Colm Keys: 'Kerry find solutions to first-day problems - but Dublin just posed new questions'
Keane found solutions to problems in drawn encounter but, as ever with Dublin, they plotted a different way to reach the same destination
Some 26 minutes into this All-Ireland football final Jack McCaffrey began to shuffle those turbo feet of his, priming everyone in the stadium that one of his trademark feints to the right and subsequent surges was on its way.
Just as Seán Cavanagh was easy to read but impossible to stop with a similar preamble, McCaffrey never has to disguise what’s coming next.
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In the drawn game he had delivered a wondrous performance, arguably the best individually in this current century or at least enough to entice comparable discussion with Pádraic Joyce’s contribution to Galway’s 2001 final win.
Stopping him had to be a key element of Kerry’s replay preparation. They couldn’t allow him to wreak such havoc on them again. So Gavin White was left off, Stephen O’Brien was matched up and Kerry vigilance for McCaffrey was on its highest state of alert.
Brian ó Beaglaoich had an early success when he popped the ball from McCaffrey’s grasp only for Ciarán Kilkenny to pick up and weave his way around Gavin Crowley for a third point in the opening 12 minutes.
But the signs were there at least that this time Kerry might well be able to stem the McCaffrey tide.
When McCaffrey went for that gap in the 26th minute ó Beaglaoich was again on hand to make the initial incision before Seán O’Shea stood his ground and smothered his opponent. Kerry capitalised, swept upfield through David Clifford’s run through the middle to create Tadhg Morley’s goal chance which Con O’Callaghan thwarted with a foul. Another story for a little later.
But just then it felt like they had struck a significant blow with their corralling of a player who would retire at the break with an injury.
Offered the outcome beforehand of a scoreless McCaffrey after the experience of the drawn game and Kerry would be entitled to think that they’d have been closer than six points at the end.
Given the detail that they would retain more of their own kick-outs, 23 from 23 to Dublin’s 23 from 25 even as they abandoned their daring high press from the last day for a more conservative approach and they could consider a 38th All-Ireland title was in their grasp.
Match the turnovers, 16 each, and again the weight of evidence points in the direction of a different game.
To know, however, that Dean Rock would not only fail to land a free but would not even have one to mull over within his scoring orbit in almost 80 minutes?
How could they even countenance defeat after that, such is Rock’s influence on all things Dublin?
Kerry got so much right. They fixed so many of the leaks that sprung the last day. But they still got swept away in a deluge. By the end, they were punch drunk from all the chasing they had done in the second half.
At one stage O’Shea got away from John Small on the Cusack Stand side but space disappeared as quickly as it opened up for him as blue shirts closed. When O’Shea eventually checked back on his left side and kicked across the Dublin goalmouth, it felt like a tired idea met by a tired response from those around him.
Davy Byrne’s interception then set in train a three-minute sequence of play, featuring 11 players stringing together 38 passes before Paul Mannion popped a third point.
At its conclusion, Kerry legs and heads were surely burning. Almost every decision they took after that, including Stephen O’Brien’s decision to go it alone with their one gilt-edged goal chance, suggested as much.
Dublin had asserted themselves in a way that champions, warm favourites, generally do in replays.
Kerry now end the decade with a record of defeat to Dublin that statistically, if not emotionally, has been just as painful for them as it has been for Mayo.
Their five defeats, 2011, 2015 and 2019 in finals and 2013 and 2016 semi-finals align with Mayo’s 2013, 2016 and 2017 finals and 2015 and 2019 semi-final reversals. On a tiebreaker, Mayo’s two draws (2015 and 2016) put them slightly ahead though their suffering is obviously framed by history.
At least Kerry have their 2014 success against the head to sustain them and the knowledge that the team which began Dublin’s decade of dominance bears no resemblance to the team that finishes it now.
The next decade offers potential but no guarantee that they will maximise it. Still, the year has to be reflected on as one of progress with just two defeats in both national finals they contested.
David Clifford has built on a mesmeric first season at this level impressively. The mistake in analysing his year would be to judge him always on the exceptionally high standards set for him.
Kerry had started with an aerial bombardment that had shades of 2014 and the successful attempt to exploit Paul Geaney’s much understated aerial ability and even the 2004 assault on the Mayo full-back line. But Dublin didn’t flinch, they didn’t concede a pocket of air and it quickly became obvious that hitting Clifford had to be the focal point.
O’Shea has also asserted himself in a more pronounced way in his second season. He has the brain, the technical acumen and the toughness to compete but perhaps not the pace to exploit all the advantages that he creates for himself.
And pace means so much in the modern game. Kerry experienced that the last day with the McCaffrey goal and again in the replay with Eoin Murchan’s scorching run from the second half throw-in through a vacated middle.
In any future debrief, the manner in which their defenders were drawn out of positions away from that central corridor will draw much reflection.
The outcome of O’Callaghan’s first half tailgating of Morley and Moran’s pursuit of Murchan in similar circumstances may not be entirely fair with the respective pace differences but it still raises a question of ruthlessness and defensive frailty in such clutch moments.
O’Callaghan had Mick Fitzsimons flanking him as he closed in on the man with the ball, Morley, in that first half. Moran was left in isolation. Where was the support? Not conceding a scorable free was virtuous and disciplined but how pragmatic with the waves that were coming at them?
Paul Murphy is a very fine all-round player but he got lost at times as the spare defender and Dublin got far more impact off Jonny Cooper’s freedom at the other end. It’s a fundamental issue that continues to plague Kerry.
Ultimately, Keane must find a way and the personnel to inject more speed, more players to break the line into their game, to get hardened Dublin defenders turning more often.
They can console themselves that they corrected so many of the problems in the drawn game. But like water, Dublin always find a way.