Monday 15 July 2019

'Ciaran Kilkenny, the ginger Modric' - Dublin's graceful, elegant, remorseless machine is a team for the ages

Dublin players, from left, John Small, Brian Fenton, Ciarán Kilkenny and Cormac Costello celebrate following the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Dublin and Tyrone at Croke Park in Dublin.
Dublin players, from left, John Small, Brian Fenton, Ciarán Kilkenny and Cormac Costello celebrate following the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Dublin and Tyrone at Croke Park in Dublin.

Roy Curtis

AS Dublin lit a beautiful candle of September learning, as this remorseless, titanic force swallowed the summer whole, there seemed only one legitimate question to pose.

It was the one that asked where now stands that preposterous, dark-age Jim McGuinness thesis that deems Jim Gavin's relentless authors of genius football's enemy?

Here, a superior team for the ages, one that decorates their surrounds with a rich and beautiful tapestry, a volcanic Sky Blue force glinting like an aesthetic treasure, boasting a nerve of Kevlar, marrying thoroughbred racehorse conditioning with feather-footed technique, showcased why it is they are entitled to make their immortal home on football's Mount Rushmore.

Quite simply, because their greatness, their merciless grace, their poetic refinement, their harmony of muscle and mind, demands their likeness is carved on the sporting peaks.

Tyrone, boldly, bravely, invested all of themselves in that first throw of the dice: They led by five points to a single Dean Rock free at the end of the first quarter.

But, when Dublin smashed the emergency glass, they didn't so much quench the flame as strike down a thunderbolt.

In little more than 15 first half minutes, they delivered a 2-6 blitzkrieg. The response was a solitary point. Tyrone were concussed, exhausted, swaying on their feet, an unfortunate prize-fighter who had walked into a lights-out haymaker from snarling, brutal, peak-era Mike Tyson.

When Tyrone posed the question, Football's Ivy Leaguers simply unspooled their unrivalled sporting intellect.

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The extra gas the Ulster side had guzzled in that opening quarter would result in a fatal fuel shortage as Dublin pitilessly hit the accelerator and purred into overdrive.

In that decisive second quarter Dublin were a banked fire now bursting into flame, a team knocking at the door of eternity.

Paul Mannion, a waspish irritant in defence one moment, a toreador applying a lethal sword thrust to convert a penalty the next, was a portrait of unceasing, selfless magnificence.

Con O'Callaghan, after a testing first quarter, summoned the strength of personality to seize the title deeds to the second. He sold one dummy to set up Niall Scully's killer goal that evoked that wonderful old line about George Best leaving a defender with twisted blood.

Dean Rock missed two early frees, but he, too, is blessed with unbreakable nerve: His response was a pair of points from play, the thwack as they pierced Tyrone's cerebral cortex resonating like kill-shots from an assassin's revolver.

Brian Fenton, gliding with the elegance of a catamaran on turquoise Caribbean seas, helped himself to a brace.

Jack McCaffrey caromed up the wing, afterburners blazing, a blur of fast-twitch blue, a supersonic jet on a verdant runway to the heavens, football's most thrilling comet.

Brian Howard, genetically incapable of making a bad decision, barely out of his teens yet already a grandmaster of the Drumcondra chessboard, looked like a young man fulfilling his life's destiny. Eoin Murchan moved with the unshakeable confidence of a made man in Little Italy.

Johnny Cooper, the self-proclaimed obsessive, grazing against the ceiling of defensive play, closed doors; James McCarthy oozed that easy, square-shouldered authority, the tough tank of his body bouncing off white shirts.

And then, there was Ciaran Kilkenny, the ginger Modric, the conductor in the La Scala pit, director of the movie, the genius who makes the entire system irresistible.

He scored Dublin's first point from play in the 18th minute. He married the best of Conor Murray and Tom Brady.  His playmaking influence was vital in turning the tide.

Tyrone, to their eternal credit, declined to surrender. In a facsimile of last year's semi-final they turned for the back nine, seven down. But this time, they would not buckle.

Peter Harte's 65th-minute penalty eased them within five and fed their supporters a morsel of hope.

John Small was red-carded for a high challenge on Harte. Lee Brennan's free brought Tyrone within four. As in Omagh in July, Dublin could now feel the breath of Mickey Harte's team on their neck.

But no northern oak would grow from this acorn of possibility, as Kevin McManamon arrived like a paramedic to resuscitate his fading team.

Kilkenny, the summer's top scorer from play, kicked his third of the afternoon and raised a triumphant left arm to Hill 16, a chief justice issuing a final ruling. The city's supporters bellowed their approval.

In the last breaths, Mick Darragh Macauley tattooed his name to the scoresheet with a fisted point: A knockout punch from the game's unrivalled heavyweights.

Tyrone died with their boots on, but for them, as for all of Dublin's pursuers, there is only terrible darkness in the reality that their team has a younger average age than the breakthrough class of 2011.

It was their senior citizen, the timeless keeper of the flame Stephen Cluxton who led his team up the steps. A sixth All-Ireland, a record-shattering fifth as captain, 29 of his 31 kick-outs won, the leader, the inspiration, the most persuasive, revolutionary figure the game has known.

The poetic notes of the city's great bard, Luke Kelly echoed across the arena. 

Here, truly, as Cluxton raised Sam Maguire - careful in his speech to counter the sniping about population and finance - and the pyrotechnics flared, was Dublin in the rarest of rare oul' times.

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