Thursday 14 December 2017

Martin Breheny: Kerry were dominant partner in great rivalry but are now trapped in their worst ever run

Dublin are in control of Gaelic football's most famous rivalry

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Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

By his own admission, Eamonn Fitzmaurice bit his lip on the way down the corridor to the Croke Park interview room after last year's All-Ireland semi-final.

Deeply frustrated by the failure of referee David Gough to spot a foul by Kevin McManamon on Peter Crowley as the Kerry centre-back drove forward in search of an equaliser in stoppage time, he left it to others to adjudicate on that.

It didn't require much investigation to reach the conclusion that Crowley and Kerry were hard done by. Gough admitted as much some weeks ago, explaining that he was unsighted when McManamon thundered into Crowley and could not award a free for something he hadn't seen.

Complaining

Realising that there was nothing to be gained by complaining ('I don't want to be the story'), Fitzmaurice moved on to a general assessment of a game where Kerry led by five points at half-time but ended up losing by two.

"We threw everything at it, and just came up a bit short again," he said.

There was no discernible emphasis on 'again', but he must have felt a sense of weariness after presiding over a Kerry defeat by Dublin in the championship for the third time in four seasons. Jack O'Connor had experienced similar disappointment in the 2011 All-Ireland final. It hasn't been much better for Kerry in the Allianz League, where they have lost four, won one and drawn one of six games under Fitzmaurice.

It all adds up to the unmistakable reality that this is the worst period Kerry have ever experienced in their relationship with Dublin. Long gone are the days when Kerry talked of their rivalry with Dublin as if were a meeting of equals when, in fact, they were the dominant force.

It was as if Kerry enjoyed patronising Dublin, while privately pointing to the history books and the stark fact that between 1941 and 2009, championship victories stood at 14-2 in the Kingdom's favour, with two draws.

Now, it's all so different. Even since a new-look Dublin team beat Kerry in the first round of the 2010 league in Killarney, the balance has shifted dramatically.

Seven years on, a Kerry are 12/5 outsiders to beat Dublin, odds that would have been unthinkable down through the decades.

From a personal viewpoint, it must be bugging Fitzmaurice that his managerial stint is coinciding with a period when Dublin are not only enjoying superiority over Kerry but also across the entire landscape.

His term started in 2013 - the same season that Jim Gavin took over in Dublin - so it's inevitable that comparisons will be made.

In terms of titles, it's advantage Gavin by a considerable margin, with Dublin having won seven national titles - three All-Ireland and four Division 1 - to Kerry's one (2014 All-Ireland).

In the one year (2014) that Dublin were beaten, it was Donegal rather than Kerry who halted them.

Events over recent years leave the clear impression that from a psychological perspective Dublin have Kerry locked in a tight hold, from which they have been unable to escape.

It's not that Kerry haven't had their opportunities to wriggle free. They were ahead of Dublin at various stages in the 2011-'13-'16 championship meetings but failed to build on it, the most notable chance being missed last year.

Kerry led by five points at half-time and, after being pegged back to level terms, they opened up a three-point advantage with 10 minutes remaining only to lose by two.

So did they leave it behind or were they beaten by a better team?

"Hard to say. Maybe leaning towards the second, to be honest," said Fitzmaurice afterwards.

"We have the long winter now for chewing over it," he added.

Kerry viewed this year's league clash with Dublin in Tralee as the ideal opportunity to put down an early-season marker and, since Dublin had continued on their unbeaten run, the game assumed extra importance because of the historical dimension.

Kerry would never admit it but they dearly wanted to stop Dublin breaking the record for the longest unbeaten sequence in football history, only to be foiled late on when Paul Mannion kicked the levelling point.

Drawing with the All-Ireland champions would usually be seen as a good result but Kerry were very disappointed after having a two-point lead wiped out in stoppage time.

With four counties ahead of Kerry on the league table after that game, a rematch with Dublin in the final looked unlikely, a scenario that maintained until very late in last Sunday's final series of games.

Then, in the space of a few minutes, the picture cleared and the pair were booked in for tomorrow's clash.

As ever, what happens in April won't define the season for either side but, at the same time, this league final is more important than usual.

Breaking Dublin's control would be significant for Kerry, not least in boosting their confidence for a possible rematch in the championship.

The premise that Kerry players always believe in themselves is fine in theory but only Donnchadh Walsh, Killian Young and Darran O'Sullivan can tell their colleagues what it's like to beat Dublin in big game, having been aboard in 2009 when they won the All-Ireland quarter-final by 17 points.

The rest have known a lot of disappointing days against Dublin, leaving them in urgent need of a break.

The same applies to Fitzmaurice. Having started in the same season as Gavin, it's inevitable that comparisons will be made. Gavin's figures are far superior, having a remarkable 85 per cent success rate in league and championship, compared with 62 per cent for Fitzmaurice. In fairness to Fitzmaurice, he can only work off the hand he's dealt. And while it's pretty good by comparison with most other counties, it has lacked the aces which Gavin sees every time he opens a new deck.

He took over at a time when it was generally accepted that Dublin were blessed with a golden generation, whereas Kerry were relatively stagnant by comparison. Results have borne that out.

Still, Kerry remain convinced that if they got one big break against Dublin, it could change the entire dynamic. And with Kerry's underage carousel cranking up impressively all the time, there's a view a new golden age could be on its way to the south west.

Opportunity

Even now, they believe it wouldn't take much to tweak the balance with Dublin in their favour.

"I don't think the gap is that big. Obviously Dublin are very strong but the league final last year was close until Aidan O'Mahony got sent off and they pulled away with the extra man.

"We were close enough to them in last year's All-Ireland semi-final but again they pulled away in the end. For us it's about being able to perform for 75 minutes so that's what we're working on," said defender, Shane Enright this week.

Kerry have extensive personal experience of how crucially important it is to play at optimum power for the full game against Dublin, in particular. They have been beaten on the run-in often enough to know that one of Dublin's biggest strengths is closing out games, as they displayed again last Sunday when overtaking Monaghan.

That used to be a Kerry trait, one which they need to rediscover if they are to begin rebalancing the scales with Dublin.

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