Thursday 16 August 2018

Kerry's Golden era vs Jim Gavin's Dubs - We break down every category to find out which team was better

Jack O'Shea (left) and Bernard Brogan (right).
Jack O'Shea (left) and Bernard Brogan (right).

Dermot Crowe

The great Kerry team assembled by Mick O'Dwyer won seven All-Ireland titles between 1978 and 1986 and, famously, lost another in dramatic circumstances. It has been widely held that this is the greatest side to ever play the game, a notion that is now being challenged by the dominance of Dublin since the breakthrough victory in 2011.

That win, ending a barren streak for the capital stretching all the way back to 1995, was orchestrated by Pat Gilroy and since then Jim Gavin has taken up the reins, and built a Dublin dynasty that looks nowhere close to collapsing. Next week's latest instalment of a great rivalry with Mayo sees Dublin looking for the game's first three-in-a-row since Kerry completed that feat in 1986. Victory for Dublin would also be a fifth title in seven years and add to the growing sense that here we have a team that could perhaps match, or maybe even outshine, O'Dwyer's great side.

We have picked our best 15 from both eras and imagined a game across the great divide . . . who will win? Who is the greatest?

Goalkeeper

In terms of influence this contest is not open to much debate: Stephen Cluxton is still active, and may win more medals and decorations, but already he is the most authoritative figure to stand between two goalposts in the history of Gaelic football. Charlie Nelligan's career was lavishly rewarded with seven All-Ireland medals, making him the most successful goalkeeper in Gaelic football on that score. He won All-Irelands at minor and under 21 (three times) for Kerry, and also with his club Castleisland Desmonds. But over a long career from 1975 to 1991 he won just two All Stars.

There are a few mitigating factors. Having become first-choice in 1978, he was excluded from All Star consideration due to a sending-off in the final against Dublin. But over the remainder of his career, with Kerry achieving unprecedented success, he had to settle for All Stars in 1980 and '86. It may be a case that, much like the Kilkenny hurling goalkeepers of recent years, Nelligan had too little to do. It may also have something to do with the fact that competition was stiff, with the likes of Martin Furlong, Paddy Cullen and John O'Leary around.

Kerry player (left to right) Tim Kennelly, Paudie O’Mahony John O’Keeffe, Mikey Sheehy and Pat Spillane during a training session in 1980. Photo: Kevin Coleman
Kerry player (left to right) Tim Kennelly, Paudie O’Mahony John O’Keeffe, Mikey Sheehy and Pat Spillane during a training session in 1980. Photo: Kevin Coleman

In a team of great Kerry players he'd seen from 1955 to 2012, the former Kerry goalkeeper, referee, and broadcaster Weeshie Fogarty had Johnny Culloty as his number one. Nelligan was very good, and a legend in his county, but Cluxton simply has had more influence and impact. Nelligan stopped playing at 34. Cluxton will be 36 at the end of the year and, injury aside, can carry on for a few more years at a time when Dublin look capable of continuing to dominate. He had to wait until his 11th season before winning the first of his four Celtic Crosses.

Cluxton has already accumulated the most football championship appearances with 89 and his five All Stars is a joint record, along with John O'Leary, for a goalkeeper. Cluxton's point-scoring from dead balls was also significant, before he was relieved of that duty by Dean Rock. His winning point in the 2011 All-Ireland final, which started Dublin's period of prosperity, is a unique distinction for a goalkeeper.

Advantage: Dublin

Defence

Diarmuid Connolly. Photo: Sportsfile
Diarmuid Connolly. Photo: Sportsfile

In the 1978 All-Ireland final Dublin were rampant after 20 minutes, five points up, and Kerry in danger of losing hold of the match. Then came John Egan's goal against the run of play and the whole game, and course of history, changed. From an unpromising start, Kerry won by 17 points.

Egan's goal sprung from the kind of counter-attack and extravagant overlap of players that would be unthinkable today. Defences were more rigid but they could be found straying from position and exposed when possession was turned over. Nobody concerned themselves with sweepers. It was each man for himself.

