Monday 16 September 2019

Tommy Conlon: 'The hand of history may yet intervene as Dublin reach for elusive five'

The Couch

'The five has never been done, so why should it be done today?' (stock photo)
'The five has never been done, so why should it be done today?' (stock photo)

Tommy Conlon

Told this story before but, for the day that's in it, maybe it's worth telling again. I was in the Nally Stand in '82 and therefore would have had a good view of Seamus Darby's goal. I remember nothing about it from real time, nothing about the game, the scenes afterwards in the Hogan Stand, the reaction of the flabbergasted crowd. Everything I remember about the goal and the game is from repeated replays on television over the 37 years since.

The one real-time memory that remains emblazoned on my mind is that of the Kerryman sitting in front of me. We were talking over and back, commenting on this incident and that, as strangers often do at games.

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He was a country man, maybe 60, dapper in his jacket and tie and Sunday topcoat. He wore a cap. He was utterly caught up in the ebb and flow of the match. He was tense throughout, not one bit blasé about the outcome. He was catching and kicking every ball.

With five minutes left he finally relaxes a little. Páidí Ó Sé has just tacked on Kerry's 17th point. They lead by four. The man turns around to me and says "We have it, we have it." He is not crowing about it. The tone is just of pure relief, like he can finally exhale again. "And what if Offaly score a goal?" I reply, taking the mick. I assumed he would see I was joking. Because I thought they had it won too. The remaining few minutes were now a formality. Kerry were on the cusp of 'the five'. And even if Offaly by some miracle did score a goal, Kerry would still be leading by one. Nah, obviously I wasn't being serious. But the man took it seriously. He was perhaps a bit innocent in some way. His face darkened as soon as I said it. "Jesus," he replied, "I'll cry if they do. I'll die if they do." He turned back to the game. I smiled at his unguarded naivety.

It must have been 20 minutes to half an hour after the final whistle that I stood up to leave; swathes of seats were already empty. But there was the poor man, crumpled up, sat frozen, his chin on his chest and his cap wrung between his two hands like a dishcloth. The image is seared in my memory. I left him to his desolation and joined the teeming hordes in the teeming rain.

Some years later, Con Houlihan wrote a tribute to the prince of Offaly football, Matt Connor, who at that time was facing into life in a wheelchair after the road accident on Christmas day 1984 that left him paralysed from the waist down. I don't have the direct quote to hand but the great sporting chronicler of the age recalled leaving the stadium as a shattered Kerryman on that landmark afternoon in September '82. It went something like: "And as I stumbled stunned out of Croke Park, I could not but concede that Matt Connor, and Offaly, deserved the golden apple."

It is the memory of that drama which gives one pause for thought before crowning Dublin prematurely with 'the five' today. Because it was inconceivable that Kerry wouldn't do it then, just as it is inconceivable that Dublin won't do it today. If anything, it was more inconceivable back then because Offaly neither had the prestige as a football power that Kerry will always have, nor the star quality in their side that Kerry also will have today. So, to be exact about it, Dublin losing today is probably not quite as unthinkable as it was for Kerry back then.

But it's close enough. And it presents Kerry with the same freedom to spring the mother and father of all ambushes today, as it presented Offaly in '82.

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Perhaps we are clinging to history a little too much here, given the reality right now of the team that will be gunning for five-in-a-row today. Dublin by any measure are too strong on the field, and too well-managed off it, to be unnerved by the prospect of the prize that awaits them this afternoon. The champs will stick with conviction to their fabled process. It is the mechanics of the performance that will get them over the line.

And yet and yet, what they are seeking today is inseparable from history. It is a mere game but it is also a gateway to an historic achievement. And if there is no practical relevance from '82 to be applied today, there is the wider historical truth that also puts a brake on presumptions about the outcome. The five has never been done in hurling or Gaelic football and the handful of teams who have managed four were subsequently derailed in varying circumstances more or less unique to themselves.

So, it is tempting to speculate that the one opposing force common to each of these teams was the hand of history itself. That some sort of numinous law was at work here and which, in the case of '82, materialised in the improbable form of a chubby corner forward from Rhode. Anyway, whichever form it takes, the hand of history moves in mysterious ways and, even if it sounds like a load of superstitious gibberish, should not be discounted as a governing energy today. Particularly by the Dubs. To repeat: the five has never been done, so why should it be done today?

Because Dublin are great enough to do it. And because the time has simply come for it to be done? Maybe it has. But 37 years ago, that poor divil from Kerry thought the time had come too.


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