Tuesday 17 September 2019

Joe Brolly: 'I was wrong. David Gough was right. Every day is a school day'

David Gough signals for two fouls to Jonny Cooper after showing him his first yellow card last Sunday. Photo: Sportsfile
David Gough signals for two fouls to Jonny Cooper after showing him his first yellow card last Sunday. Photo: Sportsfile
Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly

Oh, what fun. Reminiscent of Anthony Daly's great line about hurling, 100 things happened, the game took on several lives of its own and after the final whistle, 100 debates began.

The worry beforehand was that this exciting young Kerry team would stay in the game for a while then be blown away. As it is, they must be feeling like the marine on the beach in Normandy who gets struck in the helmet with machine-gun fire and is overwhelmed with the feeling he must surely be dead. He takes off his helmet, pats his head carefully, and to his bemusement, he is in fact alive. He goes on to play a stormer as the Yanks head for Berlin.

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Killian Spillane. Photo: Sportsfile
Killian Spillane. Photo: Sportsfile

Twice, Kerry were behind by five points. Twice we looked at each other, nodded and said, "Well, that's the end of that." Only it wasn't. When they went on a spectacular seven-minute roll to go a point up by the 65th minute, Michael Murphy turned to me and said, "Kerry to win." It was then that Kerry felt that old familiar Mayo feeling.

The boots turned to lead. The pitch turned to wet cement. They couldn't pass. They couldn't shoot. They couldn't break the tackle. They couldn't hold possession. Pressure has this effect. The trick is to play through it with a clear head.

Kerry had begun with a highly adventurous zonal press on the Dublin kick-out, pushing 12 outfielders up into a 4-4-4 formation, leaving just two defenders at the back, outnumbered by four Dublin forwards. Ciarán Whelan beside me shouted excitedly, "We have two free men behind their press. This is kamikaze." Pat Spillane, meanwhile, tried vainly to stay calm, his face getting redder and redder by the minute. From the 13th minute onwards, the Kerry kids intercepted three Cluxton kick-outs in a row, something I cannot remember happening before, and a tone of giddy excitement had set in. Kerry were going toe to toe with the greatest team of the modern era and to hell with reputations.

After those three interceptions, the score was 0-4 to 0-3 in Kerry's favour and their strategy was looking good. Then, Dublin, as they do, adapted. Cluxton's next kick-out was over the top of the press and Dublin were away for a Mannion point. Whelan punched the air. Pat looked worried. Kerry shrugged off the setback and stuck with the high press. The next kick-out went over the top again and, with frightening efficiency, the move finished with the Roadrunner putting the ball in the Kerry net.

It was all happening now. Dublin intercepted the Kerry kick-out that followed and Con O'Callaghan rampaged through, shot for goal and, for once, it was saved. That would have left the score 2-5 to 0-5 and the game would have been over. When Cluxton kicked over the press again in the 31st minute, the Dubs ruthlessly punished Kerry's cheek, O'Callaghan finishing the attack with a point to leave the score 1-8 to 0-6. Michael Murphy turned to me in the RTÉ box and said "another score and this is over".

The game was then turned on its head. There had been something in the air, starting with the penalty, that told us this was not going to be straightforward for the champions. At the time, none of us thought it was a penalty. Pat shook his head at me and said 'no'. Hands on briefly is, after all, part and parcel of the game. Cooper is no doubt a persistent fouler and a very handsy defender.

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His first yellow was fully merited. But for me, at the moment it occurred, from above and behind where we sit, Clifford had played him for the second yellow. I have done the same thing many times.

Clifford shifted his weight to his right leg, stretched out his right arm to block the defender's run to contest the ball and body/arm checked Cooper. For me, it was a free out. Cooper then tried to get around Clifford, grabbed his arm and clearly commits a foul by pulling him down with him.

I suggested in the heat of the moment that referee David Gough may have been influenced by the propaganda emanating from Kerry in the lead-up to the game. Afterwards, I contacted him to apologise for this. It was wrong of me and unfair on David, who is a man of integrity and honour.

