Congested landscape will make repeat wins all the more difficult in the future
KERRY football has always found a way.
When something new, different and dynamic has swept across the Gaelic football landscape, invariably, they have adapted and reset.
It was there in the 1950s when Dublin came up with the concept of a roving full-forward and destroyed All-Ireland champions Meath in the 1954 Leinster final. Kevin Heffernan pulled those strings to dispense with man-to-man tussling after studying the movement of Manchester City’s Don Revie and its shift from the traditional crash-and-bang centre-forward role.
But Kerry rose to the challenge of Heffo to win that year’s All-Ireland final against the odds, just as they responded to the sophistication and gravitation to a passing game – a move away from the convention of catch-and-kick – that Down brought in the 1960s to win during the era of the Six Counties’ breakthrough in the hunt for ‘Sam’.
In the 1970s, Dublin’s power and athleticism provoked a further response. Mick O’Dwyer introduced a training regime that entered new terrotory with a group of young, eager and talented footballers that emerged.
Into this century, Kerry have grappled with massed defence. Tyrone broke their hearts but not their will in the first decade as they kept in step with them while they took adaptation to new levels when their last All-Ireland title in 2014 was won ‘ugly’. They matched fire with fire to be as cynical as they had to be when the occasion, like the All-Ireland final that year against Ulster opponents Donegal, demanded it.
On Sunday, the latest group of players set aside a growing belief that there was a mental fragility about them based on their collective reaction to clutch moments against Dublin, Cork and Tyrone over the last three years. There was no good way for them to lose this All-Ireland, no redeeming feature, no tomorrow.
And they did it by establishing first principles around defence, even though they boast a star forward who is already well down the road to being the greatest of all in their ranks.
Their commitment to those principles has resulted in 10 clean sheets from 13 games in league and championship.
In only three games have they conceded a goal, and one, a penalty that Conor McManus scored for Monaghan in an Inniskeen league match, it was a dubious award. The other league concession came in the last regulation game against Tyrone, a day when they had already booked a place in the league final.
That leaves Cormac Costello’s precision strike for Dublin in the semi-final as the only goal given up when there was something really at stake.
Some of the Kingdom’s connoisseurs may not entirely approve, but the end justifies the means in these matters.
The consensus now is that with the monkey off the back and a sense of liberation, they’ll go on to bigger and better things. And perhaps they will.
The core of the starting team, in its mid-20s, is certainly young enough, David Clifford and Diarmuid O’Connor are 23, Seánie O’Shea is a year older.
But dominance like Dublin enjoyed in many seasons of the previous decade is not likely.
Their manager Jack O’Connor referenced the five-in-a-row All-Ireland winning minor teams between 2014 and 2018 after Sunday’s win and how they didn’t think it would take the first team from 2014 eight years to break through.
The vast majority of players from those teams have already come through, with a few years under their belts. The last of those teams in 2018, even though they are only in their 21st year, has yet to produce a player for the squad. Everyone expected to be through is through by now, so, with the odd exception, what they have, they have, which they’ll have to continue with. At the other end of the scale, David Moran’s time involved may be short from here.
The landscape is a lot more congested than it was when Dublin really got into their groove in the middle of the last decade.
Dublin always had Mayo to keep them honest and Kerry to a degree, too, but Galway have clearly shown something to sustain them for the future and can clearly identify emerging talent that can deepen their reserves, currently too shallow, as Sunday illustrated. Mayo, with their two young inside forwards Ryan O’Donoghue and Tommy Conroy back, can look to a better 2023 than 2022 was for them.
When Dublin reflect on their exit to Kerry just over two weeks ago, it won’t be lost on them that they beat a similar Kingdom side – in personnel terms – to the one that brought them to a final replay in 2019.
The Dubs then had Stephen Cluxton, Jack McCaffrey, Paul Mannion and Con O’Callaghan – all absent the last day – the latter two each scoring four points in that game after McCaffrey had scored 1-3 in the drawn game in a year when Cluxton was Footballer of the Year.
That’s not exactly a Kerry team taking a completely different trajectory.
In Ulster, Derry and Armagh have both made substantial gains, and while Tyrone once again failed to back up their All-Ireland success last year, they remain formidable and can probably make more additions to their team in the years ahead than Kerry can to theirs, given their players on their horizon. How quickly will Ruairí Canavan graduate in 2022, for instance?
The temptation every year when new champions are crowned is to proclaim a potential dynasty in the making, especially when it’s Kerry.
But a new championship format next year will test everyone, especially Kerry and Dublin, whose straightforward routes to the All-Ireland quarter-finals through their provinces will be complicated that little bit more by three round-robin games. More competitive games are to be welcomed, with more opportunity for things to go wrong.
Clifford, O’Shea and this Kerry group will win another one. They no longer carry the same burden but won’t rule with an iron fist.