Sunday 23 October 2016

Rarely has Sam been won so convincingly by a margin of three points

Published 27/09/2015 | 17:00

‘Brian Fenton was the best player in the midfield area and probably on the field too’
‘Brian Fenton was the best player in the midfield area and probably on the field too’

The All-Ireland final may have been a low-scoring, poor-quality game, but there were no complaints from Dublin on that score as they created history by beating Kerry three times in a row in championship football. The traditional bind that Kerry have held Dublin in is now well and truly broken. So it is very much a case of never mind the quality, feel the joy.

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Conditions were dreadful, as everyone knows; that however does not automatically mean that a match cannot be one of high quality. This final, though, lacked drama until the end. There was little in the way of raw passion and the execution of fairly basic skills, particularly kicking, was of junior standard.

I had assumed that Kerry would have a natural advantage in the circumstances. After all, it does rain in Kerry most days and nights of the year and their performance against Tyrone with the wet ball was exemplary. Last Sunday, however, the ball was not sticking to Kerry hands. Very often the ball and a Dublin back arrived at the same time and the loose ball was most often hoovered up by Dublin players.

The type of footwear used on days like these can be the key. Croke Park is unlike all other surfaces. On a dry day the ball hops higher and the game moves faster than in other grounds. On wet days it becomes a bit of a lottery. It is much better than a few years ago when it was dangerous when wet, but the ball still skids at unnatural angles when it hits the ground. The problem with footwear is that studded boots can hurt the feet while wearing moulded soles last Sunday was like trying to sprint on ice in your bare feet.

Dublin adapted much better to the conditions and if you draw up a list of the best players on view you would find it hard to get a Kerry player in the top eight. Rory O'Carroll, Philip McMahon, James McCarthy, Cian O'Sullivan, Jack McCaffrey, Brian Fenton, Ciarán Kilkenny and Paddy Andrews all probably played better than the best player on the Kerry team. When did that ever happen before? It's hard to pick out even one Kerry footballer who would be satisfied with his performance.

Of all the things that hurt after a big defeat, the worst is not performing as an individual and a group. If your team gets beaten after playing reasonably well then you can live with it. Kerry are gone home to lick their wounds knowing that they have never given a more anaemic display. I know the feeling well having played on the losing side in All-Ireland finals and, even more so, in senior championship finals with my club when little if anything seemed to go right. It's nothing to do with attitude, effort or ability. There are just days when the wheels fall off and there is no computer print-out to explain it.

Dublin turned the Kerry strengths on their head. The expected midfield pull did not materialise and Brian Fenton, rather being fazed by the occasion, was the best player in that area and probably on the field too. Not bad for a lad who looks more like he's gearing up to start shaving soon rather than controlling midfield in a final against the best in the country. Dublin's marking arrangements also worked very well and most of the defenders had a decisive edge over their opponents.

None more so than Philip McMahon, who was not only was a contender for Man of the Match, but is also one for Player of the Year. Yet I would find it hard to support his case for that award. There is a difference between being a hard man and being downright nasty. There is a very clear line between the two but McMahon has blurred vision in that regard.

He gave Gooch a hard time throughout, but the incident with Kieran Donaghy was a horse of a different colour. The reaction by Donaghy straight away indicated that he felt somebody had tried to gouge him. McMahon is a great, tough footballer but this has nothing to do with toughness, manliness or any other of the great qualities involved in being a Gaelic footballer. The Tyrone players are altar boys compared to some of his actions. Why McMahon needs to lower himself to this is beyond comprehension as he beats his man - at football - in every game.

Last week I wrote that the winners would get all the credit in terms of tactical approach and the losers would make all the blackboard mistakes. It was about the only thing I got right about the game. So it is with Jim Gavin and Eamonn Fitzmaurice. Yet for me tactics were a minor part. Once your players are being beaten for possession there are no tactics which work. By putting Cian O'Sullivan as the minder in front of the Dublin full-back line, the defence has been a much stronger unit. After that there was not much different about the Dublin set-up this year. Their game is still about attack and it is great to see a side who are intent on scoring winning the All-Ireland title.

Yet if Kerry had been given a score of 12 points to aim for before the match they would have surely fancied their chances, even if there was a tornado and a monsoon thrown in. I suppose that just goes to show the extent of their systems failure. I'm quite sure Fitzmaurice will think he should have thrown on Donaghy and Paul Murphy earlier and left on James O'Donoghue.

With 20 minutes to go and having been beaten solidly around the field, apart from a spell in the first half when they had a lot of chances, they were still in a position to save the game. It was then they needed a warrior like Marc Ó Sé to come on, someone who would throw up a different puzzle, someone who would take chances and really go at Dublin. Donaghy upped the tempo when he was introduced and looked to me as if he should have had a penalty.

Referee David Coldrick didn't agree and big men find it hard to get decisions like that. Overall, Coldrick had a very good, understated game and showed why he is the best referee. Incidentally, a former student of mine, David Gough, also did a very good job in the minor match. It says something about Meath football when it is referees who are representing the county in Croke Park now. Preferable to have the refs excluded because Meath are playing, but a start has been made on that long road.

Few counties have been such convincing winners of an All-Ireland final with a margin of only three points. This year Dublin have been absolutely pragmatic in terms of doing whatever was necessary to win each individual game, League and Championship. Grinding out wins against Westmeath and Fermanagh, flamboyance against Kildare, a high-wire act against Mayo and then a completely disciplined performance against Kerry - something I was quite wrong about as I felt that they showed signs of complete panic under pressure against Mayo. How wrong can you be? They were calmness personified last week.

Maybe former star wing-forward David Hickey is right and this is the best group of Dublin players ever. With very few near the end of the line and any amount of young talent the Dubs might be even better over the next few years. What they have is an unusual (not unique - Kerry in the '70s) combination of sheer athleticism, football skill and now mental toughness. They are also great role models for young Dublin footballers. God between us and all harm.

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