As always with David, it was a most entertaining and fascinating conversation. "How did you get the penalty so wrong?" I asked him, "it was minimal contact for a split second." After he had stopped laughing, he said, "Watch it carefully Joe, you bollox. It's right, the contact was only very brief. But by doing what he did, Jonny subtly moved David out of position so he couldn't contest the high ball. His hands were on. He moved him away from the ball. It was a clear penalty."

I watched it again after we spoke and Goddamnit, David is right. It is a penalty. Subtle, but clear.

"He played you for the second yellow," I continued. (More laughter). "He clearly body-checks and arm-checks Cooper off the ball. Clear free out before the Cooper pull-down."

"You're right but you're wrong Joe" he said. "David did play him. He did check him with his arm. But that's not a foul. You need to take it up with the Rules Committee."

"Really?" I said.

"So, if for example a full-back shepherds a ball over the endline by standing still, stretching out his arms and bracing himself against the forward body-checking him, that isn't a foul?"

"No, checking an opponent in those circumstances is fine. So, although David plays him, the first foul occurs when Jonny grabs his arm. As you can see, I had no choice."

Put like that, it is absolutely true. So there you have it. Every day is a school day. Very hard to find decent pundits these days . . .

Regardless of that debate (and many of those in the media and social media would do well to remember we are discussing a game of football not committing some heinous crime), Jim Gavin should never have left Cooper on Clifford after the first yellow.

It was obvious to everyone in the stadium this was a disaster waiting to happen. When this happens to a Tyrone defender, Mickey Harte immediately either replaces him or switches him off the player in question. Jim must bear the responsibility for what followed.

That sending-off spared Kerry's life. By the 40th minute, the margin was down to two and the game had taken on a life of its own. I turned to Joanne Cantwell and said, "There is a Kerry goal in the air."

But instead, the Dubs went back into that intimidating zone where they appear totally indifferent to pressure or the opposition and by the 54th minute they were again five up, at 1-14 to 0-12.

Then, another blond-headed Templenoe kid came along to haunt the Dubs. When Killian Spillane's goal went in, his uncle Pat nearly jumped out over the edge of the RTÉ box, and Ciarán Whelan put his head in his hands. What a goal it was. Now came Kerry's big moment. They were on a roll. They were a man up (not usually a significant advantage to be fair). Their defence was holding up very well. The Dubs suddenly looked human. When young Spillane (pictured left) scored a brilliant point - at 65:47 to be precise - they were a point up and it was all on the line. We have however been here before.

Having played in a curiously un-Dublin like way for large parts of the game, the finale was curiously Dublin-like. As though a switch had been flicked, Dublin went into that place they go to come the championship moments. Suddenly, they were swarming all over Kerry, blitzing them in the tackle and driving them back. For the last 13 minutes, Kerry didn't get a single shot off.

In that period, Dublin turned them over in the tackle five times, as the great champions looked to their last protection. The equaliser duly came and the winning score seemed inevitable. Dublin would surely hold possession, move Kerry around, draw them out, then penetrate for the killer score.

But instead, Dublin did something we haven't seen for years. They started taking pot-shots. First Brian Howard, then Diarmuid Connolly, then Paddy Small (for the second time, his first pot-shot having ended with the Kerry goal).

Jim Gavin got some important things wrong: leaving Cooper on Clifford when it was obvious every ball was going to be an event, instead of playing him on Seán O'Shea, well away from the bright lights of the square, where handsy stuff doesn't cause such outrage; bringing on Paddy Small when Dublin were five up, instead of Diarmuid Connolly who could have taken up his quarterback role around the middle and controlled the remainder of the game.

The important thing, however, was that the game - like the 2017 final - was an epic, a tonic for all football lovers. Seán O'Shea came of age with a performance of the greatest artistry under vast pressure. It was a mistake to put McCarthy on him, since it limited James and gave Seán more room than he is used to. The Dubs would be much better putting a clegg on Seán for the replay, Cooper, even Murchan.