Kerry changed their defence over the period 1975-'86, naturally enough, with both Ger Power and Ogie Moran part of early Kerry back lines before settling in the forwards. There were a few absolutes. John O'Keeffe played full-back in the four-in-a-row team and Tim Kennelly played centre back. Since Dublin won the 2011 All-Ireland, they have had Ger Brennan and Cian O'Sullivan at centre back. Rory O'Carroll was full-back for three of their four All-Irelands. Last year they had Jonny Cooper there, but the choice can hinge on who is in the opposing full-forward line and the attacking strategy of the opposition.

Dublin's centre of defence was badly exposed in 2014 by Donegal and they have reconfigured it since then, using O'Sullivan as an excellent screen protecting the full-back line and closing down space. O'Carroll's departure has led to questions about the stability of the full-back line under high ball. Teams have profited to some extent but Dublin, even when Jack McCaffrey went travelling while reigning Footballer of the Year, are masters at adapting and in last year's All-Ireland final drawn match the best player on the field was John Small, McCaffrey's replacement.

Sean Walsh moved to full-back for Kerry when they won the three-in-a-row in the 1980s after O'Keeffe retired. Tom Spillane took over from Kennelly. Tom Doyle was wing back on the three-in-a-row teams and played the last three finals in the Kerry four-in-a-row as a forward before going to wing back for 1982. Ultimately, there isn't a striking difference between the respective sets of backs. But the licence to attack that backs have now didn't exist when Kerry were in their prime in the '70s and '80s.

No advantage

Midfield

Midfielders competing spectacularly in the air remained a big feature of Gaelic football in the 1970s and into the '80s and in that mix Jack O'Shea had no peer. In the 1976 All-Ireland final and '77 semi-final defeats by Dublin, Kerry were outplayed by Brian Mullins and Bernard Brogan. O'Shea played in the '77 final alongside Páidí Ó Sé but a year later he had a new partner in Sean Walsh. After the slow start in the final against Dublin they took over and went on to rule the skies for the next few years.

O'Shea was liable to end up anywhere, with an incredible engine and a wide repertoire of skills. He often inspired his team. Sean Walsh was a magnificent fielder too and a powerful athlete. Together they had the leading midfield partnership of the period and one of the best of all time. Dublin's pair from recent times, Brian Fenton and Michael Darragh Macauley, isn't on the same exalted level, not that there is any shame in that.

Macauley (31) is a former Footballer of the Year from 2013 but has not been able to retain a consistent place in the team in recent years and Fenton is still developing after an exceptional first season in 2015. In terms of how much the respective pairings have won, and the time they've soldiered for, the Kerry pair has a clear advantage. O'Shea was Texaco Footballer of the Year four times, in 1980, '81, '84 and '85. And he made it onto Team of the Century along with other Kerry players Pat Spillane and Mikey Sheehy. Walsh and O'Shea shared 14 All-Ireland medals between them.

When Fenton won man of the match in the All-Ireland final two years ago, Denis Bastick played the first 40 minutes beside him, replaced by Macauley. In the drawn All-Ireland final last year against Mayo, Macauley started beside Fenton, but he didn't start the replay, coming on in the second half. With their more illustrious coupling, Kerry have a marked advantage in the middle of the field. When Walsh went to full-back for Kerry, up stepped Ambrose O'Donovan as a powerful assistant to O'Shea for the three-in-a-row team. O'Shea continued playing until 1992.

Advantage: Kerry

Forwards

'And now they're really rolling . . .' The words of Michael O Hehir, as if sensing the ominous signs for Offaly as Kerry's attacking machine slipped into gear in the 1981 All-Ireland final. Sure enough, it culminated in a sensational goal from Jack O'Shea.

Kerry in full flow were a joy to behold, a truly mesmerising spectacle. Two of their attack made the Team of the Century and when Bomber Liston arrived in '78 they had a full-forward line that demolished defences.

