Dublin fight back to save Stephen Cluxton's blushes in thrilling victory over Kerry
Dublin 0-22 Kerry 2-14
Shortly after the crowds had filed out of Croke Park, Kieran Donaghy brought his young daughter Lola Rose out on the field. It looked like he was saying a last goodbye to the Theatre of Dreams.
For the fourth time in the last six seasons Kerry came up short against Dublin at the business end of the All-Ireland series. Dublin have now defeated the Kingdom in two All-Ireland finals (2011 and 2015) and two semi-finals (2013 and today).
Pat Spillane on Kerry's transformation at the end of the first half https://t.co/AGMB0hFJ5M— The Sunday Game (@TheSundayGame) August 28, 2016
The pendulum in the GAA's most storied rivalry has come full circle; never before has Dublin beaten Kerry four times on the spin in championship football. Granted the Dubs flirted with disaster in what was an epic encounter.
But after goalkeeper and captain Stephen Cluxton suffered an inexplicable melt-down before half time enabling Kerry to turn a three point deficit into a four point advantage in the space of nine astonishing minutes, the defending All-Ireland title holders held their composure after the break.
The panel discuss Kerry's controversial second goal. Was it over the line? https://t.co/5qXTJQnBtK— The Sunday Game (@TheSundayGame) August 28, 2016
Having outscored Kerry 6-1 in the third quarter to level the contest in the 48th minute they conceded the next three points and seemed in trouble – it looked likely that they would need a goal to stay on target to retain their All-Ireland title.
They were still trailing by three points with eight minutes of normal time remaining after an excellent point from Paul Murphy – who switched to wing back where he did an effective marking job on Ciaran Kilkenny.
But at the business end of the game it was Dublin who pulled out the aces. Once again Dean Rock underlined his value to the team, not just in this period when he kicked two crucial frees but in an overall context with his 0-12 contribution, eight frees, two 45s with two points from play. He missed just one kick all afternoon.
The teams were still level 2-13 to 0-19 with four minutes of normal time left. Kerry's last throw of the dice was an extraordinary one. They hauled off Paul Geaney – who had tormented David Byrne in the first half taking him for 1-3 – and replaced him with veteran defender Marc O Se.
Even though Geaney had been restricted by one point by Jonny Cooper in the second half it was almost an admission by Eamonn Fitzmaurice that they wanted to hold what they had. In the event it didn't work.
The excellent Kevin McManamon – who had replaced Paul Mannion at the start – and had proved a handful for Kerry captain Killian Young kicked his third point as the game ticked into its five minutes of allotted injury time.
The increasingly influential Stephen O'Brien – who had restricted Bernard Brogan to two points – fisted the equaliser but there was still three and a half minutes left and Dublin saw out the contest, though not without a hint of controversy.
Substitute Eoghan O'Gara gave them the lead in the 73rd minute but Kerry held possession from their subsequent kick out. Peter Crowley was moving forward near the Dublin 45m line when he was flattened by McMamamon but referee waved on play.
Dublin won the loose ball and kept possession until Diarmuid Connolly – who had controlled the game in the first quarter before fading – kicked the insurance point from the defending title holders.
So Dublin stretch their unbeaten run to 27 games – ironically it was Kerry who last beat them in a league tie in March 2015. In championship football they now extended their unbeaten run to 12 games and, indeed, in his four year tenure Jim Gavin has only lost one championship match – the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final to Donegal.
Ahead of next month's final against Mayo – a repeat of the 2013 decider – Gavin's overall record in the series is phenomenal; Dublin has won 22 of their 24 games in the series.
Unlike last year's All-Ireland decider, at least Kerry left everything on the pitch this time around in what was comfortably the game of the championship.
Predictably there were changes in personnel from the announced sides. McManamon and Michael Darragh Macauley replaced Paul Mannion and Denis Bastick for Dublin while Kerry introduced Aidan O'Mahony who operated as sweeper, Anthony Maher – who partnered David Moran at midfield with Kieran Donaghy going to the edge of the square - and perhaps most surprisingly of all Darran O'Sullivan being preferred to James O'Donoghue in attack.
