Saturday 18 November 2017

The five big plot threads ahead of tonight's vital Kerry-Dublin game in Tralee

Dublin's Kevin McManamon powers past Aidan O'Mahony of Kerry
Dublin's Kevin McManamon powers past Aidan O'Mahony of Kerry

Conor Neville

Kerry and Dublin's meeting in the league in Tralee has produced more angles than a compass. Here are the five big plot threads ahead of tonight's game.

Remembering Dublin's last loss (of significance)

Excluding their losses to Longford and a Jack McCaffrey-led UCD in the past two O'Byrne Cups, Dublin haven't lost a match since their 0-15 to 1-10 defeat to Kerry in Killarney all of two years and seventeen days ago.

The Dubs were fuming that day, with the normally tactful Jim Gavin - to be fair he usually has little cause to complain - hinting at his displeasure with referee Eddie Kinsella after the game.

"You saw the reaction of our travelling support at the end and I think that probably spoke volumes," Gavin told reporters afterwards. It's as about condemnatory as Gavin gets. Dublin ended the game with a tally of five yellow cards, two black cards, and a straight red, Michael Fitzsimons receiving the latter for his starring role in a melee near the end of the game.

In the entire Jim Gavin era, the Dubs have never looked so fallible than they did at the beginning of 2015. Donegal had ambushed them in the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final, a game whose historical fame and notoriety increases with every passing Dublin victory. Then they preceded to lose two of their first three National League games. Cork accounted for opening day defeat in the NFL and suddenly the Dubs had lost three from four across league and championship. 

All those rural fears of permanent Dublin hegemony in the All-Ireland final series abated somewhat. Since that day, the Dubs have gone 33 matches without defeat and those fears are back and more pronounced than ever.

Those final ten minutes...

Since 2011, the Dublin and Kerry have met in five massively important fixtures in Croke Park. Were Gaelic football still a 60-minute affair, Kerry would have won two of those games and they would have been considerably closer to winning in two more of them. 

They led on the 60th minute in both the 2011 All-Ireland final and the 2016 All-Ireland semi-final. Furthermore, they re-took the lead in the final ten minutes of the 2013 semi-final only to succumb to a couple of late sucker punch goals.

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The 2015 All-Ireland final - by far the dreariest of the four championship encounters - finished 0-12 to 0-9, with the Dubs only increasing their lead by a point in the final ten. The 2016 League final, the only proper blowout the fixture has seen in modern times, was still a live proposition with ten minutes remaining only for the Dubs to shoot 2-3 in the final few minutes.

All told, when you add up the tally amassed in the final ten minutes of those five games, you get a scoreline of 'Dublin 5-17  Kerry 0-8.'

A Kerry record in jeopardy

Tonight's game has greater historical significance that your typical bog-standard NFL game. Should the Dubs avoid defeat tonight, it'll be their 34th successive unbeaten game (in league and championship). Enough to earn the sobriquet 'The Invincibles'?

The Kerry golden era side which scooped four-in-a-row between 1978 and 1981 never amassed this kind of streak as their league form was always more patchy.

But the only other football team to claim the four-in-a-row, the Kerry side of 1929-32, went a full 34 games unbeaten during their pomp. They collected National League titles in 1928-29, 1930-31, and 1931-32. The League was not held in 1929-30. Boasting legendary names like Con Brosnan, Joe Barrett, and the Landers brothers, Tim and John Joe, they established themselves as one of the greatest teams of the pre-television era.

And so the Dubs have a glorious chance to equal one of Kerry's most cherished record's tonight. And after that, only a winless Roscommon will prevent them from setting a new record all of their own.

Dubs young guns are flying

Gaelic football in Leinster has become one big long, unending culchie trampling festival and the month of January heaped yet more indignity on Dublin's provincial rivals.

With the All-Ireland winning squad and their manager out in Jamaica, Paul Clarke led the third-stringers to victory in the O'Byrne Cup.

Most of that crew have been relieved of their duties for the National League as the A-listers arrived back in town. But a couple of pretenders from the O'Byrne Cup side have survived the cull and are thriving in the League.

Conor McHugh, Dublin, in action against Darren Mcguire, Kildare

Conor McHugh and Niall Scully, two stars of the 2014 U21 All-Ireland winning crop, featured in the demolition of Mayo. The former, in particular, shone against the All-Ireland finalists, hitting 1-3 from play.

Aside from Mayo's abject performance, McHugh's display was one of the biggest talking points of the evening.

It is often asserted by former Dublin players that we are merely living through a rare golden era and not anything more seismic than that. Once this generation of players begin to slow down and break up, the Dubs will begin to look fallible again.

But the evidence of the early months of 2017 would appear to confound this somewhat.

Has the gap increased?

Mayo's limp display a fortnight ago was greeted with dismay by neutrals eager to see the gap was narrowing.

It's often forgotten in all the chatter about Dublin's invincibility that their All-Ireland victories have tended to be squeakers.

Three of their four All-Ireland wins in this era have been by a solitary point, one of them arriving after a replay. Indeed, if you go back to 1995 when Pat O'Neill's side staggered over the finish line against Tyrone, then that's four of the last five Dublin All-Ireland victories which have been one-point games.

2015 was perhaps the only final when they were comprehensively superior to their opponents, and even that day Kerry were a goal away from forcing the replay.

But every now and again, and usually in the league, Dublin tear through one of their main rivals and spark off fears of a summer procession. Neutrals will hope that the Dublin-Mayo game was more to do with the losers' ineptness than Dublin's greatness.

If Kerry take a similar pasting, expect another round of despairing articles declaring the 2017 championship a foregone conclusion.

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