The six Kerry forwards who were on the team that won in 1978, the start of the four-in-a-row, were all there in 1986 with the exception of John Egan. They had an almost poetic rhythm and telepathy and that gift for winning admirers even if the opposition was being torn limb from limb. It would be interesting to see how they would have coped with modern defensive tactics.

Of the Dublin team that won the 2011 All-Ireland, it is possible that only five will start next Sunday's final against Mayo. Some of that is down to retirements and injuries, but not all; a feature of Dublin's success has been their strength in depth, especially in attack, and their fondness for using the wider panel. A revolving-door policy has created a cut-throat environment that's helped maintain player edge and standards.

A case in point being the stealth-like appearance of Cormac Costello after 56 minutes in the replayed All-Ireland final last year. Since getting on to the team in 2013, a year out of minor, Costello had started only one championship match, in 2014 against Donegal. He had two brief substitute appearances earlier in their 2016 campaign. From that low-key introduction he went on to score three points from play and broke Mayo's resistance.

The player Costello replaced, Kevin McManamon, was in sparking form for most of the championship as a starter. He has been most effective though coming into matches and helped swing the 2011 final with his goal in the last ten minutes. McManamon is as much a part of Dublin's success story of recent years as any regular. Next Sunday Dublin may not start Bernard Brogan or Diarmuid Connolly (pictured), further underlining the wealth of options at their disposal.

Dublin have produced brilliant forwards and in Connolly boast a player of outstanding natural ability, even if he has failed to match his impeccable playing abilities with the requisite temperament. But Sheehy, Spillane and Egan would have made any team of the current day, and Liston probably too. Kerry are at least on a par here and maybe ahead but in Dublin's case the constant changing of their attack leaves them at a disadvantage when comparisons are being made.

Advantage: Kerry

Bench

This is another area which bears little resemblance to the time when Kerry were lording it in the championships in the 1970s and '80s. There may have been no substitution more cataclysmic than Seamus Darby's arrival in 1982 which led to the wreckage of Kerry's five-in-a-row dream. But subs then were limited and those moves tended to be reactive rather than proactive. Being a sub tended to come with a stigma; you were generally surplus to requirements.

Dublin are renowned, more than any team in history, for their high-frequency and strategic use of substitutes, with replacements going a long way to winning the first and last of their four All-Irelands attained over the last six years. Even if it's accepted that modern football is tailored towards a 20-man game, due to the higher fitness levels required, there is no doubt that Dublin have more resources at their beck and call than any other team across time. Nowadays the team that finishes the match can differ substantially from the one which started. And it may well be better too.

Advantage: Dublin

Environmental Conditions

It was often said that Kerry had it easy when they were mopping up four, and later three, All-Irelands in a row. Nitpicking, you would argue that both the Ulster and Connacht championships during those periods were decidedly poorer than in the decades that followed. Mayo now, for instance, are serious contenders. They won no provincial title in the 1970s but Roscommon were useful, reaching the All-Ireland final in 1980, and Galway were All-Ireland finalists in 1974.

In the 1980s, Galway reached the final and Mayo did too at the close of the decade. But over the period of Kerry's dominance no county from Ulster or Connacht won an All-Ireland. Over Dublin's recent period of success, Donegal won an All-Ireland in 2012, and they also defeated Dublin in 2014, while Mayo beat Dublin in 2012.

While Dublin have tended to coast through to the All-Ireland semi-final relatively unhindered, they do at least meet some stiff resistance at the penultimate point. In 2011 they had two points to spare over Donegal in a deplorably dull match devoid of risk. A strong finish gave them a flattering seven-point win over Kerry two years later, while they needed a replay against Mayo in 2015 and Kerry were within two points of Dublin last year. This year's 12-point demolition of Tyrone was on a different plane.

Kerry's semi-finals were easier work. They included a series of thrashings with a 22-point battering of Monaghan in '79, 17-point margin of victory over Sligo in '75, 16 v Derry in '76, '12 v Roscommon in '78, 16 v Mayo in '81, 10 v Armagh in '82, and 12 v Galway in '84. In '85 Monaghan took them to a replay, with the Kerry team showing signs of mortality, and the next year they had seven to spare against Meath.