The Kerry changes had no influence early on as Dublin totally dominated; their speed of thought and action was at a different level to Kerry's whose problems were compounded by their inability to secure their own kick out.
They secured just seven of Brian Kelly's 13 first half re-starts and were on the back foot for virtually the entire period. It took Kerry 14 minutes to open their account with a David Moran point. By then Dublin had registered four points and it took a smart save from Kelly to deny Philly McMahon a Dublin goal in the sixth minute.
Brian Geaney was the only Kerry player winning his individual battle and despite his contribution his side trailed 0-4 to 0-9 after 24 minutes. Donaghy then began to make an impact and Kerry got the next two scores.
Then the unthinkable happened. Stephen Cluxton, who had comfortably found a colleague with all but one of his eight restarts up until that point, suddenly showed his vulnerable side.
An attempted short kick out was intercepted by Geaney who combined with Donnchadh Walsh and Darran O'Sullivan before the latter found the net with five minutes left in the half.
Suddenly despite being outplayed the teams were level and Kerry hit the turbo charge for the remainder of the half as Cluxton looked totally shaken. Colm Cooper gave them the lead for the first time before disaster struck Dublin two minutes into injury time.
A speculative high ball from Anthony Maher was punched over the line by Geaney who outjumped Byrne and Cluxton. The goalkeeper did manage to clear the ball but the umpire correctly ruled that the ball had crossed the line. Just to rub salt into Dublin's wounds Cooper nailed a free on the stroke of half time to give Kerry an flattering 2-8 to 0-9 advantage at the break.
For the first time in the 2016 championship Dublin found themselves in a contest. Their response was indicative of their maturity. They were last out on the field after the break but once the contest restarted they poured forward and the Kerry defence were forced to concede a succession of frees.
John Small, in particular, won two crucial frees; McManamon forced the Kerry defence to concede a 45 which Rock pointed. Kerry's only response was a pointed free from Cooper, who missed a crucial chance in the 48th minute. And it was a case of double jeopardy for the Kingdom. Cluxton's clearance was worked up the field and Brian Fenton tied up the game.
Dublin though still looked in trouble when Kerry substitute Barry John Keane hit a monster point into the Canal End goal from under the Hogan Stand and his effort was followed by excellent points from Geaney – who was well marshalled by Jonny Cooper in the second half – and substitute James O'Donoghue. And just to compound Dublin's woes in that ten minute spell between the 50th and 60th minute Rock missed a kickable free.
But when it mattered most it was Dublin who pushed on and crucially they outscored the Kingdom 7-2 between the 60th and 75th minute. They simply were the better team. Kerry knew they had to score goals in order to win the match. They did that – but failed to hit enough points and more pointedly conceded too many.
It was a gallant effort but right now they're simply not as good as Dublin. But given the performance of their minor team in the preceding team this situation won't last forever. It probably was the perfect way for Dublin to reach their fourth final in six seasons. There is plenty of work to do until the showdown against Mayo in three weeks' time.
Dublin: S Cluxton; J Cooper, P McMahon (0-1), D Byrne; J McCarthy, C O'Sullivan, J Small; B Fenton (0-1), MD Macauley; P Flynn, D Connolly (0-2), C Kilkenny, K McManamon (0-3), D Rock (0-12, 8f ,2 45), B Brogan (0-2) . Subs: P Andrews for Flynn 45m; E O'Gara (0-1) for MD Macauley 59m, P Mannion for Small 50th, M Fitzmaurice for Cooper 66m. C Costello for Brogan 70m
Kerry: B Kelly; S Enright; M Griffin, K Young; A O'Mahony, P Crowley,T Morley; A Maher D Moran (0-1); P Murphy (0-1), D O'Sullivan (1-0), D Walsh; P Geaney (1-4), K Donaghy, C Cooper (0-5, 4f) Subs: S O'Brien (0-1) for O'Sullivan 40m; J O'Donoghue (0-1) for Donaghy 50m, BJ Keane (0-1) for Walsh 52m, B Begley for Morley 56m; B Sheehan for Maher 58m; M O Se for Geaney 66m.
Referee: David Gough (Meath)