Tuesday 6 December 2016

Dermot Crowe: For once, a league final that matters

Dublin and Kerry will both be fired up to lay down a marker today

Dermot Crowe

Published 24/04/2016 | 02:30

Kieran Donaghy looks refreshed and rejuvenated Photo: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
Kieran Donaghy looks refreshed and rejuvenated Photo: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE

That late April day 29 years ago, when Kerry and Dublin last met in a National League final, meant appreciably more to the team in blue. In glorious sunshine, fans also gathered on the city's northside for the FAI Cup final at Dalymount Park, while the Gaels headed in the opposite direction along the Royal Canal towards Croke Park. Kerry were All-Ireland champions, three years on the bounce, and in two of those they had overpowered Dublin. But in the spring of '87, the Dubs were inspired, winning by three points. Kieran Duff scored a memorable goal and the unheralded Declan Bolger had the game of his life, eclipsing Jack O'Shea.

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What came of it? Dublin were flushed away in the summer by Meath in the Leinster final for the second year running, and would suffer the same chastisement in '88 and '89. And Kerry were, the league final and the Munster Championship that year confirming, on the slide, age having crept up on the greatest team the game has known. Cork and Meath were about to become the main act, sharing the next four All-Irelands.

Even in the years without a Kerry-Dublin league final, the two giants have managed to carry on without it being a major inconvenience. There were spells when drought set in. Dublin went from '83 to '95 and then '95 to 2011 without an All-Ireland, the second stretch being one of their longest ever.

After rounding off the three-in-a-row in '86, Kerry didn't win again for 11 years. But in the same time they've won, combined, 11 of the 29 All-Ireland titles on offer. And now, Kerry are in a rare place of being deadly serious about a league final.

It might not be overstating it to rank today as the most eagerly relished league final Kerry has ever faced, even if the outcome will not absolutely determine the success or otherwise of their season.

James O'Donoghue, the Player of the Year when they won their All-Ireland two years ago, is still to come back from his latest shoulder operation. Anthony Maher is on the mend too. They will be a stronger panel in a few months - a different proposition.

By then, Dublin will be stronger too. The team Kerry faces today might not be quite the spruced-up version they may encounter later on. Dublin's performances in the league this spring have seen them nail eight wins on the trot and they are favourites to win their fourth league title in succession, equalling the feat of Kerry at the start of the 1970s. The last team to defeat them in league or championship was Kerry in the league in March last year. In the championship, they haven't lost since the Donegal defeat of 2014. They have managed this year's unbeaten run while losing their two best defenders, Jack McCaffrey and Rory O'Carroll.

Today though, is more about Kerry and what they come up with. If Dublin are being talked of as the greatest team the county has ever produced, with three successive championship wins over Kerry including two All-Ireland finals and a semi-final in five years, then no county is more piqued by those claims than Kerry.

They are realistic enough to know that last September they were outplayed for most of the final. They realise the margin of defeat could have been a lot worse. But they are now coming off the back of six league wins, their greatest sweep of spring victories since last winning the league in 2009.

Their previous league successes came after harrowing losses in All-Ireland finals: the win over Derry in '09 following the reverse to Tyrone the previous September; the league final win over Galway in '06 followed losing the All-Ireland to Tyrone and helped heal wounds and get the team back in a winning groove. In both years their league wins were the springboard to All-Irelands, even if 10 years ago they encountered a wobble in Munster and needed to travel the scenic route, inspired by Kieran Donaghy's conversion to full-forward.

Donaghy almost saved them last September following his intervention, and a series of aerial raids on the Dublin full-back line, but his conversion this spring has been to the middle of the field. Hopes that Tommy Walsh might rediscover some of the brilliance which marked his performances in 2009 before his Australian venture have ebbed.

Donaghy looks refreshed and rejuvenated. Three years ago he was left off the Kerry team for the Munster final by Eamonn Fitzmaurice and, at 30, his career might have been seen to be entering a natural period of decline. He wondered then if he could push two or three years out of it. He won an All-Ireland the next year, the reason he was still playing, and this is the fourth season of his career epilogue. He has gone one better than he might have expected.

