Tuesday 26 September 2017

Kilkenny leaves doubters chasing shadows

Ciaran Kilkenny gets away from Peader Byrne of Meath during a man-of-the-match display
Ciaran Kilkenny gets away from Peader Byrne of Meath during a man-of-the-match display
David Kelly

David Kelly

The pre-match bar-stool lament was indicative of how much the football championship has been surpassed this summer by its small-ball brother.

"Dublin need to be tested," they crowed as they gulped from swiftly disappearing glasses of heat-vanquishing nectar.

The masses would get their wish.

Meath, as their history in this fixture utterly demonstrated, were more adequately qualified than their supposedly vaunted predecessors, Kildare and Westmeath, to freight such a clear and present danger to Dublin's vaulting ambition.

Jim Gavin's players broke from the parade in a hurry but their haste would soon trip them up.

Meath refused to succumb to the sadomasochism that is the slow, suffocating death of the blanket defence. If they were to expire, they would do so with their boots on; and most of them planted firmly in the direction of the opposition goal.

Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton lifts the Delaney Cup
Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton lifts the Delaney Cup
Dublin manager Jim Gavin with Brian Cullen after the final whistle
Dublin's Jack McCaffrey lifts the Delaney cup after his side defeated Meath in the Leinster final
Bernard Brogan, left, and Paul Mannion celebrate after the game
Paul Hogan, son Darragh (4), granddad Ben and brother-in-law David Peppard with his son Ben (5) celebrate
Eoghan O'Gara with daughter Ella on the pitch after the game
Meath captain Kevin Reilly after the match
Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton takes a successful free kick late in the game
Meath's Michael Newman reacts after missing a goal chance
Meath's Joe Sheridan looks dejected in the dying moments of the match
Meath manager Mick O'Dowd reacts after Stephen Bray misses a chance at goal
Bernard Brogan in action against Meath's Kevin Reilly
Ciarán Kilkenny in action against Meath's Peader Byrne
Meath's Brian Meade in action against Rory O'Carroll
Meath supporters cheer on their team against Dublin
A Dublin supporter during the game
Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton leads his team during the parade
Dan O'Regan, and Orla Gannon at Croke Park

The intelligentsia who don clipboards and GPS charts and such would have mocked Meath's naivety as Dublin stormed back into contention; the Royals kept faith with proud tradition, though, and maintained their steadfast devotion to the game of football.

Spooked

Dublin, so intoxicating all summer, were overwhelmed by the sudden need to mingle energetic expression with intellectual innovation.

Against a traditional, gangly midfield duo, Stephen Cluxton was sufficiently spooked that so many of his kick-outs against the stiffening breeze were either gobbled up by the wide men or surrendered upon the wing.

Meath won four Dublin deliveries in succession from the 10th minute; the more he tried to avoid the middle, the more his side coughed up ball.

Meath, contentedly, 'let it in' long and high, diagonally and accurately, and made hay while the omnipresent sun shone.

Johnny Cooper dropped back – he would struggle all day – as Meath hassled and harried the blue jerseys; they flooded the attacking channels where Dublin have previously swarmed all summer.

And yet, for all the fretfulness inspired by this brave Meath side, there was little chance of a startled earwig being unearthed on this sod. Dublin were flummoxed but not floundering.

The questions were nevertheless taxing enough and they will linger on beyond this provincial championship.

For, even though Dublin repelled the early opposition insurrection with a first-half power play and, beyond, a post half-time acceleration, there was enough evidence exposed by Meath to furrow the brows of Gavin's extensive brains trust.

Just as Kildare's only success the last day was in creating clearcut goal chances before folding their tents, Meath's more persistent challenge revealed the vast chasms that can exist through Dublin's soft centre.

Gavin and company must examine the relationship between this and the still fractious midfield partnership that currently exists; the starting duo's obvious mobility was undermined by their inability to harvest first-phase possession.

Denis Bastick's introduction coincided with Dublin's tightening grip on the game as Meath's valiant efforts predictably faltered.

For such a long time though, and for so many of their number, excluding the remarkable example of Ciaran Kilkenny, only this week entering his 21st year, it proved to be a struggle that was hopelessly beyond so many of them. And it was not just the excitable gaggle of the breathlessly excited underage stars that Gavin has ushered into this effervescent summer who toiled.

Ger Brennan, who donned pipe and slippers when Kildare's craven approach to competitive fare the last day allowed him the free rein of his manor, was ultimately hounded from the fray by the pace of Stephen Bray.

Gavin witnessed a meltdown from some of his more experienced campaigners – Bernard Brogan produced the highlight of the day, a barely believable one-handed catch, but he was smothered otherwise and again slinked quietly from the fray.

How much longer will Gavin indulge a one-time star who is being eclipsed by younger versions of his former stellar self?

Ultimately, Gavin's young guns seized the day – six of his charges were lifting this crown for the first time.

Kilkenny was easily the most influential, supplemented brilliantly by Paul Mannion, demonstrating his soccer skills to swoop for a clinching goal, and the rangy Clontarf wing-back Jack McCaffrey.

It is still difficult to work out quite who or what Jack O'Shea was trying to denigrate when dismissing Kilkenny as a "junior footballer"; it seems sad that such a giant of the game could not appreciate the nascent genius of this playmaker extraordinaire.

Assessing at an early stage that he could profit in the space vacated by Padraic Harnan, the Castleknock man bestrode the Croke Park sward like a veteran, spraying the ball around as if it were an attachment from birth.

Sneer

As much as Meath pressed, Dublin's ability to deploy what so may gurus sneer at – the foot pass – allowed Kilkenny to paint a canvas of wonderful colour on this sparking sunshine day.

Ironically, his awareness was of more benefit to Mannion than Brogan; the underage pair have developed an instinctive bond so reminiscent of that which once existed between the Brogan brothers.

With Alan sadly still absent, Kilkenny has audaciously bloomed. Had Diarmuid Connolly converted the goal chance laid upon his plate by the dual star, Dublin could have settled this argument much earlier.

As it was, Meath's six successive points heightened half-time debate; Gavin calmed his charges, refused to buckle and allowed his team to develop a coherent response.

They did so. Kilkenny was potent in the charge, adding two wonderful points to his array of skills as Dublin now started winning even Meath kickouts.

He finished the game with 30 possessions, a statistical confirmation, if needed, of his ubiquitous domination of the piece.

At one stage, he dragged Connolly away from a momentary conflagration that, feebly enough, echoed seismic battles of old between these factions.

It may have been Cluxton – whose indomitability masks his side's fallibility in conceding goal chances – who followed fellow goalkeeper John O'Leary in lifting the Delaney Cup, joining Brian Mullins as a nine-time champion.

Ultimately, however, it was Ciaran Kilkenny who provided the real leadership for Dublin. Somebody with no questions left to answer.

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