Friday 23 March 2018

Truly a contest for the ages

Last Sunday's epic showdown brought out the very best of all those involved in it, says Colm O'Rourke

It was a classic match played at a frantic pace between two teams who wanted to play open, attacking football. Photo: Daire Brennan
It was a classic match played at a frantic pace between two teams who wanted to play open, attacking football. Photo: Daire Brennan
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

After the Battle of Waterloo, the victorious general, Wellington, who had defeated Napoleon, is often paraphrased as declaring that it had been a damned close-run thing. Jim Gavin, the Dublin general, could have said the same about last Sunday's game against Kerry.

Dublin may have won easily on the scoreboard – by seven points in the end – but this was a one – or a two-point match even if it did not matter to Kerry whether they lost by one or 20. Nor would there be any consolation whatsoever to the losers in the fact that it was a classic match played at a frantic pace between two teams who wanted to play open, attacking football.

Comparisons are odious between games, players and eras, but this was as good a game as I have been privileged to watch. Much better, I would suggest, than the game in 1977 which is often described as the classic contest. This match was the real deal, faster than 1977 with more skill and a relentless intensity. Of course Kerry people often think these games are written up more when Dublin win. Yet this one does not have to be dressed up – it had it all and would have been spoken about in the same way if the last two minutes had turned out differently.

Football is a reflection of the character of the players involved. Some games bring out the very best in players while occasionally the pressures of the day show a side which reflects the worst of human frailties. It is therefore a tribute to the outstanding personal qualities of those involved that this match was almost completely free of rancour. It was also well-refereed but the players made it easy in that regard. There were few of the running mauls that poison Gaelic football and make some games almost impossible to referee.

There were a couple of incidents involving the Gooch but it was typical of Kerry that there were no complaints. With them, it is always a case of when it is over, it is over. This is usually the best policy too unless something really out of line happens which is not picked up by officials. Johnny Cooper might have been described as lucky to stay on but he had only eyes for the ball when he caught Colm Cooper with his foot as the Gooch was about to chip up the ball and head on an open road towards goal.

Philly McMahon, who was brought on early for Kevin O'Brien, has often skated on thin ice and did so again here. Catching the Gooch in the way he did could be looked on as awkward or much worse; after picking up a yellow early on, he should have been keeping his nose clean.

It is surprising that the Dublin set-up which looks as professional as any other sporting discipline does not have a director of appearance. Everything about a player gives an impression to the opposition and the referee. Philly McMahon is a really good player and I am surprised that he does not start every day, but when he came on last Sunday he looked like a cage fighter. Referees are generally in their 30s and 40s, and short back and sides men, and when they see something different it sends out a warning bell and often a yellow card with it. Perception is everything. McMahon should forget about the Wilkinson sword for the final. A minor detail perhaps but that's what wins finals.

In the first half of this match Kerry gave an exhibition of how attacking football should be played and for someone like me who loves to see players kicking the ball, it was a joy to behold. The quality of foot-passing at times by Kerry was just mesmerising and reinforces the case for limiting handpassing. Accurate foot-passing combined with handpassing is the way to play football successfully.

When handpassing is allowed to be used in an unlimited way it puts no onus on players to spend the necessary hours perfecting kicking. Using the hand is an easier option and requires no vision, and players need to look further than a man standing beside them to whom they can just shovel or throw the ball.

Nobody can pass like Colm Cooper and his display in that first half ranks with the greatest in the new or old stadium. He knew the Dublin backs were ropey and wanted to play the game at 100 miles an hour, never allowing them to settle. It worked too but the real cost now is to Mayo. Dublin will have a better backline in the final after the reorganisation that took place as the game wore on.

After battling for over an hour the game was decided on one kick-out, one contest for possession and one score. Three Kerry players will rue that break in the middle of the field, a momentary breakdown in communication, and Michael Darragh Macauley throwing himself on to the break and flicking it on to Kevin McManamon. He was like Moses with the Red Sea parting in front of him as he galloped on – whether his shot was for a point or a goal is immaterial now as any score at that point was going to be a dagger blow.

McManamon was the hero again but I was a bit surprised that the Dublin management did not introduce him earlier. His direct running style always causes problems for defences even if they are not tired. On Sunday, the Kerry defence must have been legless at that stage given the sheer pace of the match and the continuous onslaughts. The Kerry backs were a bit like the good guys in old westerns – they beat off the Indians five or six times but the Indians kept coming back and eventually overran them.

Some of those backs may not wear green and gold in Croke Park again and if Tomás ó Sé does not return it will be a huge loss. A brilliant player everyday and he remained so on Sunday until the last quarter. He was carried out on his shield, a phrase associated with Spartan mothers who told their sons going into battle to come home with or on their shields. In other words victory or death. The result may have been wrong for Kerry but there were personal victories for the ó Sé's, Gooch and James O'Donoghue among others. To the victors go the spoils but the best footballer last Sunday was Colm Cooper.

Only one more stop now on the merry-go-round and it's fitting that two teams who will attack flat out from all angles are there. They have been the best two teams since the start of the championship and before and after last week it is easy to admire Dublin. They shipped three goals, which would destroy most teams, but they kept coming.

They had more possession, squandered goal chances and refused to give the ball at times to players in better positions. Yet they have character in every position, not to mention subs like Dean Rock who always pays his way. There will fun picking the team for the final.

But what a game. It was a real privilege being there to see so many great men push themselves to the limit and they were all a credit to their families, clubs and counties.

I don't know or care whether it was the best game ever but it did remind me of what Peter O'Sullevan said when Arkle jumped the last in the 1964 Gold Cup at Cheltenham. Mill House was the English champion and they thought he was unbeatable but as Arkle stretched away effortlessly, O'Sullevan knew he was watching something special. He simply said, "This is the best we have seen for a long time". That will do me for last Sunday.

Sunday Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport