Thursday 22 February 2018

Tommy Conlon: Dublin seem content in the knowledge that they will ride out the Kingdom’s storm


Kerry manager Eamon Fitzmaurice. Photo: Philip Fitzpatrick
Kerry manager Eamon Fitzmaurice. Photo: Philip Fitzpatrick

Tommy Conlon

They know a thing or two on the south-west coast about the ocean and its swells and calms, the ebbing and flowing of its tides. Kerry are coming to Croke Park with a major barrel wave behind them today. It has been building far out in the Atlantic for several months now, maybe as far back as last September when they left the same stadium hurt and stunned.

Gravity will bring the wave crashing down today. There will be sound and fury; there will be debris and wreckage; the Kingdom will summon an almighty flood of emotion and energy and zeal.

And Dublin? The All-Ireland champions know well what's coming. Doubtless they are tense and concerned, but on the outside they are giving off a quiet, controlled vibe. They are not living in a beach-front shack. They have built a concrete fortress over the last five years. The structural foundations are strong. They seem content in the knowledge that they will ride out the storm.

Mind you, pretty much everyone expected a hurricane in that All-Ireland final last September, when all we got was a damp squall. Which didn't matter to the winners - but it mattered grievously to the losers.

Kerry left that game with a load of regrets for baggage. They didn't perform, they didn't throw the gauntlet down to a Dublin side that has shown a distinct superiority complex over them in recent years. Naturally enough, it galled them.

Read More: Kerry need to make this a stink game if they want to come out smelling of roses

When the fog lifted and a new season began, they knew they were on a collision course with the team that has become their nemesis. The collision would come in late August. It is coming today. And it is why Kerry are arriving with a lot of stuff to get off their chests.

The prize is exactly the same for both sides and yet it is the challengers who seem much more invested in this match. They appear to have willingly backed themselves into a corner; it has become a do-or-die confrontation; it is freighted with notions of legacy and cultural pride.

Former and current players have spoken with unusual candour about the importance of this single game. "Everything that Kerry football stands for is at stake here," wrote Eoin Liston in his column last week. "Dublin have their heel on our throat and we will fight tooth 'n' nail to make sure they don't press down on it."

Darragh Ó Sé sounded a similarly epochal note. "I see a (Kerry) team that has been playing second fiddle to Dublin for five years. That can't be allowed to continue. If you think tradition doesn't count, you haven't been to Kerry. Dublin are better than us at the minute and it hurts."

These expressions of insecurity are seldom aired in public before a big match, just as statements of excessive confidence aren't either. The Dubs, meanwhile, have been keeping their counsel. They've been watching and listening and keeping their heads down. They are maintaining the silence of champions; they are maintaining the silence of a team that knows it has a big stick when it's needed.

It'll be needed today. But just in case they were thinking of downsizing it, they were also gifted a few words from the Kerry captain to help them sharpen the instrument. When the history of this particular phase of the great rivalry is written, it is likely that the 2011 final will be seen as the seminal match, not today's. In hindsight, it was the day the Dubs took over.

Read More: Hoodoo talk plays into Gavin's hands

They presumably won't have appreciated Bryan Sheehan's comment last week that he felt Kerry were the better team that day. "I'll go on record," he said. "They stole that one off us. We let it slip through our hands."

That one has gone straight into the Dublin mixer, no doubt about it.

And so will his suggestion that Kerry will simply want it more today. "I don't see how they can be hungrier than we are. I think, for us, that's the key: that we should be more hungry than Dublin. I'm sure Dublin are going to be hungry; but I don't see how they should be hungrier than us."

More grist to the mill for Jim Gavin: "Hungrier." Says who? Sheehan's saying it, they're saying it, I'm not saying it. Go out and show them hunger. Make them eat hunger. Etc etc.

But of course the record shows that Sheehan has history on his side here - modern history at any rate. Kerry have been the only team to win All-Irelands back to back since 1990. It shows that the champions have softened the following year, allowing some viral complacency into the system, usually without detecting the symptoms.

Read More: Kerry can draw hope from 1978 ahead of mammoth battle with Dublin at Croke Park

Kerry are banking on it from their opponents today. They are banking on exploiting it with a guts-out, all-or-nothing delirium in their senses. But for all the fire, they will obviously need ice too. They can't afford red cards or black cards to key players.

They will also have to implement a detailed strategy. And they will have to deploy all their craft and class along with the graft and courage.

And it still may not be enough. The likelihood is that it won't be enough. Kerry's players will be carried off on their shields today. Dublin's however will probably be the ones left standing when the storm is over and the wave recedes.

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