A great team had one last sting in the tail –but this is Kingdom’s time to come of age
“The question on everybody’s lips is ‘What is it about Dublin and Kerry?’ Is it Hill 16 on sunny days in June or Fitzgerald Stadium with the green and gold in bloom? Is it the pints of black or Kerry gold? Is it fortunes made with tickets sold? Is it Molly Malone or Fungie the dolphin?”
Sentimental marketing patter or reality? It certainly evokes a great sporting rivalry but for the players involved in Sunday’s All-Ireland semi-final there is only one reality – win or bust.
Both teams have huge motivation and Kerry manager Jack O’Connor laid it out in vivid technicolor after the Kingdom’s quarter-final victory over Mayo.
“The bottom line here is these Kerry players have been yearning to get a cut at the Dubs from as far back as three years ago,” said O’Connor. “They lost an All-Ireland out there that they would feel they could have won. We certainly won’t be lacking motivation but neither will Dublin.”
Indeed, the Dubs have had something of a pall hanging over the analysis of their games since last year’s semi-final collapse against Mayo and they’ll be driven to exorcise those memories.
This year with Leinster’s winners on the same side of the draw as Munster’s, this head-to-head was anticipated from a long way off as the meeting of the heavyweights. Granted, as the year has gone on Galway and Derry have laid out their credentials but you can’t escape the history between Dublin and Kerry.
It feels like it was back in the black and white, two-channel era, when Kerry dished out that hammering to Dublin in the 2009 All-Ireland quarter-final, Kerry came in somewhat under the radar and delivered a ruthless performance; the game was effectively over soon after it had only just begun.
After five successful Leinster Championship campaigns, we came in as favourites but we also were weighed down with expectation and pressure.
We needed to win that game. Kerry had dominated the previous decade with Tyrone, they were mentally stronger, had no baggage and they duly rampaged all over us.
They were a team possibly nearing the end but there was one more sting in them. Does that sound familiar?
It is hard to believe that Kerry have not beaten Dublin in the championship since that ‘startled earwigs’ clash. No wins, five losses and a draw does not make good reading for the Kingdom over the last 13 years. Kerry need to win on Sunday, simple as. In lots of ways that baggage of expectation now weighs on their shoulders. That could play into Dublin’s hands.
O’Connor was probably given a list by the Kerry County Board on his appointment as manager for this season – arguably it was a one-liner: Bring back Sam.
From the get-go O’Connor has set about the task with vigour and intent. Kerry have tightened up their defence – in 14 games this year (from McGrath Cup onwards) they have conceded just two goals (both came during the league, one a penalty against Monaghan), they are bringing more physicality to the middle third and combined with the special talent they have up front they are the favourites for the All-Ireland.
At the start of the year I fancied Kerry and tipped them to win the All-Ireland. That view began to waver when I saw Dublin put Kildare to the sword with great efficiency in the Leinster final. I began veering towards believing that there could be one last sting in this great Dublin team.
The biggest change in Dublin from last year and the recent league campaign was the shape of their forward line. The positioning and the movement of the inside trio of Con O’Callaghan, Dean Rock and Cormac Costello; they were excellent in their destruction of Kildare.
While Dublin and Kerry have not collided in the championship since 2019 – when Dublin completed their drive for five, before making it six the following season – there has been major changes to the Dublin panel since then.
The following players played a major or minor role back then but have retired or slipped away since: Stephen Cluxton, Jack McCaffrey, Michael Darragh Macauley, Paul Mannion, Diarmuid Connolly, Kevin McManamon, Philly McMahon and Cian O’Sullivan.
Of that group, the player who the Kingdom obsessed about most was Cluxton. I think they had a voodoo doll of him with pins stuck in it, but even that didn’t work the oracle! It will be very interesting to see how Kerry approach the Dublin kick-out with Evan Comerford now between the sticks.
Former Kerry manager Éamonn Fitzmaurice recently detailed how his side used to invest a significant amount of their preparation time in how they wanted to press the Dublin kick-out. They felt that if they could crack the Cluxton code they would be well on their way to victory.
In 2016, they got success in the lead-up to half-time when they hit 2-4 without reply to turn a five-point deficit into a five-point advantage. However, in 2019 that same press hurt Kerry as Dublin went over the top – Brian Howard’s magnificent fetch of a Cluxton kick-out which set in train that superb move for McCaffrey’s goal in the drawn final the apex of Dublin’s success.
Kerry have given Tadhg Morley a freer role this season in order to protect their full-back line. To a large degree they are afforded this opportunity because their opposition are so consumed with the threat of David Clifford and his colleagues that they do not operate with six forwards.
Dublin may decide to push up on Morley. If they play with six forwards, Kerry will have to be extremely organised and will then be forced into dropping back a half-forward in order to liberate Morley to play the role he has played so effectively this year.
While Dublin have looked re-energised in this championship (Cork game apart), there are still question marks over them in relation to their defence, injuries and the depth of talent and big-game experience on the bench.
Dublin will have to take risks going forward in order to test Kerry’s new defensive system but it is questionable whether the defence can shut down this Kerry attack if they get motoring.
Kerry, in my view, are the best kick-passers in the game and will thrive on any space to move the ball quickly into Paul Geaney and David Clifford. Will Dublin be able to free up Jonny Cooper to get back to support his team-mates in their one-v-one battles? Trying to get your strategy right to pin down Clifford is something of a high-wire act: one small slip and it’s a disaster about to happen.
The match-ups will be critical. John Small on Seán O’Shea is probably a given. O’Shea has played deep at times this year but you could never rule out him spending time closer to goal which may be more challenging for Small.
Will rookie Lee Gannon follow Paudie Clifford out the field into the middle third and look to hurt him going the other way? With David Byrne not fully fit, it would look like Michael Fitzsimons will get the nod to pick up David Clifford. Will Jack Barry be fit enough to attach his harness to Brian Fenton’s and slow down the Raheny clubman? While it is likely that Jason Foley and Tom O’Sullivan will track Cormac Costello and Con O’Callaghan.
That brings us to arguably the key talking point ahead of Sunday – will Con O’Callaghan and James McCarthy play? Let’s get straight to the point. If O’Callaghan is not fit to play then it seriously impacts Dublin’s chances of success. Actually, it will probably be a fatal blow to the chances of Dessie Farrell’s men.
Many will compare him with David Clifford but they are at different stages of their careers. Con is at the top of the ladder when it comes to big-game ‘clutch’ moments.
Where do you start? Tyrone semi-final in 2017, Mayo final in 2017, Mayo semi-final of 2019, the 2020 final against Mayo. A brace of goals against Kerry the last time he lined up against them in the 2021 league or the destruction of Kildare in the recent Leinster decider.
So if both teams are at full strength and these two great teams are going toe-to-toe with 10 minutes remaining, it will be electric. Kerry have the stronger bench so Dublin will need to unearth a new hero, or two, from their bench of rookies. Dublin, for me, will be the mentally stronger team but if Kerry get momentum or get energy from a goal coming into the last quarter, they may just come of age.