Dubs deliverance at long last for Kingdom
Kerry 0-20 Dublin 1-16
On the day that Colm Cooper made his last appearance in the Kerry jersey in Croke Park - courtesy of a big screen tribute to the recently retired Gooch - his erstwhile team mates, and a few he never played alongside, struck a timely blow for a Kingdom under seige.
Just before 5.30 on Sunday evening Fionn Fitzgerald climbed the Hogan Stand steps that he and Cooper had bounded up in their club colours just three weeks earlier, this time for Fitzgerald to lift the National League cup to louder cheers from the not insignificant Kerry support in the 53,840 crowd than this title should elicit from Kerry folk.
Out in front the Kerry players and management stood impassively, careful not to betray the 'yerra tis only the League' status conferred on a competition that Eamonn Fitzmaurice would easily admit minutes later ranks only third after the Munster and All-Ireland Championships. Yet, inside the Kerry team must have been a little giddy.
Giddy at having beaten Dublin. At having stopped their League drive for five. At having ended the their unbeaten run at 36 games. At having arrested a run of four games without a win against Jim Gavin's team. At having come out the right side of a nail-biting one-pointer, if not quite the classic Kerry always seem to lose. At having stared into the abyss of defeat again but this time not falling in.
The silverware - League title no.20 - has probably been thrown into a cupboard somewhere and won't be seen again until county convention in December, but this victory was about much more than a title and a trophy.
Eamonn Fitzmaurice surely didn't believe that the rest of us thought his players turned into a bunch of head-bangers on the bus rides home after recent defeats to Dublin, but there's no doubt those defeats rankled. The Kerry boss was measured in the delivery of his 'narrative' speech the Tuesday before this final, but the he wouldn't have been drawn out had he not been stung by recent results as much as the narrative he felt was unfolding and being orchestrated in some quarters.
Fitzmaurice, we're certain, didn't need his team to win last Sunday to feel vindicated for calling it as he saw it, but it didn't do any harm either. If his motivation was, as he stated, to protect his players, it definitely had the effect of getting them to put in a whole-hearted performance that, in truth, was just good enough to see them fall over the winning line. In the end just the width of a post separated the teams, with Dean Rock's last minute 48-metre free hitting the upright to see Dublin beaten for the first time across League and Championship since March 2015.
If we thought FItzmaurice's comments might have been a touch paper for a buring sequel to the unpleasantness of Austin Stack Park three weeks earlier we were wrong to the point of feeling duped.
Seldom, if ever, has a first half of football between Kerry and Dublin felt so benign. Level three times until it reached 0-3 apiece, Dublin edged 0-7 to 0-4 ahead through points from Ciarán Reddin, Ciarán Kilkenny, James McCarthy and Diarmuid Connolly as the champions upped the rev counter a little.
Kerry's counter-move was an incisive little manoeuvre that ended with David Moran's shot stinging the hands of Stephen Cluxton.
With Dublin leading by two, Connolly bore down on the Kerry goal only for Jonathan Lyne to pull him down for a tap over point from Rock and a no arguments black card for Lyne.
Three minutes later Connolly was in the stand with Lyne for a nonsensical pull down on Lyne's replacement, Gavin Crowley, nowhere near the action, but in full view of the linesman. With the greatest respect to Lyne, Dublin's loss was greater.
At the break Kerry trailed 0-9 to 0-10 and would have felt quite emboldened by their opening half efforts.
The champions were fortunate not to lose Brian Fenton to a black card for a blatant body check on Jack Barry four minutes into the second half, but even so Dublin were unsettled.
Tadhg Morley was winning his epic battle with Ciarán Kilkenny, David Moran was lording it at midfield, the Kerry full-back line was keeping Rock, Paddy Andrews and Bernard Brogan in check, and three Paul Geaney frees pushed Kerry 0-13 to 0-10 ahead.
Kerry were four clear when Dublin had their first shot at the Kerry posts - a wayward effort from James McCarthy - and were five ahead when Paul Mannion got Dublin's first score of the second half in the 51st minute.
Either side of Mannion's point Mikey Geaney fired over two after Dublin had inexplicably taken Cian O'Sullivan out of the centre back spot.
Kerry still led by four in the 58th minute when Cluxton saved well from Morley's shot and Philly McMahon blocked Kevin McCarthy's follow up shot with a despairing diving block.
Three minutes later Mannion struck the game's only goal to make it a one-point game, and with Dublin's momentum and confidence rising it looked as if Kerry might be caught again by Dublin in the final quarter.
Kerry still led by two points going into added time with Rock pointing from play in the 73rd minute, Bryan Sheehan replying just into the fourth and final minute of additional time. There was still time for Paul Mannion to halve the deficit and for Anthony Maher to cynically, but understandably, pull down Michael Fitzsimons to present Rock with that 48-metre free. The Ballymun man had the distance but not the accuracy with the ball hitting the post.
So, Dublin's 36-game unbeaten run is over, neatly bookended by defeats to Kerry on either end but, who knows, it could be the tonic a tired looking Dublin team last Sunday needed ahead of their All-Ireland defence.
For Kerry it was a first NFL title since 2009 but they will surely benefit more from the tonic of who they beat more than what they won.
Kerry: Brendan Kealy, Fionn Fitzgerald, Mark Griffin, Ronan Shanahan, Peter Crowley, Tadhg Morley, Paul Murphy (0-1), David Moran (0-3, 1'45), Jack Barry (0-1), Jonathan Lyne, Mikey Geaney (0-2), Donnchadh Walsh (0-2), Kevin McCarthy (0-1), Paul Geaney (0-8, 5f), Jack Savage (0-1). Subs: Darran O'Sullivan for J Savage, 58, Barry John Keane for K McCarthy, 62, Bryan Sheehan (0-1) for D Walsh, 66, Anthony Maher for J Barry, 69, Adrian Spillane for M Geaney, 71. Black card: Gavin Crowley for J Lyne, 26, Anthony Maher, 73, not replaced
Dublin: Stephen Cluxton, Philly McMahon (0-1), Michael Fitzsimons, Darren Daly, James McCarthy (0-1), Cian O'Sullivan, Eric Lowndes, Brian Fenton, Ciarán Reddin (0-2), Paul Flynn (0-1), Ciarán Kilkenny (0-2), Diarmuid Connolly (0-1), Dean Rock (0-6, 4f), Paddy Andrews, Bernard Brogan. Subs: Paul Mannion (1-2) for P Andrews, 41, Michael Darragh Macauley for C Reddin, 48, Kevin McManamon for C O'Sullivan, 48, David Byrne for E Lowndes, 60, Eoghan O'Gara for P Flynn, 67. Black card: Niall Scully for D Connolly, 29
Referee: Paddy Neilan (Roscommon)