One fatal tick of the clock and suddenly your time is up
Sometimes you can see it coming but more often it happens without warning, that moment when the lights go out on the life of a great team.
When that team is in its prime and powering through the seasons and winning all their trophies, it's as if time stands still for them; as if they are flying above time, impervious to its march.
And then suddenly the hands on the clock, hitherto paralysed, move again -- just one fatal tick -- and those swaggering, carefree athletes fall to earth. It's over and it's over for good.
And because we never really know when the day or the hour is at hand, it can happen when least expected -- it could conceivably happen to Kilkenny today. Right at the moment when no one can see it coming.
We didn't see it coming last weekend, not even when Kerry had shipped 1-3 without reply; and we didn't believe it was actually happening to Tyrone until the 65th minute had elapsed. But some seven minutes later, on the Saturday of the bank holiday weekend, two great teams were gone and the GAA's world had tilted on its axis.
We didn't believe it was happening to Kerry, even as it was happening, because those Kerry players didn't believe it either. And why would they? They had seen this movie before: another challenger climbs through the ropes, pumped up and psyched up, and throws his best shots -- and is then duly carried from the ring.
You could see it in their faces: a close-up television picture of Colm Cooper said it all. His expression was a study in calmness. The master forward knew in his soul that they would engineer an escape. Or, more probably, knew that he himself would engineer an escape. And he nearly did it too, contriving two clear goal chances out of thin air.
The first of these, with 18 minutes still to play, would have seen the game's major shift in momentum had it been converted. Kerry were a man down by then and not playing well but they still believed they would find a way out. A goal then would've electrified the champions and tested the nerve of their challengers to the maximum. Would Down have survived it?
But they did survive because their goalkeeper, like just about every other team-mate, stepped up to the plate; he made the save that preserved their four-point cushion.
But that's how dangerous Kerry remained, despite everything: the loss of Murphy, ó Sé, Kennelly and Walsh at the end of last season; the loss of two foundation stones mid-season in Galvin and Tomás ó Sé; the erosion that comes with long service in the jersey.
Jack O'Connor and his brains trust knew they were in charge of a team with an ageing defence in particular. But they fully intended to manage that deterioration, to camouflage it and to keep it at bay long enough to snatch another title before the clock struck midnight.
Down played such smart, attractive football that they have become (overnight!) my favourite team. But it is our opinion that had Kerry taken the field with Galvin and ó Sé, they would have made it to a phenomenal 11th consecutive All-Ireland semi-final.
Mickey Harte's mission was similar to O'Connor's: Tyrone were coming down the mountain having planted the flag on the summit three times. But 12 months ago, at the hands of Cork, they became an old team overnight. Not being wise after the event, but what had changed this season? Against Antrim and Down in Ulster they had played in spurts, doing enough to get by. It was game management rather than game dominance. They had looked masterful in the Ulster final but the question remained about the energy levels in their legs.
Like Kerry, they did their utmost to find a way. There can be no doubting the heart and honesty of these once devastating teams. Tyrone didn't want to give up on the dream either. They tried and kept trying but there was a ghost in the machine last Saturday; it never quite purred the way it did when it was locked and loaded in their prime.
When Sean Cavanagh kicked that series of second-half wides, he looked like a man desperately searching for the formula that had once been at his fingertips. He was trying to force it back to life; and the harder he tried the more it eluded him.
But perhaps even more than Kerry, they will regret this one. Seventeen wides means they let Dublin off the hook. Once again they looked like they had timed the match to perfection, taking over as the game entered the last 10 minutes. And like their great rivals, luck deserted them on the day too. But Dublin were as relentless as they once had been: Tyrone couldn't summon that sort of fire anymore.
It was a thrilling two days of football last weekend, from Mark Poland's terrific goal in the first minute of the first match, to Johnny Doyle's showbiz point in the 73rd minute of the fourth match. The skill levels were a treat to watch, particularly in the construction and execution of scores.
The weekend showed that the standard has never been higher -- even as the standard-bearers of the last decade left the arena, never to return in quite the same way.