O'Shea's free-taking is a thing of the purest beauty, as is his general play, but those high curling frees should be put to music by a great composer. David Moran was imperious again, giving a masterclass in Gaelic football until he coughed up possession twice at the end, but what the hell.

Jack McCaffrey was at his breathtaking quickest and best, his speed causing us to gasp. Young Gavin White, who came into this game with a reputation as a speedster, must have felt like the white man in the 100 metres final.

Afterwards in the studio, there was a sort of euphoria that only comes from the greatest contests. My good friend Pat shed a tear, as he had every right to do after his nephew had performed with such distinction.

Peter Keane, looking as calm as a farmer having his breakfast after the milking has been done, said "Yerra" and revealed that All-Ireland medals do not come in lucky bags. Never has there been such delight at an anti-climax.

On Saturday, they will do it all over again. Only this time, Kerry have been through the Dublin mill. And they have survived it.

When it comes right down to it, they will be thinking this week about how 14 Dubs prevented them from mounting a single attack in that last 13 minutes. How Dublin ground out the draw and could have won it at the death. As Mayo have shown on many tumultuous days in Croker, it is all well and good competing with the Dubs for 65 or even 70 minutes. It is those last five that are all-important. Dublin have problems. In the absence of Cian O'Sullivan's unerring ability as a sweeper, they are very vulnerable in their danger zone. Kerry should keep Clifford close to goal with Geaney playing off him. They only kicked in a few early balls last week and each time it caused panic, including a penalty.

Without O'Sullivan, the Dubs have lost that compact shape that has made them so miserly. This is something they need to solve before Saturday.

Brian Fenton is highly skilled and an excellent athlete, but somehow lacks passion. Usually he has the legs on his man and the Dubs are tearing the opposition apart, but against Kerry, this is not the case. In five attempts against them he has been more or less anonymous. Last week, he had zero impact on the game, easily outplayed by Jack Barry.

In tight games, as he showed again last week, Ciarán Kilkenny's habit is to play laterally, across and back around the periphery of the danger zone.

Jonny Cooper is not the player he was three years ago and is most certainly not suited to marking Clifford. Where to pick him?

James McCarthy seems to have lost that searing pace that for years has allowed him to hurtle through opposing defences, spread-eagling them and opening the gate for the dangermen to score heavily. In the drawn game he was turned over in possession three times, something I have never seen before. In James's case it may be that he is still not fully fit after his injury.

Dublin were heavily reliant on five things to get them through last weekend. Firstly, Cluxton's brilliance. Secondly, Kerry's high press, which gave them the opportunity to score the 1-2 that opened up their five-point lead. Thirdly, Dean Rock (10 points). Fourthly, Jack McCaffrey (1-3). Finally, the fact that Kerry panicked after they went one up.

The Dubs had another very obvious strategic issue last weekend, which is the lateral malaise they settled into when in possession, playing around the outside of the Kerry defensive area without penetrating. The only time this did not occur was when Cluxton kicked long over the Kerry press.

The effect of this was that the lethal trio of Mannion, O'Callaghan and Rock were getting the ball late and in poor positions when the Kerry defence was in place. I am telling you, if you think next Saturday will be plain sailing for them you are mistaken.

When it comes to it, the replay will be dictated by how Kerry deal with the pressure of the last quarter. They have shown they have the attacking ability to damage the Dubs. Dublin have no one to mark Clifford, who scored 0-2 but should probably have scored 0-5. Kerry broke through for goals three times, scoring once and missing a penalty.

They could easily have had four goals. Had they done so, Dublin would have been beaten. However, these are the moments that determine history. Kerry missed those chances. They panicked in the last 13 minutes. Indeed, it was Dublin who finished as though they had the extra man.

Sooner or later, Dublin will be beaten, but only by a team who has the courage and mental strength to go out and beat them over 80 high-pressured minutes. This Kerry team has the players. Do they have the balls?

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