Tuesday 20 February 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Mystery becomes history when the final proof must be produced

Stephen Cluxton has never looked as vulnerable as he did in the Mayo matches, and at some stage Dublin will have to take their chances under the high ball in the middle of the field
Stephen Cluxton has never looked as vulnerable as he did in the Mayo matches, and at some stage Dublin will have to take their chances under the high ball in the middle of the field

Eamonn Sweeney

Today's game between Dublin and Kerry is the prove it final. Every All-Ireland decider is a prove it final to some degree of course, but today's meeting seems peculiarly fraught with unanswered questions from both individual and team points of view.

Kerry must prove that they didn't win a soft All-Ireland last year. Dublin must prove that they can heed the better angels of their nature when under pressure. Both teams must prove that the lavish hype about the special nature of their rivalry is justified. Diarmuid Connolly, Paul Flynn and Donnchadh Walsh, the three best wing-forwards of recent times, must prove that they can do it on the big day after scoring a whopping total of two points from play in their combined six finals. Colm Cooper must prove that he is the same player he was before his cruciate injury and James O'Donoghue must prove that he really is as good as he looked last year. Jack McCaffrey and James McCarthy must prove that they can defend as well as they can attack.

Kevin McManamon and Paul Geaney must prove, yet again, that their managers have been wrong to omit them from so many starting line-ups. David Moran must prove he deserves his favouritism for the Footballer of the Year award by producing the kind of dominant midfield performance he's actually only hinted at this term. Jim Gavin must prove that his decision to continue playing the game in the same 'caution to the wind' style after Dublin's defeat by Donegal last year was the right one. The Dubs must prove that they have the bottle, Kerry that they still have the legs. There are as many leads to be investigated and mysteries to be solved as you'd find in a Poirot box set.

There is an enormous amount riding on the match for both sides. Dublin have undoubtedly been the best team in football for the past three years; to come away with just one All-Ireland from that period would represent significant underachievement. For all the talk of demographic inevitability, the county's less than stellar recent performances at minor level suggest the current side represents a golden generation. Trot out all the population and financial figures you want and the fact remains that Dublin might not produce another Bernard Brogan for some time to come. And without Brogan, probably the outstanding player on show today, they mightn't have won anything.

Kerry, on the other hand, will know that this is far from a vintage Kingdom team. But that's why victory today would be extraordinarily sweet. To put it bluntly, if they can win this final they can win any final. When the teams met four years ago Kerry were stronger than they are today and Dublin weaker. For much of that day the Munster champions seemed set to prove that their much vaunted rivalry with Dublin was actually the rivalry of the dog with the lamp post. Then, at the death, they took their eye fatally off the ball. No All-Ireland final in recent times has been so obviously given away. And the galling thing for Kerry is that by doing so they emboldened a Dublin team who might have been crushed long term by one more big-day reverse. Should Kerry lose today, that 2011 defeat will look like a major turning point in football history.

It seems an odd thing to say about reigning All-Ireland champions, but the Kerry team has a jerry-built feel to it. The great players of the noughties have not been replaced with players of the same standard and those who remain seem to be fast running out of time. Yet Kerry remain, like Kilkenny, serial overachievers in big games, adept in the ancient art of doing enough to win, the inheritors of a massive tradition of craft and expertise. Witness the way they upset the odds against Donegal 12 months ago.

Is there any manager as under-rated as Eamonn Fitzmaurice? He doesn't just eschew the messianic posturing so popular in recent times, he's so low key he gives the impression of a man who's wandered out of the crowd and on to the sideline by mistake. Yet his achievement in piloting Kerry to this final is a remarkable one. Think how far off the pace they seemed not just in the drawn game against Cork, but in the first half of the replay. At half-time that day Kerry seemed there for the taking if Cork went for it. The confused and cautious challengers did not and Kerry made the most of their reprieve.

Since then there has been a farcical win over an appalling Kildare side and a somewhat over-praised semi-final victory over Tyrone. Kerry received plenty of tributes for their ability to wriggle out of a tricky situation that day but how did the situation get so tricky in the first place? A line of form through Donegal, among other things, shows that Tyrone were much weaker semi-final opponents than Mayo and nothing all year had suggested they were on the verge of a dramatic resurgence. Yet they gave Kerry enormous trouble and laid bare the same weaknesses that Cork had done in Killarney.

Marc Ó Sé has struggled all year against quicker opponents but the inclusion of Aidan O'Mahony will hardly increase the pace quotient; though Killian Young is still only 28, the combination of injuries and mileage on the clock seems to be taking its toll. Conversely their outstanding players at the back, Shane Enright and Jonathan Lyne, will both be starting a first All-Ireland final. Kerry have given up an amount of goal chances to Cork, who took some, and Tyrone, who missed all of them. Should they defend in the same way today even the marvellous Brendan Kealy won't be able to prevent Dublin raising the green flags they thrive on.

Kerry do have the best midfield in football, though the game largely passed Moran and Anthony Maher by against Tyrone. This was largely because Tyrone opted for a short kick-out strategy which eventually fell to pieces and gifted crucial scores. Dublin may be tempted to try and nullify the influence of Moran in particular by going short as often as possible but against Mayo in the drawn game they learned the same lesson Tyrone did in their semi-final. No matter how accurate a keeper is, ask him to take too many kicks against opposition who know what's going to happen and he will make mistakes which will affect his general game.

