enough to say: "There's so much hype about it that it's a players dream to play in it."

And whatever about Kerry's perceived weaknesses -- an entire defence on the cusp of receiving their pension slips and the irreplaceability of Darragh -- the sense of entitlement that history bequeaths them and the almost fetching streak of arrogance that runs through them are handy weapons to be taking into battle. The suspicion is that a good or even average Kerry team will nearly always beat a good Dublin team, but never the other way around.

Overseeing this innate sense of entitlement is the towering figure of Jack O'Connor who stands, arguably, alongside Brian Cody as the most intense and driven manager the GAA has seen. Before the sides met in the 2007 All-Ireland semi-final, when Pat O'Shea was manager, O'Connor mused on what it would mean for Kerry to reach a fourth successive final. "To beat the Dubs in the intimidating atmosphere of Croke Park would be the ultimate for a Kerry team with little left to prove," he wrote.

Maybe it's the romantic in O'Connor, or simply that he is of an age when such things matter more, but the prospect of winning an All-Ireland by beating Dublin would undoubtedly be the sweetest, maybe even ushering him towards a second contented retirement, and it would be foolish to underestimate his ability to transmit that desire to players too young to bear first-hand memories of the golden years.

In Keys to the Kingdom O'Connor writes about his third game as Kerry manager, a league tie against Dublin at Parnell Park in 2004. He recounts the details of a towering Seamus Moynihan performance and a "famous win" against opponents they hadn't beaten away in the league for 18 years. "We celebrated like it was an All-Ireland final," O'Connor writes. "I remember the chairman grabbing me and swinging me around. There was some amount of steam bursting out of the valves that evening."

What other game, against what other county, could O'Connor have presided over such a victory and made such a huge deal about it? Not Tyrone or Armagh and not Cork. Not even Down with their remarkable history against Kerry in Croke Park. For all the rarity of their recent championship meetings and Kerry's vastly superior record against them, Dublin remain the touchstone, the best measure of themselves as footballers. Silencing the Hill on All-Ireland final day? A new generation of Kerry footballers waiting to discover that it simply doesn't get any better.

And that is Dublin's burden to overcome. Tough but not impossible. "There's a confidence issue there," says Carr. "We don't trust them really. Until they actually go out and do it. Until they compete in an All-Ireland and win one. Yes of course they can do it but it's going to take an almighty effort on the day."

Carr is right. You can believe Dublin will win the All-Ireland, and that it would be good for the GAA if they did, but would you want to put money on it? How could you have that faith? How could you so casually disregard the history?

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