Saturday 16 December 2017

Familiar pattern unravels under weight of hard graft

Tommy Conlon

If last Sunday's All-Ireland final reiterated anything, it is that even the most invincible players are still as vulnerable as little boys when defeat comes knocking at their door.

As ever, the final whistle sparked scenes that came from both extremes of the emotional spectrum. There is never a middle ground.

But defeat contains a spectrum of emotions all of its own, depending on the circumstances that brought it about. None of them are pleasant, it's just that some are more bearable than others. A team that is beaten by half-time has a full second half in which to prepare for the inevitable. A team that is simply beaten by a better team can come to terms with this reality a little easier.

But a team that has had one hand on the prize, only to lose it all in the final seconds, is destined for an altogether darker place. Sunday's defeat took a great Kerry team to the farthest extreme, the last stop on the line, the place where there is nothing to greet them but regrets. Players who have enjoyed more glory than any of their peers elsewhere were about to enter a house of pain that few of their peers have ever visited either.

One becomes used to seeing the also-rans of any sport suffer the slings and arrows of their perennial misfortune. To see such vulnerability in the faces of all-conquering footballers was a humbling reminder of sport's impersonal and indifferent cruelty. It doesn't matter who you are or what you've achieved. Once the final whistle blows you are headed either for the sunny uplands or a blacked-out dungeon.

Kerry's players took the elevator down on Sunday and, for some, it might still be descending into the gloom. It depends on the player. It depends on the amount of drink consumed. It depends on the amount of times they torment themselves with the same question: how did we lose it?

They were in control. They had Dublin figured out. They had Cluxton's kick-outs figured out. They were mopping up the breaks. They were tagging on the points. They were keeping the ball. They were eating up the clock. They were using all their experience. They were playing like pros.

Maybe, among other things, in the end they played like old pros. Now, this is all with the useless benefit of hindsight. At the time, with an hour gone, I for one was thinking they had this game locked down. They had by then fallen into a pattern that had worked well for them in the past: pulling most of their men behind the ball and sniping on the counter-attack for the single scores that would keep them at arm's length.

It was controlled, conservative football and it would be enough to get them over the line. It meant having to recycle the ball over and over, moving it laterally through multiple handpasses, because they had nobody to connect with inside. But it was working. Between the 42nd and 63rd minutes they notched up 0-8 to Dublin's 0-1. It hadn't been an all-out blitz; it was, rather, a steady, inexorable turning of the screw. They led by four with seven minutes left plus injury time.

And maybe, in the end, it was a case of all this experience getting mugged by innocence. Dublin at times in that second half looked naïve and raw. But all through they'd been incorruptibly honest with themselves; their enormous work ethic was the proof of that. As they kept telling us afterwards, they never stopped believing in themselves. In the face of Kerry's growing superiority they kept going. And there is a quality of innocence about that kind of spirit. They might never have it again, because they're champions now. But they had it on the day, a sort of naïve conviction that kept them buoyant.

In the 63rd, Colm Cooper looked to have iced the match with one of his trademark points: the shot-solo fake, the slick turn and languid finish.

Kerry again won the ensuing kick-out. They processed the ball, right to left, across midfield. Killian Young was the loose man overlapping. He fumbled a simple reception. In that moment, the chain of events began that jackknifed this final.

Rather than carrying it forward, Young had to stop, pick up the ball and now pass it back to

Declan O'Sullivan. Alan Brogan got a hand to O'Sullivan's pass; it was a fraction of an inch but it turned the ball over and tilted the match irrevocably. Brogan, Cian O'Sullivan, Brogan, McManamon -- back of the net in front of Hill 16. The wave of noise rolled like thunder around the stadium.

In an instant the game's psychic energy was reversed. Dublin jumped on the wave and surfed it; Kerry started drowning beneath it. Kieran Donaghy kicked a magnificent point to try and keep them afloat. Enter Stephen Cluxton, the latest to uphold the proud reputation of goalkeepers as men apart, unto themselves, individuals within the herd.

There is a photograph -- it should become iconic -- which captures Tomás ó Sé, that rock of ages, walking up to Cluxton afterwards, the match ball in his outstretched right hand, ready to hand it over. It is an offering, a laurel wreath, a symbol of sorts.

And it is a gesture suffused with the dignity of the loser, delivered just as the darkness is descending upon him.

thecouch@independent.ie

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