Monday 14 October 2019

Kerry 1978-81 v Dublin 2015-18? - Our experts choose which side was the greatest and both pick their combined XVs

Who would win the battle of the All-Ireland four-time elites? Martin Breheny argues that Micko's side have the better starting 15 and edge the joust, while Colm Keys believes the Dubs are now the greatest team of all time. Both writers have also picked their best combined four-in-a-row side, no mean feat from a pool of such esteemed champions

Legendary Kerry forward Mikey Sheehy and Dublin's Ciaran Kilkenny have both made the selections of Martin Breheny and Colm Keys. Photos: Sportsfile
Legendary Kerry forward Mikey Sheehy and Dublin's Ciaran Kilkenny have both made the selections of Martin Breheny and Colm Keys. Photos: Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Dublin 28, Kerry 15. If the number of games played by the two counties in accumulating their All-Ireland four-in-a-row triumphs is regarded as an important criteria in deciding which is the better team, then it's advantage Dublin.

Indeed, that argument has been put forward since Dublin joined the exclusive club last Sunday, but there's a lot more to an objective assessment on this one than the amount of games it took either county to join the exclusive four-timer club.

Obviously, comparing teams from different eras is based purely on opinion and can never be remotely definitive, but it's an interesting exercise and will, no doubt, generate some heated debates in the coming months.

So here's my take on it. The Kerry team (1-15) of 1978-81 was considerably better than their current Dublin counterparts. However, the Dublin panel (1-26) is stronger than what Kerry had in their golden period.

That's a significant factor and also provides another example of how the game has changed. Only three subs were allowed when Kerry were amassing their riches, compared with six nowadays.

The difference is very significant for a number of reasons. The bench had to be used sparingly during the three-sub era, in case injuries conspired to leave a team short-handed towards the end of a game.

A manager can make three substitutions at half-time nowadays, knowing that he still has three more cards to play. That would not have happened in the three-sub era.

Jim Gavin used six subs in each of the last five All-Ireland finals, including the replay against Mayo in 2016. That's six times more than Mick O'Dwyer deployed during Kerry's four-in-a-row when Paudie O'Mahony (1978), Vincent O'Connor (1979), Ger O'Driscoll (1980), Pat Spillane and Ger O'Keeffe (1981) were the only five to get a run.

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Sub goalkeeper O'Mahony replaced Jimmy Deenihan in 1978 following Charlie Nelligan's dismissal while Spillane's late appearance against Offaly in 1981 was for sentimental reasons only as he hadn't been able to play due to a knee injury. Otherwise it might have been three subs in four games.

O'Dwyer continued the policy of using his bench sparingly in Kerry's three-in-a-row success (1984-85-86) too, bringing in only one sub during each of those games.

In those circumstances, it's difficult to know how good Kerry's back-up was, since a mighty starting 15 took care of business, usually quite comfortably.

It's different nowadays, especially in Dublin where their overall panel strength is phenomenal. Gavin could field two excellent teams, so it's perfectly logical to exploit such strength in depth by using the bench as extensively as the occasion requires. Indeed, there have been several occasions where the subs won the game for Dublin.

In addition, Dublin have a much busier championship programme than Kerry, so it's easy to give the extended panel a sizeable amount of playing time.

Dublin won 26 and drew two games in their four-in-a-row success. It's a much busier programme than what Kerry encountered in 1978-81 when they won 15 successive games. Dublin had eight outings en route to this year's title, whereas three wins were enough for Kerry to land the 1980 title after they were granted a bye into the Munster final.

That arose from their 36-point win over Clare in the 1979 semi-final, a demolition job that prompted the Munster Council to allow Kerry directly into the 1980 final.

It was a one-year-only arrangement and the punishment beatings resumed in Munster in 1981.

They sometimes extended to Cork too, even if Micko loved to drop into their dressing-room afterwards, sounding sympathetic as he told them they were the second best team in the country and that if they were in any other province, they would be in Croke Park every year.

The Leinster Council haven't considered allowing Dublin directly into the final, but, on the basis of results over many years, they may as well have.

Dublin's average winning margin in Leinster quarter-finals and semi-finals over the last two years was 21 points, 15 short of Kerry's win over Clare in 1979, but scarcely a prime example of a championship at its most competitive. Nor has it been much more demanding for Dublin in Leinster finals either.


Dublin win Leinster as they please where at least Kerry had one genuine rival in Munster. In 1980, Cork beat Kerry in the National League final, having lost to a very good Roscommon team in the 1979 decider, which shows what they were capable of on their better days.

Kerry won the 1978-81 All-Ireland finals by an average of almost 10 points, whereas Dublin have had only one relatively easy victory - against Tyrone (six points) last Sunday.

Other than that, the winning margins were once by three points and twice by one point, and they were also taken to a replay by Mayo in 2016.

In a head-to-head situation, it's difficult not to believe that the Kerry attack would have caused enormous damage to Dublin's defensive set-up.

Mikey Sheehy, 'Bomber' Liston and John Egan remain the most prolific full-forward line in GAA history, Spillane's running game was way ahead of its time, while Ger Power and 'Ogie' Moran were excellent players too.

And yes, both would be comfortable in today's 'play-anywhere' approach. Power was at left half-back for several years before moving into attack while Moran won two All-Ireland U-21 medals as a half-back.

Midfield? Jack O'Shea and Seán Walsh v Brian Fenton and James McCarthy? It's advantage Kerry for me.

