Monday 18 December 2017

Tommy Conlon: Electrifying drama concludes with bolt from the blue

The Couch

Tommy Conlon

It was a match in which the referee didn't so much throw the ball in, as pull the cork out of the bottle.

A well-shook bottle at that, because as soon as the oxygen hit it, up sprung the play in an irresistible vertical surge, gushing forth like a newly-liberated geyser. After 74 minutes of action it was still spewing jets of froth and bubbles from a seemingly bottomless source.

This was the game that kept on giving. Rarely has there been a match of such abundance, so generous with positive energy, so jam-packed with the raw material of championship football.

By the end of the first quarter alone it had already jackknifed twice on its axis. Colm Cooper's influence was so profound in this period he was orchestrating not just the Kerry attack but the match itself.

His two defence-splitting passes in the seventh and 12th got the precision finishes they deserved; Kerry had struck 2-1 without reply and led by five. Then suddenly Dublin had the ball in the net at the other end. Diarmuid Connolly's underhit point attempt was transformed into a goal by Paul Mannion's improvised mid-air connection, a sort of backhand karate chop that flew past Brendan Kealy. It was the start of a 1-3 burst without reply. The game was 16 and a half minutes old.

Less than four minutes later, Kerry had another goal, the penalty tucked away surgically by an electric James O'Donoghue. Dublin themselves had already ripped through for two goal chances inside the first ten minutes.

It was a sensory overload: the goals, the helter-skelter action, the high-end class, the speed of the play and the quick-fire scoring, all unfolding in a bowl of deafening noise. The players on both teams were swept along also, as if on white water rapids, unable to control the energies they themselves had unleashed. Neither side took a breather. The re-starts, even from kick-outs, were hurried along too.

It wasn't until the 27th minute that the first wave of fatigue set in and, with it, some sustained deterioration in the standard. Bad wides were kicked and wrong options taken as the teams finally came off the boil. Kerry led by two at the break.

The prognosis at this stage was that the Munster champions would slide unavoidably into a second-half fade-out. Every great team has a built-in obsolescence and this Kerry team would be no different. The clock had been ticking on them throughout 2013. And now, as Sinatra sang, the end was near.

The second-half stats would ultimately confirm the interval verdict: Dublin outscored them 2-9 to 0-6 in that period. But the thing is, Kerry did a brilliant job of disguising their weakened state. They hung tough, they found a way, they took it to the wire.

They kicked three of the first four points in a second half which, remarkably, managed to emulate the end-to-end drama of the first. Both sides again poured it on, and kept pouring it on, in what was now a monumental struggle.

Kerry led by four after 43 minutes. They would score just 0-3 in the remaining half-hour. And they were on the ropes for the next seven minutes as Dublin pummelled them for five points without reply. At times during the third quarter their defenders, physically lighter, struggled to get the ball upfield against the intensity of Dublin's tackling.

But they weathered that particular storm. And in the space of a minute around the hour mark they counterpunched with two quick points to leave them one up going down the home straight. Cooper was again centrally involved, finding a chink of space between two tacklers with a sidestep that didn't seem biomechanically possible. O'Donoghue took his pop pass and slotted; then Darran O'Sullivan did the same.

Afterwards the result was analysed as if it had been a fait accompli, the inevitable triumph of rampant youth over the erosions of age. But no one was saying it with three minutes to play and Kerry leading by one. They were still smarter. And veterans like Tomás ó Sé and Declan O'Sullivan, who'd earlier looked out on their feet, were producing spurts, spasms of play, as if from memory.

Connolly nailed a clutch free in the 68th to tie it up. A minute later, Declan O'Sullivan had the chance to tilt the outcome back towards Kerry once more. Dublin's Cian O'Sullivan managed to throw himself at the shot. He didn't get hands to it but it was pressure of sorts. Declan O'Sullivan didn't quite have the time or space he needed to relax into his kicking action and make the smooth contact that is his hallmark. The ball just tailed wide of the near upright.

From the kick-out came the score that finally broke it all apart. Kerry will be haunted by the miscommunication under the high ball in midfield. After everything that had gone before, it came down to this moment.

A ball that should have been theirs was suddenly up for grabs. Michael Darragh Macauley, outnumbered three to one, had the instincts and the reflexes to paw the ball onwards to a free Dublin player.

Who turned out to be Kevin McManamon, a loyal soldier if ever there was one. In a game of never-ending drama, his shot was the ultimate bolt from the blue. With it, an era ended; and another, who knows, may have begun.

Sunday Independent

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