Joe Brolly: When two teams play football without fear it is the best sport on the planet
I arrived into Croke Park last Saturday, and saw the Dublin kit van parked outside their changing room. The back doors were open. I looked in as I passed and had to do a double-take. Johnny Cooper was unloading the van.
"Hi Joe," he said as he headed to the changing room laden down with provisions. The All Blacks' first rule is 'sweep the sheds'. They sweep and mop out the changing rooms after every session and game. They believe that humility is the core of any successful team. When the Cavan stewards went to clean the Dubs changing room after their recent league game in Breffni, they found it spotless.
The first game last Sunday embodied the negative craze that has swept the game. Neither team knows how to go for it any more, so it was dull and formulaic. Galway won Connacht last year playing negatively and paid the price for their fear-based football against Tipperary. An inferior team stuffed them in Croke Park by playing with adventure and ambition. Because of Galway's rigid defensive formula (a minimum of 13 behind the half-way line when they lose possession), when they went four behind they were beaten.
Galway have no need to be so negative. They took a series of brilliant long-range scores to edge last week's game and have a core of excellent players. Crucially, they have a half-forward line of top-class ball winners, yet they do not use them. Instead their starting position is inside their own 45, which means the team is forced to carry the ball forward. So they kept Kildare in the game and could easily have lost. They have massive untapped potential. The trick now is to get the balance right. A Galway team attacking with commitment will be a nightmare for any defence.
The Division 1 final showed how it ought to be done. When Alex Ferguson's scouts used to come to him to extol the virtues of a player they had found, he would wait patiently until they had finished their run-down, then ask: "But can he run?"
Eamonn Fitzmaurice finally got fed up with the Dubs running through Kerry. So Kerry fought pace with pace and the odds became 50/50. Brian Fenton must have thought he was playing into a mirror.
Jack Barry brought brilliant athleticism, confidence and pace, and Kerry's bogeyman became a cuddly toy. Not once did he surge through the heart of the Kerry defence. Likewise, Tadhg Morley wrapped himself up in Ciaran Kilkenny so that at times it looked like a four-armed multi-coloured player. This was a superb man v man contest that summed up everything that is good in the game. All over the field, Kerry committed 100 per cent to their man and to the win. No fear. No blanket.
As a result, it was a classic game. Since the Dubs never play with fear, we had two teams going for it, playing with courage and adventure and ambition. I re-watched the game twice last week, in a vain attempt to divine what it all meant for late summer. Kerry pressurised Dublin constantly. They refused to let them build quickly from the back. When they won a quick kick-out, Dublin were routinely fouled to prevent their default lightning transfer to the attack. Their pressure was particularly impressive given Stephen Cluxton's virtually perfect kick-out display. It was 28 minutes before Kerry won a Dublin kick-out, and this because Cluxton made the bad choice of kicking long to Fenton with three Kerry men around him. That was Kerry's single success in the first half.
In the third quarter, as Kerry scented blood, his kick-outs were from a different planet. My notes read: 37 minutes, perfect 45m SC K/O to running Dub; 38 minutes, great K/O to Kilkenny under severe pressure; 38 minutes great long K/O, Dub fouled. And so on and so forth. In the 43rd minute of the half he miscued a kick-out. Followed by three perfect kick-outs, all under severe Kerry pressure. And down the stretch, when Dublin were looking to their last protection, he was flawless. In that final quarter, meanwhile, Dublin won Kiely's kick-outs 7-2. Analyse that.
Kerry surged forward at every opportunity. Lung-bursting runs out of the defence by Paul Murphy (who never seems to tire), Peter Crowley, Fionn Fitzgerald and Mark Griffin meant Dublin were forced back into defence, so were attacking from deeper positions than usual. Which meant that Bernard Brogan and Paddy Andrews were getting the ball late and often inaccurately. Three times as Brogan sprinted out, the kick-pass was put over his head. Add in the man-to-man combat on Diarmuid Connolly, Kilkenny and Fenton and, for once, the Dubs were way out of their comfort zone.
In the chaos of such a complex war, certain things stood out. Firstly, Kerry were composed and unafraid throughout. Pace and commitment to attack bring confidence. Secondly, Dublin could have won the game in the 25th minute. By that stage they were leading 0-7 to 0-5. Paul Flynn gave a perfect long ball to Brogan who laid it off to Connolly, who broke the line and headed for goal, before being dragged down just on the edge of the penalty area. A goal then would have made it 1-7 to 0-5 and I feel it would have killed the game, since Kerry's pressure game needed continuous motivation.
The black card is useless in this context. I have argued for a rule that, where a clear goalscoring opportunity is denied, there should be a penalty. As it is, the widespread practice now is to drag the player down before he gets inside the box. It leaves a bad taste in the mouth and is no punishment. What is the point of the card at all, unless it happens to be a Lee Keegan or a David Moran who does the dragging down?
As it was, this was a momentum changer. Kerry had a terrific next 15 minutes. Connolly was a fool for being black-carded and fully deserved it. He had been playing well under huge pressure and this further emboldened the Kerry men. When Paul Geaney kicked an absolutely fabulous score in the 48th minute, off balance and off one hand, it was 0-14 to 0-10 and Kerry were coming through the middle in waves, which is what the Dubs normally do.
Then another game changer. Michael Darragh Macauley, the Red Bull monster truck, came on. He began crashing through and Paul Mannion illustrated the wisdom of Alex Ferguson, torturing Kerry with his electric pace. Padraic Joyce has bemoaned the lack of analysis on League Sunday but you could have four hours and not get to the bottom of this one.
For the final quarter, the crowd were screaming as the Dubs blasted away. James McCarthy came up the middle like a big horse. In the 66th minute, Macauley took the Red Bull challenge through the Kerry defence and took a blast at the goal when Dean Rock was through one v one inside begging for the lay-off. As the ball ping-ponged around the square, Rock should have got a penalty but didn't. A few minutes later, Macauley took the challenge again, setting up Mannion for a beautifully finished goal. In the 70th minute, Kevin McManamon burst through and, with Eoghan O'Gara in a perfect position for a palm-in at the far post, he miscued his handpass. It was mayhem.
Yet in the 58th minute, it was Kerry who could have sealed it. All Kevin McCarthy had to do was palm the ball to the empty net but instead he elected to catch it, giving Philly McMahon time to get across and cover.
The best score of the day was Moran's. He took on four defenders. Had to change hands twice. Had the ball knocked out of his arms onto the ground at one point. Got it back, kept going and in the end, off balance and on the run, he had the conviction to somehow will the ball over the bar. Bryan Sheehan illustrated Kerry's ambition with Kerry's last, great score.
Yet Dublin could still have won it. They rattle off scores so quickly and it was bewildering to look at the scoreboard in the 73rd minute and see that they were now only one behind. Rock's free would have drawn it and in extra-time, would you have bet against them? It was another illustration of how useless the black card is in this situation. Where this sort of black-card offence occurs (denying a possible point-scoring opportunity), the penalty ought to be a 30-metre free in front of goal. Anthony Maher wouldn't have done a rugby tackle if there was a real punishment. Instead he dragged Mick Fitzsimons down without a thought, and Rock was left to kick from 50 metres.
Afterwards, the Dubs weren't too disappointed. Kerry were elated and, in truth, their victory was vital for them and great for the game. It was a brilliant, breathless match that had everything.
That night, a picture was tweeted from Geaney's Bar in Dingle of the Kerry boys drinking pints and eating food that is probably not in their nutrition plan. They thoroughly deserve their hangovers. When Gaelic football is played this way, it is the best game on the planet.
Sunday Indo Sport