But for injury, Brian Begley might have reduced the average age of the Kerry defence considerably. Marc ó Sé is not the marker he once was but he has more football than most playing the game, and his manager will tell you that there aren't two fitter players in the squad than ó Sé and his fellow veteran Aidan O'Mahony. The Rathmore man has been enjoying a sweeping role in front of the full-back line.

Kerry have tended to start leagues badly under Fitzmaurice - and this year was no different. They suffered early losses to Dublin and Roscommon, but they were still working their way back to match fitness. From there they have stitched six wins together and avenged the defeat to Roscommon in the semi-final. The team has responded well to some redesign work. Paul Murphy's move to centre-forward is offering them something different, even if the move was already set in motion by his club, Rathmore, in last year's club championship.

It happened by default as Rathmore had an injury crisis which depleted their attack, and Murphy moved up. There he remained until brought back to mark James O'Donoghue in the county semi-final. He has played in attack before for his club but he essentially became their man-marker once Tom O'Sullivan retired. That role, while valuable, has a trade-off in that the full repertoire of his football talents are often hidden in the rudimentary task of curtailing another. Since the Down match, their first league win, he has been enjoying a new attacking role with Kerry. But with the fluidity of movement and changing tactical nature of football today, nothing is set in stone.

In some of the games, Murphy has played more as a wing-back than a centre-forward. The point of this is that it has given him and the side a fresh look.

For a spell in last year's All-Ireland final, around the middle of the first half, Kerry had more of the play and exerted some authority. They led by a point and could have extended it - their finishing let them down.

Afterwards, there were conspiracies and abundant opinions, as always, about where Kerry messed up, one of those claiming that some players were not fit enough. A number have been under the knife since. Others countered that by arguing that Kerry created enough scoring chances to win, in spite of their sub-standard performance, but converted just a third of them. Dublin nailed two-thirds of theirs.

They are encouraged, too, by the regeneration of Darran O'Sullivan, their best player in the league so far, and another who might have been forgotten or seen as past his best. He has been restricted by injuries but, famously, took time out of work to focus on his inter-county career. He now looks to have a clear run and the form which made him one of the game's most effective front men. He brings an energy that unsettles defences, creates openings and turns matches. Kerry were missing that electricity last September, later consigned to banging in high balls to a packed Dublin defence. Neither Murphy, Donaghy nor O'Sullivan started last year's All-Ireland final, although all came on.

Colm Cooper, striving in vain to deny Philly McMahon a point, became the emblematic moment and image of the day, in the same way that Tyrone's crowding of Eoin Brosnan, and others, captured the changing order in the 2003 All-Ireland semi-final. McMahon's point must have stuck in the craw of every Kerry purist who regards Cooper as the quintessential Kerry footballer.

McMahon is an excellent footballer too, of course, but for Cooper the spring has been about finding out if he can still contribute as he has in the past. Kerry have been pleased with his form over the course of the league and feel he is better now than for some time. A serious injury and lengthy campaigns with Dr Crokes, which left no breather between club and county schedules, have hindered him. Soon to turn 33, he is, like a lot of Kerry's players and management, not lacking in motivation to show that September 2015 can be remedied.

Similarly, with Donaghy, Austin Stacks' run to the All-Ireland semi-final last year offered him little chance to recharge. The last winter has been less cluttered - he went back playing basketball and has emerged a fresher player.

All of which is good for Kerry's form, but Dublin is the litmus test. If they can't unsettle Dublin today then their All-Ireland bona fides will be called into question. Last September was a performance failure inside and outside the white lines - some of the management calls were strange (taking off James O'Donoghue, bringing on Paul Galvin, leaving on Cooper) - and today all must produce. Has a Kerry team ever been as fired-up for a league final?

Kerry, many of their followers feel, still have enough raw talent to win another All-Ireland. The question is if they still have the temperament required, the hardness and the resilience needed to be a champions.

Down the line, Dublin will feel the loss of McCaffrey and O'Carroll when the margins are tighter. That gives all teams hope that Dublin are not invincible.

Even in Kerry, confidence is not a given, and the importance of winning six matches on the run is not to be underestimated. They have gone through much private soul-searching and are now in the best form, for this time of the season, in at least seven years.

If they win it may bore a hole in Dublin's confidence. It would certainly help restore some of the confidence Kerry lost when the counties met last September. For once, the league final matters - as close to championship intensity as you could ever hope to expect.

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