Saturday 21 September 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'The good news is seismic shocks do happen. The bad news is that they are extremely rare'

Hold The Back Page - All Ireland Final Special

Jack McCaffrey. Photo: Sportsfile
Jack McCaffrey. Photo: Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

We like to think of the All-Ireland final as a game where a shock is always possible. Previews hold out hope of the breaks, the bit of luck, the rising to the occasion which will propel the outsiders to glory.

The reality is a bit more prosaic. According to the folk at Paddy Power, it's 2011 when Dublin beat Kerry by a point since the longer priced team won the final. Only once since 2002, when they started offering odds on the final, has a side at a comparable price to Kerry's today prevailed. That was in 2002 itself when Armagh shocked the Kingdom.

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This year's odds don't really bear out the contention that Kerry represent a much more potent threat than Tyrone did last year. Dublin are 1/5 favourites today compared to their 1/6 price 12 months ago.

Kerry are 5/1 outsiders compared to Dublin who were 2/1 when upsetting the odds eight years ago. Dublin's victory that year wasn't much of a shock, they'd looked the best team in the championship until struggling to beat an ultra-defensive Donegal in the semi-final. Their performance in that game looks a lot better in hindsight.

The last real jaw dropper of a final result was probably Tyrone's 2008 win against Kerry. Since beating the Kingdom three years previously Tyrone had lost Peter Canavan from their magnificent forward line while Stephen O'Neill, Owen Mulligan and Brian McGuigan were all out of form and started on the subs' bench. Their top scorer of the year was the unheralded Colm McCullagh, who went off injured early on.

Kerry, on the other hand, had added the twin towers of Kieran Donaghy and Tommy Walsh in the interim and were going for three in-a-row. Yet Tyrone got home by four points in what probably represented Mickey Harte's supreme managerial achievement.

Armagh had brought Kerry to a replay in the 2000 All-Ireland semi-final but had looked a lesser outfit two years later, scraping past Sligo in a quarter-final replay before beating the Dubs by a point in the semi. Their final victory remains the biggest upset of this millennium, though Galway's victory over Meath in 2001 runs it close with the ease of their win lending it an almost uncanny feel.

The big upsets of the '90s came in successive years. In 1991 an experienced Meath team who'd survived sundry scrapes since their marathon opening round saga with Dublin looked streets ahead of a Down team who'd come from nowhere and whose semi-final win was the county's first Croke Park victory in 23 years.

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The following year a Donegal side who'd stumbled past Mayo in perhaps the worst semi-final of all-time, looked set to be steamrollered by a Dublin team who'd previously swept all opposition aside. Yet both Down and Donegal played with enviable freedom, got out to an early lead and held on to it.

The Seamus Darby final will perhaps always remain the gold standard for upsets. Further back you have the epochal finals of 1955 and 1975 when apparently invincible and enormously hyped Dublin teams were stopped in their tracks by Kerry.

The memorable nature of these upsets prove the adage, 'What's seldom is wonderful,' because usually when the final comes round we know well which team is the best and what the result is likely to be.

Are there any common denominators from past upsets which might give Kerry hope today? Complacency played a role in the downfall of Kerry in 2002 and Dublin a decade earlier. The former seemed to think they had the game sewn up at half-time, the latter before the ball had even been thrown in. Some of the hype surrounding Dublin last week does resemble that of 1992.

Sometimes an outstanding individual performance, Sean Cavanagh's five points from play from full-forward in the 2008 final, Pádraic Joyce's identical feat in 2001, tips the scales. Or something unforeseen can go wrong for the favourites, Declan O'Sullivan giving the ball away as Kerry looked to be cruising in 2011, Colm O'Rourke falling ill before the 1991 decider.

Yet even all these factors occurring in conjunction might not be enough to stop Dublin. In the 2016 semi-final they overcame the concession of two nightmarishly soft goals to Kerry, in the 2017 final they coped with the loss of Jack McCaffrey (pictured) through injury and an inspired performance by Mayo. Complacency seemed to rear its head on occasion last year but has been absent in 2019.

A final set of odds underlines how invincible Dublin look right now. Boyle Sports, who have Kerry at 7/2 as I write, have Dublin at 3/1 to win eight in a row. They think Dublin are more likely to win the 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022 finals than Kerry are to win today.

Who'd disagree with them?

The Last Word: Worthy minor finalists clash in major meeting

Croke Park in September must have seemed a long way away for Cork and Galway after their first minor championship games of the season. On May 17 Galway squandered an eight-point half-time lead over Roscommon and lost by two. Ten days earlier Cork had been beaten 3-19 to 1-9 by a Kerry team who looked bound for a seventh successive All-Ireland victory.

Both teams regrouped to reach their provincial finals but tasted defeat there, Galway at the hands of Mayo and Cork at those of Kerry again. Few would have chosen them as likely finalists.

Yet here they are. Galway beat Leinster champions Kildare before ending Kerry's remarkable run at this level. Cork scored 8-31 in two games while disposing of Ulster champs Monaghan and Connacht kingpins Mayo.

If these are unlikely finalists, they are also worthy ones. Keep an eye out for Cork captain Conor Corbett and outstanding Galway midfielder James McLaughlin. The Moycullen man's role in his side's success was nicely illustrated in the first ten seconds of the quarter-final when he caught the throw in, burst forward and found the net.

* * * * *

In these enlightened times it's become de rigueur to adopt a gender inclusive attitude towards sporting achievement. Hence Marta being praised for breaking Miroslav Klose's goalscoring record at World Cup finals, the announcement that the next women's rugby world cup will be simply known as the rugby world cup and the angry social media reactions last year when Ireland's Grand Slam was described as the country's third, thus ignoring those won by the women's team.

So why is Gaelic football not following suit? We keep hearing Dublin are about to win a record fifth All-Ireland senior football title in a row. In fact the record is held by the Kerry women's team who won nine in a row from 1982 to 1990. If Dublin win today they'll have equalled Cork's five in a row from 2005 to 2009 and move to third on the all-time list behind the Rebel side of 2011-2016.

Hopefully those interviewing the Dublin manager afterwards will say, "Well done Jim, only another four before you equal the record."

* * * * *

Should Dublin find the net twice today they will record their biggest goal total of the past five championships, surpassing the 18 bagged in 2015. They only scored a total of 18 in the 2016 (8) and 2017 (10) campaigns before upping the pace with 17 last year.

Only three teams have scored more than two in a final since 1980, Kerry against Cork in 2007 and both Kerry and the Mayo team they whupped in the surreal 2006 decider where there were half a dozen goals by half-time.

Those two finals aside, you have to go back to 1985 and Kerry's 2-12 to 2-8 win over Dublin for the last time we had one with more than three goals. Today's match may well resemble that encounter more than the goalless 2015 borefest between the teams.

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