Sky Blues have won three of the best – can the Kingdom come good at long last?
Name the worst All-Ireland senior football final of the last decade? Beauty belongs in the eye of the beholder, but we suspect there would be strong competing claims in trying to separate Kerry/Donegal in 2014 from the sodden, low-scoring charms of Dublin/Kerry a year later.
For all the talk of Dublin, Kerry and the Beautiful Game whenever these fabled rivals collide in pursuit of Sam Maguire, sometimes you can’t sugar-coat reality.
They don’t always serve up an instant all-time classic – especially in All-Ireland finals, with Dublin’s 0-12 to 0-9 ‘hammering’ of the holders in 2015 a case in point.
But semi-finals? Let’s just say they can be different. Contrary to the prevailing narrative that semi-finals are for winning and to hell with their artistic merit, some of the most iconic clashes of Dublin and Kerry have come at the penultimate stage.
Think of 1977, the original of the species. Think of 2013, a day of operatic oscillations, defensive carnage and the attacking genius of Colm Cooper, ultimately to no avail.
Think of 2016, when Dublin’s comeback from five adrift at the break which was crowned by Diarmuid Connolly’s sumptuous point on the run from the Hogan Stand wing.
Those last two semi-finals stand comparison with the very best games of the last decade. As for ’77, this observer’s sketchy childhood memory means we’re reliant on YouTube and the first-hand accounts of several participants, not to mention the historic tendency to mythologise Dublin/Kerry as the alpha and the omega of all GAA rivalries.
The key to ’77 was not just the game but its context. Mick O’Dwyer’s outrageously gifted Kerry tyros had stunned Kevin Heffernan’s Sky Blue champions in the ’75 All-Ireland final. Dublin had feasted on an ice-cold dish of revenge in the ’76 decider.
In ’77, the two best teams in the land were preordained to meet in the semis. This was the ‘best of three’, a rematch to equal anything Ali and Frazier could muster … and it went down to the very last round.
Almost 55,000 were there to see it – the largest semi-final attendance since the early ‘60s.
The lead swung back and forth through a pulsating final quarter, and Kerry were two ahead with a little over five minutes remaining before Anton O’Toole’s deflected pass fell into the path of player-manager Tony Hanahoe, who fed David Hickey.
His goal pushed Dublin one ahead; then Seán Doherty’s high fetch initiated a pitch-length move that ended in Bernard Brogan Snr hammering home Dublin’s third goal. Hanahoe’s final point crowned a spectacular comeback: from two down they had won by five, 3-12 to 1-13.
Safe to say, as ever, results colour people’s perceptions. Several decades later – in Dublin v Kerry, the book that told the story of this epic rivalry – Gay O’Driscoll ventured: “I genuinely think it was the greatest game of football ever played.”
His Kerry rivals, who went on to overwhelm Dublin in the finals of 1978 and ’79, had a more jaundiced recall. “I notice,” said Jack O’Shea in the same book, “that a lot of the greatest games of football ever played are ones that Kerry lose!”
Mick O’Dwyer remarks that, “it was exciting, I suppose but I think the pro- Dublin media made a lot about it!”
More fawning headlines followed in 2013, even if some of the most gushing praise was reserved for Cooper, who finished on the wrong end of an utterly misleading seven-point defeat.
Nine-out-of-ten ratings are notoriously hard earned; this reporter dispensed four: to Dublin duo Michael Darragh Macauley and Diarmuid Connolly, ‘the Gooch’ and his Kerry comrade, James O’Donoghue.
Three forwards, one midfielder – that speaks a multitude. To begin with, Dublin’s defence was ripped asunder by the vision of Cooper and Kerry had three goals banked inside 20 minutes, via O’Donoghue, Donnchadh Walsh and an O’Donoghue penalty.
But Dublin could have netted twice themselves before Paul Mannion soared highest to fist home their first goal on 13 minutes; they only trailed by 3-5 to 1-9 at the break and Cian O’Sullivan’s subsequent move from midfield to centre-back at least partially curtailed Cooper’s influence.
The lead changed several times before, with the sides level, Macauley’s vital flick to a Stephen Cluxton kickout released Kevin McManamon for the Dublin super-sub’s second most famous goal against Kerry.
An undercooked point attempt or an inspired lob? The Hill cared not a jot; and they celebrated some more when Eoghan O’Gara buried a third goal to seal a 3-18 to 3-11 triumph for Dublin.
Our own belief is that 2016 wasn’t quite on the same stellar level. But once more we had a series of dramatic gear shifts: Dublin veered from five up after 24 minutes to five down at the interval, as Kerry turned up the heat on Cluxton’s kickout and hit the champions for an unanswered 2-4, the goals courtesy of Darran O’Sullivan and Paul Geaney.
But, invariably as they did under Jim Gavin, Dublin grew stronger as the clock ticked. Mid-game troubleshooting was their speciality. Within 15 minutes of the restart they were level; and then after falling three behind, they battled back to parity before securing the all-important win with two injury-time points from O’Gara and Connolly.
Three semi-finals, three famous Dublin victories. It may gall Kerry to be on the receiving end after such epic encounters. This Sunday offers a chance to change the narrative.