Tuesday 24 April 2018

Colm O'Rourke: In a match made in heaven between two great teams, Cluxton might have to kick the winning free

16 July 2017; Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton who today makes his 88th Senior Championship appearance, equalising the all-time record with Tomás Ó Sé and Marc Ó Sé of Kerry, during the Leinster GAA Football Senior Championship Final match between Dublin and Kildare at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
16 July 2017; Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton who today makes his 88th Senior Championship appearance, equalising the all-time record with Tomás Ó Sé and Marc Ó Sé of Kerry, during the Leinster GAA Football Senior Championship Final match between Dublin and Kildare at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

Comparisons between teams of different eras are odious. That is probably why people like doing it so much. The best team ever; the best player of his generation; the best corner-forward... the list is endless and everyone can be right as all opinion is subjective.

But it would hardly be a huge leap of faith for most to describe the Kerry team of the 1970s and early '80s and the present day Dubs as the best teams of the last 40 years. Before that, Down in the 1960s and the Galway team who won three in a row were obviously hugely talented, even if Galway never seemed to get enough credit for their exploits. And I played on a side that was not too bad either.

Anyway, my memories of Kerry have not dulled, even if I only played against them once in championship football. That was in 1986 when Kerry were lining up another three-in-a-row and beat Meath in the semi-final before coming from behind to defeat Tyrone in the final.

When you talk of the present day Dublin side the words most often mentioned are speed, skill, endurance and the ability to play good football. Those are the exact same terms which were used to describe Kerry at their best in the late 1970s when they did not just beat teams, they absolutely murdered them. That Kerry side were athletic in nature, individually and collectively, and they were a lot better than everyone else.

Of course we have to acknowledge that they played at an easier time. There was no back door and with Connacht and Ulster provincial basket cases around this era, there was often only two real games to win the All-Ireland, the Munster final against Cork and the All-Ireland final itself. Cork were probably the second best team for some of those years and could have strangled an emerging Kerry, but a few dodgy refereeing decisions cost them dearly. When the genie got out of the bottle Kerry became practically unbeatable.

The other factor which kept Kerry at the top was their unwillingness to take the league seriously. They were just a championship team. Compare that to Dublin, who have been the team for all seasons, and the long run certainly took the edge off them last year. They ignored the league this year - and still got to the final - and now look all the better for it.

The physical side of football has changed completely over those 40 years. Defenders were hard men in the 1970s. They minded their men, gave their forwards the odd slap and generally never strayed too far forward. Kerry moved things on but in Páidí Ó Sé, Tim Kennelly and Jimmy Deenihan they had men who could be charitably called tough - or dirty hoors if you did not want to be so kind.

Deenihan's marking of Cork's Jimmy Barry-Murphy at that time was the closest thing to internment without trial. His life afterwards as a politician was easier as he was merely moving from one bloodsport to another! Yet for all that, they could all play - Páidí driving forward with the ball being hopped with the left hand 20 yards in front of him, and Kennelly was not called the Horse for nothing, he knew his role perfectly. He was there to stop attacks, the posh boys down the other end could wear the dancing shoes.

Paudie Lynch was classy and John O'Keeffe was ahead of his time and would fit right in nowadays. The better training, stretching, diets and general preparation would have suited him perfectly. He would have been great in any era. And because Kerry were so brilliant going forward there was very little mention of the toughness, but it was an iron fist in a velvet glove. They were the sort of backs you would like to play with.

Dublin's Philly McMahon would be a choir boy compared to most of the Kerry defenders of that era, but the scrutiny of games by analysts and more cameras means there are fewer 'incidents' around the goalmouth now than before. There are fewer characters on the pitch too.

So Dublin are certainly not so obviously tough and if Jonny Cooper lay down like he has done a couple of times this year when Kerry were around it would amount to embarrassment in their eyes. Yet Kerry, for all their pace, did not have the speed of James McCarthy or Jack McCaffrey, who can outrun the deer in the Phoenix Park. And Kerry would have had trouble getting a hand on Brian Fenton too.

The biggest difference was in the goalkeepers. Charlie Nelligan had a huge kick-out, it would land around O'Connell Street on a day when he had the wind behind him, while Cluxton, as I have often said before, has changed the game more than any single player in the history of Gaelic football. Kerry kicked long to midfield to Jack O'Shea and Seán Walsh, who was brilliant in the air. O'Shea was probably the most influential player of his generation and maintained a consistent level of brilliance over a long number of years.

At their best, Kerry were unplayable. Long-range points from Pat Spillane and Jacko, speed and unselfishness from Ogie Moran and Ger Power, the silkiness of Mike Sheehy and was there ever a better corner-forward than John Egan? When the Bomber was fit and well he won a lot of dirty ball and laid it off. Then he started to score freely too, both goals and points. So while football has certainly moved on and the players are, in general, better nowadays, those Kerry players were great then and there is unlikely to be a better combination at any time.

For many of this Dublin forward line, the story of their greatness is still in the making. Bernard Brogan has made a bigger impression in All-Ireland finals than most players. The same could be said of his brother Alan. Ciarán Kilkenny is the Ogie Moran type but scores more and Diarmuid Connolly is possibly better than any of them in any era. Would any back like Kevin McManamon running at them or Paul Flynn being an outlet for kick-outs at one end and a scorer at the other? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

What kept Kerry great was their personal motivation and I often sensed from some of them that they wanted not only to be part of the best team ever, but to also be looked on as the best player on that team. It made for great internal competition. In Dublin, the internal competition is dictated by making the match-day panel as much as anything else. Individualism is certainly not as strong as in the Kerry side. In fact, the present Dublin side have an absence of ego, at least outwardly anyway. The team ethic seems the only thing that matters. Players change, the team moves on.

Another huge difference between the sides is on the bench. Kerry made few changes. They never really had to but they had a limited panel. In those days teams might use one or two subs and that was in cases of emergency. If they were behind, a corner-forward was taken off. Now Jim Gavin has some real heavy artillery on the bench, players who change games when they come on.

Who was better? When I was 40 I was convinced I would never see anything like Kerry again. Time has moved on and like all records there comes a time when they are broken or bettered by the naked eye. Brazil in 1970, Bob Beamon in the long jump, Kilkenny hurlers, the All Blacks all the time, the Chicago Bulls, the Pittsburgh Steelers, Liverpool in the '80s, Manchester United in the noughties, Real Madrid with six European Cups in a row, Muhammad Ali, Usain Bolt, Kerry. Maybe we should just add the present Dublin footballers to our lists of greatness.

I suppose that is a handy way of not answering a question with no answer. Kerry had the team, Dublin have a lot more than that. So with the match a draw and time up, Dublin have a long-range free to win the game. The match is a sell-out in heaven to accommodate John Egan, Páidí Ó Sé and Tim Kennelly. Even the big man himself struggled to get a ticket on All Saints terrace. Anyway, the Dubs bring up Stephen Cluxton to kick it. Somewhere in the back of my mind I thought I had witnessed this scene before.

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