Sunday 21 January 2018

Martin Breheny: Best-laid plans often no match for hand of fate

Kerry’s Kieran Donaghy fires home past Paul Durcan in the 2014 All-Ireland final after the Donegal goalkeeper’s decisive error gifted the Kingdom a major at Croke Park
Kerry’s Kieran Donaghy fires home past Paul Durcan in the 2014 All-Ireland final after the Donegal goalkeeper’s decisive error gifted the Kingdom a major at Croke Park
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

As the late Albert Reynolds was wont to say, it's the little things that trip you up. It applies as much in sport as in politics, but since much modern-day analysis tends to eulogise the winners and scarify the losers, that simple truth usually gets lost.

By 5.0 tomorrow evening, Dublin and Kerry will, barring a draw, enter different worlds. However small the margin of victory may be, it will be ascribed to the technical, tactical, physical and psychological superiority of the winning team and their manager.

Plus, of course, they will have "wanted it more". Really? Are we to believe that the losing team always has less ambition?

'The Sunday Game' man-of-the-match award will, as it invariably does, go to the winners, and their team of the year will be skewed in favour of the new champions. It's another example of how the winners are portrayed as being vastly superior, even if they win narrowly.

And, since just about anything can be proved by selective use of technology, who can argue? It's all part of the 'winners right, losers wrong' approach that dominates professional punditry and amateur assessment alike.

Its most obvious manifestation will rest in how Jim Gavin and Eamonn Fitzmaurice are assessed. The winning ­manager will be deemed to have got selections, tactics and ­substitutions spot on, as well as being a psychological genius, who bent the will of his players into an unbeatable mindset. As for the loser, he completely misread it.

It's all part of the sporting carnival and, in an age when spoofers and psycho-babblers thrive, it's best not taken too seriously.

That's because it doesn't matter how much detail has gone into the preparation, unforeseen circumstances can play a mischievous hand.

For example, Donegal were trailing Kerry by a point heading for the three-quarter mark in last year's final when Paul Durcan's short kick-out was intercepted by Kieran Donaghy, who popped in a goal. Kerry won by 2-9 to 0-12.

Ultimately, the difference between the teams was one simple error by a player. In the Mayo-Dublin 2013 final, Mayo were leading Dublin by three points when a mix-up between goalkeeper Robert Hennelly and defender Ger Cafferkey gifted Bernard Brogan a goal. Dublin won by a point, which underlined the cost of the error. In 2011, a mistake by Kerry's Declan O'Sullivan gave Dublin possession from which Kevin McManamon scored a goal late. He could easily have been penalised for over-carrying but the break went his way.

He got another break in stoppage time on a 50-50 call when referee Joe McQuillan awarded him a free, from which Stephen Cluxton kicked the winning point. Even then, there was a discrepancy, since the time between the awarding of the free and the kick was exactly one minute, yet only ten seconds time was added to stoppage time.

Kerry, in possession and approaching the half-way line at the time, were entitled to another 30 seconds (quite a long time in the context of one move) but they didn't get it. Again, the finest of margins, as opposed to the bigger scheme of things, may have decided the outcome.

In 2003, Armagh's Diarmaid Marsden was sent off in error against Tyrone at a crucial stage of the second half. Philip Jordan appeared to run straight into Marsden but referee Brian White (Wexford) dismissed the Armagh man and Tyrone went on to win by three points.

Marsden later appealed the red card, which was rescinded by Central Council. There's no way of knowing if Tyrone would have won even if Armagh were at full strength, but it was a lucky break that their opponents, who had a history of strong finishes, were a man down on the home stretch.

So while history shows that despite the usual post-match assessments showing how the winners totally out-witted their opponents, the truth is that in games between evenly matched teams, the closest of margins make the biggest difference of all. Frequently, luck is a factor too.

However, history also shows that general statistical parameters have emerged, which provide quite a reliable guide to what it takes to win an All-Ireland final. Based on those, here are the targets for Dublin and Kerry.

Lead at half-time

Only six teams that trailed at half-time in the last 25 All-Ireland finals won the game. Fifteen half-time leaders won while the remaining four were either level at the interval or the game finished level.

Dublin (2013) were one of the six winners who trailed at half-time. However, Mayo's lead was just a single point, close enough as to be negligible.

The last reasonably substantial turnaround was in 2002 when Armagh trailed Kerry by 0-11 to 0-7 at half-time but won the second half by 1-5 to 0-3 to become All-Ireland champions for the first time.

Score at least 15 points

The last county to win the final by totalling less than 15 points was Tyrone, who beat Armagh by 0-12 to 0-9 in 2003. The lowest winning score prior to that was Meath's 1-11 in 1999 when they beat Cork (1-8).

Kerry's 2-9 against Donegal last year and Dublin 1-12 against Kerry in 2011 were enough to win the finals. However, a 15-point total would not have won any of the previous seven finals, or the 2012-2013 deciders either. The average total scored by the winners of the last 10 years is 17 points.

Score at least one goal

Only six of the last 25 finals have been won by teams that failed to score a goal in the final (Cork 2010; Kerry 2009, Tyrone 2003, Galway 2001, Kerry 2000, Kerry 1997).

Kerry also drew the 2000 final with Galway without scoring a goal so they have a good record of pointing their way to success.

Dublin have won only of their last ten All-Ireland titles without scoring a goal. That was in 1974 when the first year of the Kevin Heffernan revolution ended with a win over Galway by 0-14 to 1-6.

The last time Dublin won a game without scoring a goal was in 2011 when they beat Tyrone by 0-22 to 0-15 in the All-Ireland quarter-final.

Kerry won this year's semi-final without scoring a goal, beating Tyrone by 0-18 to 1-11.

Don't concede two goals

Only four of the last 25 finals have been won teams that conceded two or more goals.

Derry beat Cork by 1-14 to 2-8 in 1993 and, interestingly, the 2004-'05-'06 winners also conceded two or more goals. Kerry beat Mayo by 1-20 to 2-9 in 2009; Tyrone beat Kerry by 1-16 to 2-10 in 2005 and Kerry beat Mayo by 4-15 to 3-5 in 2006.

In 2004, Kerry were 11 points ahead by the time Mayo got their second goal in the second half so it was of little consequence. The 2006 final delivered a goal feast, with Kerry leading by 3-6 to 1-0 in the 27th minute before Mayo scored two goals, leaving them trailing by 3-8 to 3-2 at half-time.

Truly, a freak half but conceding three goals didn't matter to Kerry who ran out 4-16 to 3-5 winners. It was the only time in championship history that a team won the All-Ireland final after conceding three goals. It's most unlikely to happen again tomorrow.

Irish Independent

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