That leaves the Kerry defence against the Dublin attack. It gets tricky here, since Kerry would have had to contend with anything up to 10 top-class forwards over the 70 minutes. Despite that, I doubt if they would amass as much between them as Sheehy and Co at the other end.



In last Saturday's Irish Independent Mick O'Dwyer cautioned that before any comparison with his Kerry team of the late 1970s and early '80s that last achieved such a rare feat could be drawn, Dublin would have "to win four-in-a-row first".

O'Dwyer had set a different acid test for this Dublin team when the documentary on his life, 'Micko,' aired earlier this year, one that has surfaced quite a bit in any analysis of their place in history.

"At the present time, they're an exceptionally good team but then they've only won All-Irelands by single points against Mayo," a nonplussed Micko said.

"Until they hammer a team in an All-Ireland final by seven or eight, 10 points, then I'll say they're a really great team."

A six-point win over Tyrone last Sunday, double what they beat Kerry by in 2015, may not measure up to the great man's standards - especially when he oversaw an average winning margin of nine-and-half points in the four successive All-Ireland finals that they won between 1978 and '81 - 17 (Dublin), 11 (Dublin), 3 (Roscommon) and 7 (Offaly).

But Dublin's journey to four-in-a-row has much more to it than just All-Ireland final winning margins, which reflects on one hand just how resilient they have been in the heat of intense battle and also how good Mayo have been to be on their shoulder three times on the last day (four including the 2016 drawn game).

Not only have they been the team of the last four summer campaigns, they've been the dominant force in three of the last four spring campaigns too. In any parallel drawn, how they've been so consistently good all year round has to be a central factor.

But for the width of a Hill 16 upright, which Dean Rock struck with a free to level at the end of the 2017 league final, it may well have been four from four.

Factor in the 36-match unbeaten run from March 2015 to that April league final and it points to a team and a squad steeled for any test, anywhere and in any set of conditions.

It's a level of consistency that, for me, now that they have completed four-in-a-row, edges them slightly ahead of O'Dwyer's team.


Maybe they don't yet have individuals to match Jack O'Shea, Mikey Sheehy and Pat Spillane but the collective efforts and skills than run deep through their squad is their strength and takes them marginally further.

In the six years that Jim Gavin has managed Dublin they have contested 18 competitions and won 16, the 2014 All-Ireland and 2017 league the only two pieces of silverware left behind.

Not even Brian Cody's Kilkenny at their height come close to that.

Kerry didn't win a league title in any of the four years between 1978 and '81 but were champions in the year before (1977) and the year after (1982).

Of course it's a subjective exercise, trying to blend a team in today's era into the dominant team almost 40 years ago.

It's a game played so differently, competitions are structured differently, throwing up a different range of opponents, positions are less fixed now and less specialised, while the use of substitutes, almost an after-thought in the past, has become critical - with numbers allowed doubling from three to six.

Thus, it's a work of imagination in almost every respect. But everything is relative and has a perspective.

What also makes comparison difficult is the shift in personnel over the four years.

Kerry's starting 15 didn't deviate too much outside the same 15 players, though Tommy Doyle was regularly called upon. In all, just 20 players started 15 championship games across the four years, 25 in all including substitutes.

Dublin used 21 last Sunday alone, just as they did in every one of their previous 27 games across their four-in-a-row and the team has changed significantly from 2015, when Bernard Brogan, Diarmuid Connolly, Paul Flynn and Michael Darragh Macauley were very much mainstays. Only Macauley, from that quartet, had even a bit part to play last Sunday.

Any reflection on Kerry is viewed through the prism of those three additional All-Ireland titles (1984-86) when Páidí Ó Sé reinvented himself as a corner-back and O'Shea, Spillane and Sheehy cemented reputations as three of the greatest players ever. Dublin's story is still unfolding but Stephen Cluxton is, in the consideration of many, the greatest goalkeeper of all time while Jack McCaffrey, Brian Fenton and Ciaran Kilkenny are among the greatest in their positions in the modern era.

The fact that nine of their starters were 25 or under creates the probability of a fifth successive title next year and at least one more in the immediate future. Who's to say that in four or five years' time Brian Howard and Con O'Callaghan won't be in this conversation.

I've lived through both eras, albeit at a young age when Kerry were in their pomp but I can still feel the impact they had then.


Similar to conversations around Dublin now, it looked like their journey was never-ending. That sense hardened when they recovered from their two-year hiatus, 1982 and '83, to win the next three. Their 1986 recovery against Tyrone had an air of inevitability about it.

Connacht and Ulster football was at a very low ebb in those years of Kerry dominance, making semi-finals against either champions a formality.

That's not the case now where, with the qualifier system, teams like Mayo and Tyrone have been able to recover through the season after provincial defeats.

All-Ireland quarter-finals are something Kerry didn't have to prepare for while 15 games to Dublin's 28 left the current champions with far more margin for error and potential for wear and tear.

But unlike Kerry then, who had a decent Cork team on their shoulder in Munster most years, Dublin have a clear run in Leinster, virtually unchallenged over much of the decade, allowing them to tailor their preparations accordingly for later in the year.

In the 18 provincial games they've played under Gavin, seven points (Meath in the 2013 Leinster final) is as close as anyone has come to them.

Some of the head-to-heads in this exercise were difficult but Fenton's all-round game, even in such a short window, had to be considered ahead of the versatile Sean Walsh while Bernard Brogan's work at the height of his career gets the verdict ahead of John Egan.

In defence, Tim Kennelly was a specialist centre-back, but James McCarthy's drive and energy deserved inclusion in the half-back line, between McCaffrey and Páidí Ó Sé.


Irish Independent

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