In their respective provinces both show similar levels of superiority. Dublin have won 12 of the last 13 Leinster Championships. Kerry won 15 out of 16 from '75-'86, with Cork catching them with a late goal in '83. The fretting over how much other counties are falling adrift is common to both periods.

No advantage

Accumulated wealth

This is a straightforward calculation. Kerry have a bigger stash of All-Irelands, and have the advantage on Dublin, at least for now, by virtue of winning three- and four-in-a-row. The simple math is eight All-Irelands versus four, though Dublin's time-range is just six years and they look capable of embellishing their record. Kerry's time period ran for 12 years, twice that of Dublin. In terms of ratio, therefore, Dublin can claim to be on track, with their four from six years in perfect proportion to Kerry's eight from 12.

Kerry did not place much emphasis on winning the National League so their record of three over the period being judged needs to be taken with a certain amount of salt. Still, it underlines Dublin's ability to maintain a sustained high level of performance that they have claimed four League titles in their shorter time-frame, those won back-to-back from 2013-'16.

Advantage: Kerry

Conclusion

By the 1990s, when the Kerry sides of the previous two decades had virtually disappeared, football was already changing its appearance. In Raymond Smith's Football Immortals he devotes an early chapter to the decade, labelling it the era of "the running game".

"It causes no surprise nowadays," wrote Smith, in words already looking quaint, "to see a corner back coming up into attack and maybe even adding his name to the score sheet." Witness any number of corner backs in recent years bringing that to another dimension. Witness Philly McMahon on Colm Cooper in the All-Ireland final of two years ago, effectively exchanging roles.

Judging two great sides, from different eras, is something of a fool's errand. It is not framed by clear points of law and similar conditions on which to assess. The game has changed so much, in how it is played, that in many respects it is not even the same sport. And how does one rate a player in Kerry's time who was adept scoring off both feet, when that was still seen as more the exception than the norm, something innovative, to one today were it is part of every player's schooling from young? Where even the plainest inter-county forwards will feel more comfortable kicking off both. Or should do.

You might say that this is a good thing, and largely it is. The players are technically more able. The Kerry players produced back then - ten of our team above won the All-Ireland in 1975 - did not have the claws of organised coaching on them as early as the modern counterpart. It might have something to do with the spirit and adventure with which they played.

Of their time, Kerry were a force previously unseen. That much can be said without fear of contradiction. They created their own mark on history too by winning four-in-a-row, and came within a whisker of leaving their unique and distinctive legacy with a fifth. At the time, before Seamus Darby, they looked unbeatable. After that trauma they recovered to win three more.

Has Dublin reached that point yet? They are close to it. They are headed in that direction. But they have to win three in succession, at least, to challenge Kerry's place in the pantheon. Already this year Dublin had the pleasure of surpassing Kerry's unbeaten record in league and championship. That would have piqued many Kerrymen naturally resentful of any encroachment by Dublin.

They will hope to come again and challenge Dublin if they remain at the helm in a year's time. They have a golden generation of minors waiting in the wings. The vulnerability shown by Dublin, in the intermittent defeats in 2012 and '14, has been obliterated in recent seasons. If they win next Sunday they will copper-fasten that impression that they have reached a place where they can be worthy of inclusion in the same breath as Kerry of '75-'86. That's as high as praise can get. At the moment, that verdict has to remain withheld.

It might be worth remembering that in 1976 Dublin's win over Kerry in the All-Ireland final was their first in the championship over their rivals in 42 years. It was also their first in an All-Ireland final over Kerry since 1923. Changed times then. If they win next Sunday, Dublin will be the first three-in-a-row winner since Kerry in '84-'86. And who would say with any confidence that they would not then make it four in 12 months' time? It might be Con O'Callaghan's fortunate timing to be at the heart of that mission.

For now though, Kerry are better for having achieved more, and lasted longer. They have left less room for doubt.

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