Stephen Cluxton has never looked as vulnerable as he did in the Mayo matches. At some stage Dublin will have to take their chances under the high ball in the middle of the field where Moran, though excellent all year, has yet to produce a dominant performance like the one against Mayo in last year's All-Ireland semi-final replay.

This time 12 months ago James O'Donoghue looked like the most exciting forward to emerge in years, a practically unmarkable bundle of explosiveness and accuracy. One disappointing final and a shoulder injury later and it doesn't look quite so clear-cut. The injury seems to have blunted O'Donoghue's sharpness and defenders appear to have worked out how to play him, shadowing him into blind alleys rather than committing to the tackle. Yet there have been tantalising suggestions that he is on the verge of exploding once again, moments in every match where the O'Donoghue of a year ago briefly reveals himself. Kerry will need a full reappearance today.

They will also need a bit more from Colm Cooper. The Crokes player has given so much pleasure and been so brave in his return from injury at this stage of his career it's understandable he's been somewhat overpraised this year. His slightest contribution has been lauded as a "delightful little cameo" as though he were Jack Nicholson or Judi Dench putting in a brief on-screen appearance. Little cameos, however delightful, won't be enough today.

Kerry are the more intriguing prospect today because there are more intangibles about the side. We pretty much know what we'll get from Dublin. There's not much wrong with the team. For all the suggestions of possible defensive frailty, they coped well enough with a Mayo attack which had been putting up big totals all season. Philip McMahon is a wonderful athlete, Rory O'Carroll the one great classical full-back, commanding around the square and powerful under the high ball, left in the game, McCaffrey the best attacking wing-back around, the one Gaelic footballer you look at and wonder what he might have done on the track.

Their one possible flaw is that of temperament; the drawn game with Mayo was nearly thrown away thanks to the surprising return of that most useless of quantities, swagger. It was so untypical of the current side you almost expected to look to the sideline and see Paul Caffrey whipping off his Jim Gavin mask. They will hardly make the same mistake again.

Temperament issues have been the bane of Diarmuid Connolly's life. If there is any player to whom that old excuse, "if you take the aggression out of him, you take away from him as a footballer," doesn't apply, it's the St Vincent's man. Connolly is his own worst enemy on the pitch and for all his marvellous gifts he goes into this game having underperformed badly in two All-Ireland finals. So for that matter has Paul Flynn, who when he got Footballer of the Year two years ago, didn't do much in the decider against Mayo.

The great New York Yankees slugger Reggie Jackson was known as Mister October for producing his best stuff in the World Series. Connolly and Flynn are more like the July Brothers, lauded each year as the best footballers in Ireland for sublime displays in the Leinster Championship before coming up short later on. Ironically, their one big display in the later stages of the All-Ireland series came in last year's semi-final against Donegal when it was the rest of the team which let them down. Should they produce that form today Kerry will have no answer to them. But when it comes to an All-Ireland final no-one has more to prove.

Unless it's their equivalent on the Kerry side. Donnchadh Walsh is the ultimate example of a player making the very most of what he has. Lacking Connolly's natural gifts or Flynn's athleticism, he has carved himself an invaluable niche through intelligence, honesty and pure doggedness. Yet on final day he has endured two wretched afternoons and been subbed early in the second half twice. His half-forward companion John Buckley is the opposite, a man with all the footballing and physical attributes who somehow always leaves you wanting a bit more. There is a huge game coming from him some day.

Bernard Brogan is Dublin's Mr September and should Kerry use the lighter Fionn Fitzgerald to shadow him it would be the craziest decision since the bank guarantee. Ciaran Kilkenny's performances this year suggest he is the real heir apparent to Bernard, even if in his style of play he's more like Alan.

And then there's McManamon. If the GAA had a similar gong to the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year award, McManamon would be the obvious choice, a goal off the bench in the 2011 final and goals off the bench in both semi-final matches proving the susceptibility of even the best organised defence to an off-the-cuff operator who simply wants to take the shortest route to goal. Paul Geaney, a player of similarly direct style, has been arguably Kerry's best forward in the championship and is deservedly in from the start today.

Geaney's first-minute goal last year showed how often a final can be swung by some unexpected intervention, something never even considered as we ran through the permutations for the past fortnight. Something like that will happen today for sure. Maybe Darran O'Sullivan, brilliant in a tantalisingly brief spell against Kildare, will have a significant role to play. Maybe there's a big bounce back left in Dean Rock.

If the hunch says Kerry, the head can only say Dublin. Two years ago in the semi-final Kerry hit them with everything and Dublin still won by seven points. The Leinster champions are not as flaky under pressure as the city slicker stereotype insists - witness that blistering three-goal last quarter against a Mayo team who seemed to have taken a decisive grip on the game. I can't see beyond them.

Just as, ahem, I couldn't see beyond Donegal this time last year. Kerry, after all, are Kerry. But if they pull this one off it will be the greatest heist in their history. If Dublin win it'll make Jim Gavin's side the finest from the capital since Heffo's Army.

Either way, this is one for the history books.

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