Champions not by chance, but by persistent endeavour
It must be galling for Donegal to have been beaten at their own game, writes Colm O'Rourke
Last Sunday gave us an absolutely wonderful occasion with a brilliant atmosphere on the streets around Croke Park from early on a beautiful day.
There was a great mix of people with families gathering and supporters mingling in a most friendly manner. Maybe it's the distance they had to travel and with both counties in the minor as well it made for a very special day.
That was the best part of it, however, the big game itself was flat and the atmosphere afterwards was muted.
Perhaps the reason for this is that Kerry are not triumphalist in nature and winning All-Irelands is part of life. Yet there was major satisfaction involved. A lot of players were winning their first medal, it was against Ulster opposition where Kerry have struggled and was won with a style which was needed for this particular final but would not be the preferred way to play football in the Kingdom.
In many ways this game was built up as a great battle between two managers. The winner always writes the history and so Eamonn Fitzmaurice gets most of the credit. Rightly so too, but things did fall his way at crucial times. Napoleon was famously fond of lucky Generals and now we can say for certain that Fitzmaurice is both good and lucky.
Good or even great in the way he handled the Gooch injury and convinced his players that they had a future, lucky that it happened early enough in the year to get over losing the player of the decade. Good that he eventually released Kieran Donaghy in the drawn game against Mayo, lucky that he and James O'Donoghue produced one moment of magic and that he got another game to improve the team even further. With Corca Dhuibhne also winning the All-Ireland colleges title it has been some year for the manager. And winning the colleges is probably the bigger accomplishment of the two.
When the match is on, the managers have much more limited impact than people believe. At that stage, having leaders on the pitch is far more important. Donegal didn't have many on Sunday and in that regard it was a strange final with very few individual displays of high quality. Maybe that is a by-product of massed defences but great players should always be able to make their mark on such a big day.
Having spent so much time in camps at various stages during the year Donegal seemed programmed to play one way and one way only. Maybe they had never talked about a new approach if they were behind with five minutes to go, but how they sat back and allowed Kerry to keep possession in their own half is one of the great mysteries and one which will keep Jim McGuinness awake for a few nights.
He will also question himself on why he started Darach O'Connor. It backfired badly and looking for a very young player of light build and little experience to make an impact in a forward line which was going to be heavily outnumbered was asking a lot. It meant a delayed introduction for Christy Toye who should have started after doing so well against Dublin, while Patrick McBrearty made his appearance far too late. He has caused problems as a sub in every game and did so again. Eamonn Fitzmaurice quickly countered, putting on Shane Enright to mark him, obviously another pre planned move.
I have always felt that managers get too much credit for victory and far too much criticism for defeats. So the McGuinness mistakes will be magnified and it is the opposite in Kerry. Yet for Donegal to continue to give wrong information on their team right up until the throw is taking things beyond what should be acceptable. Did it really make that much difference who was playing at the start?
Donegal could never have considered that two of their best players against Dublin, Michael Murphy and Ryan McHugh, would have such little impact. McHugh in particular had a complete howler after a great year, a good game here and a win for Donegal would have made him player of the year, now he may not even make the All Stars. One of McGuinness's great strengths is his stubborn refusal to accommodate anyone who does not stay true to the party line, but I could not help thinking with Mark McHugh sitting in the RTE box that he should be out on the pitch. Whether he had been away for part of the summer or not, he would have been a major asset.
The goal that changed this final was unfortunate in the extreme for Paul Durcan, a great 'keeper who saved the day against Dublin with both stops and kick outs. His kicking in the first half was very good but after the goal he kicked long and not too accurately and into an area which Kerry flooded. Neil Gallagher fought hard but was outnumbered in the last quarter.
Two incidents stood out in my mind in that final quarter. The first one was a magnificent point from Johnny Buckley when Kerry were on the ropes and Donegal looked as if they were timing their charge perfectly. The other a couple of minutes later was a diving block from Peter Crowley, it is that sort of block that inspires players on the pitch just as much as a high catch or a great score. Within a couple of minutes a great score for Kerry did arrive, a fisted point from Donaghy, a score that seemed to be worth more than a point to the Kerry supporters.
It ended in high drama as Colm McFadden very nearly forced a replay. It would have turned off many neutrals, but that is of little concern to those involved. The actors on great stages must entertain or the paying public will not return. The only concern for the player or manager is winning and a vague notion of responsibility to the game cuts no ice - that comes later from people of my age. The administrators have the responsibility to the game and they are doing a right bad job in that regard.
This was not the worst All-Ireland of all time or anything like it. I played in much worse and tried my best to stop others playing in them with reasonable success too. However, the standard of kicking for scores was as bad as I ever saw with Kerry the biggest culprits.
Next year, Kerry will change and go back to playing their more attacking way. This time round it was a case of needs must and it must be galling for Donegal to be beaten at their own game. Their inflexibility beat them. If they had pushed right up on Kerry and forgot about extra defenders in the last ten minutes it could have been entirely different, but it is hard to change the habits of a lifetime.
Losing a close final when there were many mistakes stays with players until the wooden collar is fitted, that's what makes finals special. Kerry did their job and will take quiet satisfaction. The rest better watch out, the sleeping dog was kicked early in the year and few expected this response. In fact, at that time there seemed a degree of sympathy with the Kerry demise, next year will see the Gooch back and Tommy Walsh likely to return from Australia. Those who wanted a Kerry win to save football should be careful what they wish for.
For now though they deserve the warmest congratulations. They have developed a great habit of overcoming all obstacles and not feeling sorry for themselves when fate intervenes. Champions, not by chance or even Napoleon's luck but more so by persistent endeavour and a great love of the game itself. Not to mention a lot of humility.
Sunday Indo Sport