Sunday 25 February 2018

Lessons from recent past leave Kingdom desperate to break Dublin's control

Jim Gavin has identified unshakeable self-belief as the bed-rock of Dubln’s unbeaten run. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile
Jim Gavin has identified unshakeable self-belief as the bed-rock of Dubln’s unbeaten run. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

In early February 2010, Pat Gilroy took a new-look Dublin squad to Killarney for the opening round of the Allianz League. Kerry were All-Ireland champions and, for long periods, played like a team that assumed its status would straighten out any kinks that presented themselves.

That was understandable to some degree, especially against Dublin, who had been victims of a merciless trampling (1-24 to 1-7) by Kerry in the previous year's All-Ireland quarter-final.

In addition, Dublin hadn't won in Kerry for 28 years so there was every reason to believe that the new season would start with a home win.

It didn't. Dublin, who had only five of the team which was embarrassed by Kerry five months earlier, won by two points with a feisty display where many of the new faces did well. While the result wasn't followed by panic alarms in Kerry, it was more than enough to give Dublin new hope.

Selector Ger O'Keeffe said afterwards that if Kerry had played with the same intensity in the first hour as in the final 10 minutes, it might have been different.

Seismic

"It's very early in the year but it was a lesson that we won't win games just because we're All-Ireland champions," he said.

What nobody knew at the time was that a small tweak in the power balance had occurred, one which would develop into a seismic shift over the following seasons.

Seven years on, Dublin are not only the dominant force in both championship and league but will arrive in Austin Stack Park this evening attempting to equal a record established by the Kingdom 84 years ago.

Kerry are claiming that Dublin's bid to remain unbeaten in a 34th successive game is no more than a statistical curiosity which happens to be unfolding in Tralee but is it really that simple? Are we expected to believe that it won't leave a sharp little stone in Kerry's shoe if Dublin reaches a significant milestone deep in green-and-gold territory?

Unquestionably, it brings an added dimension to this game but there's another factor too that makes it so important for Kerry. The 2010 win was the start of a new dynamic, leaning heavily against Kerry who have lost 10 of their last 12 league and championship games with Dublin. Included in that list are four All-Ireland (two finals, two semi-finals) wins for Dublin, plus a runaway success in last year's league final.

Making it all the more galling for Kerry is that, with the exception of the 2015 All-Ireland final, they held pretty substantial leads at various stages of the championship games, only to be overtaken.

That's quite a change from the previous three decades when Dublin failed to beat Kerry even once in nine championship games.

It has created a situation where Dublin now expect to beat Kerry, irrespective of the setbacks they encounter.

That was perfectly illustrated in last year's semi-final when, after leading by five points in the 25th minute, Dublin found themselves trailing by five at half-time, having been hit by a Kerry blitz that yielded 2-4.

There was a time when that would have proved decisive but it's no longer the case. Dublin, underpinned by a calm, measured approach, outpointed Dublin 6-1 in the opening 15 minutes of the second half.

And when Kerry delivered a second surge later on to lead by three points just past the hour mark, Dublin's response was equally well-constructed.

They worked through the puzzle, emerged on the other side and ran out two-point winners. It was Dublin at their most composed, a side that believed in itself even against the most successful county in football history.

"We saw it today, we saw it in 2013 (v Kerry All-Ireland semi-final) and we saw it against Mayo last year - in the big games Dublin have shown great resilience and great strength of character. We threw everything at them and it wasn't enough," said Eamonn Fitzmaurice.

Meanwhile, Jim Gavin, explaining it from Dublin's perspective, spoke of his side's unshakable self-belief.

"The team demonstrated great composure at half-time. There was never anything but full intent from them. They knew what they wanted. They knew what happened and they stayed in control of the situation," he said.

Now, check back to 2007 when Kerry beat Dublin by two points in the All-Ireland semi-final.

"We certainly gave it our best shot and just came up short," said Paul Caffrey, the then-Dublin manager.

"Questions were asked at half-time. Did we have the necessary hunger, did we have the will to go out in the second half and take the game to Dublin? The answer was 'yes', as the lads showed in the second half," said Kerry boss Pat O'Shea.

The big difference between 2007 and last year was in the contrasting mindsets. A decade ago, Kerry believed they could eventually quell every blue rebellion while Dublin came away talking of coming up short after giving it their best shot.

Reversed

The roles are reversed nowadays. Since 2011, Dublin believe they have Kerry's measure and, conversely, Kerry have taken to looking over their shoulders even when going well against Gavin's crew.

That's why Kerry badly need to beat Dublin - and soon. It can be a narrow win, an ugly win, a scrappy win. It doesn't matter as long as it's a win. Just as the 2010 league victory stirred something in Dublin, a win tonight could have a similar impact on Kerry.

Mick O'Dwyer has always held that the league's function is to help teams prepare for the championship and that what happens in spring counts for little in summer.

That may have been the case in the days when more than half the league programme was completed pre-Christmas but not anymore. Tyrone (2003), Kerry (2004-'06-'09), Cork (2010) and Dublin (2013-'15-'16) completed the league-championship doubles in the same season, providing strong evidence that a successful spring is often a precursor to summer/autumn glory.

If Kerry lose tonight, their prospects of reaching the league final will be remote, whereas Dublin will be well on their way to a fifth successive Division 1 decider.

If that happens Kerry will, of course, let on it that it doesn't really matter but, in reality, that's not the case. They have been under Dublin's giant thumb for quite some time and badly need to do something about it.

And if they require extra motivation, protecting the record for an unbeaten run, set by their predecessors in 1928-'33, is as powerful as it gets. Defending the heritage is a fight worth winning.

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