Sunday 15 September 2019

Vincent Hogan: 'We saw something unfamiliar in Dublin, a blurring of the line between calm and inaction'

Champions will regret failure to switch defender off Clifford and avoid playing with 14 men

Jonny Cooper of Dublin fouling Kerry’s David Clifford during yesterday’s drawn final. Photo: Sportsfile
Jonny Cooper of Dublin fouling Kerry’s David Clifford during yesterday’s drawn final. Photo: Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

We should have known you don't get to dance with the gods in humdrum ways.

True, history has no obligation to be an aesthetic experience, but it's seldom administered coldly either. So Dublin blinked. More tumultuously, Jim Gavin blinked. The indecision that left Jonny Cooper wrestling with David Clifford long after the reprimand of an 18th-minute yellow surely bordered on self-sabotage here.

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Yes, the champions survived Cooper's eventual dismissal on the stroke of half-time, but it was their proletarian pulse that saved them. It was a constitution still bound up in sacrifice and trust rather than composure on the line.

Maybe the five-in-a-row will still be their destiny in the end, but we saw something unfamiliar in the great champions. We saw a blurring of the line between calm and inaction; between patience and stasis.

Cooper may be Dublin's go-to man-marker, but he was in trouble from the second minute yesterday when turned over by Adrian Spillane for Kerry's opening point of the day, scored by Seán O'Shea.

An unfamiliarly wayward Clifford actually got three shots away before raising his first flag in the tenth minute. Two minutes later, Cooper fouled him for Kerry's penalty. And Clifford wasn't having to run any especially lyrical lines to land the Na Fianna man in crisis.

When that first booking finally came, he high-fived O'Shea and Stephen O'Brien, the force of his authority so vivid it was hard to fathom what game the Dublin management were watching. Desperate men commit careless sins and Cooper was plainly on a knife-edge now.

Sure enough, on the stroke of half-time - another bluntly unscientific missile dropping towards the Dublin 'square' - he grabbed the young Kerryman's right arm and David Gough's decision didn't have to be dramatic.

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With John Small on a booking too for a lassooing tackle on Stephen O'Brien, Dublin's half-time lead of four, thus, suddenly looked brittle.

James McCarthy, after all, had stopped a sixth-minute Paul Geaney shot on the Canal End goal-line and Cluxton, advancing a small prairie off the whitewash, parried the Dingle man's penalty out for a '45.

Still, there's a conceit in great teams that, undeniably, becomes a strength too. They react to setbacks as if mortally offended. A calling-card of Gavin's Dublin has been that capacity to pocket energy into murderous little shell-bursts; that gift for digging themselves out of bad places with cold, organic certainty.

And maybe that's what the manager presumed upon here. Another coolly administered death.

Leverage

But Kerry football people are so blandly sure of themselves, they take leverage from the smallest things. And nothing put more wind in their sails than the sight of a 20-year-old wizard from Fossa taking Jonny Cooper to a dark room.

Gavin is plainly a man of intelligence and maybe even profundity given what he has achieved with Dublin. But we have no way of reading the agility of his mind in crisis.

His copyright is to look back with a gentle, mellow gaze on even the most epochal collisions and he wasn't of a mind to change here.

To his credit, he sidestepped any attraction in questioning Gough's decision not to present Tom O'Sullivan with a second card after a 52nd-minute foul on John Small that should probably have put Kerry down a man too.

And truth to tell, with 14 minutes of normal time remaining, Jack McCaffrey's sniping runs from deep still had Dublin five to the good and - seemingly - in relative harmony with their circumstance.

But then the ball turned to wet soap in Davy Byrne's hands and Tommy Walsh put Killian Spillane in for a beautifully taken Hill End goal that just blew the afternoon apart.

Walsh and O'Shea soon added Kerry points and, with eight minutes to go, the teams were level.

What followed had the epic grace of watching a great, wounded fighter enlist all the seismic instincts that make them different.

"Listen the guys are mentally very strong," Gavin said of his players after.

"There's great mental reserve there. We have a resilient football team and, you know, a point down with 72 minutes on the clock, the perception might have been that the game was going away from them. But they tackled and kept their discipline and turned Kerry over to create more opportunities for themselves.

"Just disappointed with our performance, that's the over-riding thought. But the resilience the Dublin players showed to be on the ropes as such and to still keep moving and keep trying to create scoring chances and keep turning the ball over, that's obviously the impressive piece.

"Overall through the expanse of the game, just not good enough from the standards the players set for themselves, not what I set for them. I know when they reflect, they'll have a lot to say."

Gavin's tone, as ever, was resolutely contemplative.

His view of Cooper's sending-off came packaged in the language of politesse, in "some days you get those calls" and "both players grappling" and not getting "the rub of the green".

But then a Kerry voice went to the nub of it all, wondering if there was any disappointment in not having switched Cooper off Clifford?

And the practiced sterility of Gavin's language, that military dryness, gave way to a stone-faced "No!"

His players were heroic in the end, even galloping into injury-time the stronger team.

And Gavin was adamant that nothing Kerry threw at them fell into the category of a surprise. How could he play it any other way?

If Dublin's aura wavered a little here - and it did - the manager needed to hold his ground, reminding us of the calibre of men that got them to the edge of immortality. So no surprises?

"No not at all," he stressed.

"I mean they (Kerry) have been so impressive for us in the National League. We met them in Tralee and got a really good look at them up close. Obviously the National League final didn't go their way.

Questions

"There were a lot of questions asked of them against Donegal, down a couple of players, they answered them. Four points down against Tyrone and no more so than ourselves today, they came back fighting.

"That side is full of quality. And like ourselves, age doesn't mean anything. If you're good enough, you're old enough."

True, but that's a song maybe resonating more sweetly today for a Kerry team so callow and inexperienced, yet now lifted by the knowledge that it went toe-to-toe with the city boys.

History's roar has spooked great teams before and, though we've no reason to doubt Dublin's resilience, the spell they cast has - you sense - diminished a fraction.

In a straight 15-on-15 contest, they would probably be immortals now, but their inaction on Cooper was, above all, a repudiation of one core principle they've always tended to hold dear.

Which is that a game, for all its incoherence, anger and fury, is usually settled by the clearest mind.

And, for once, that wasn't Gavin's.

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