So how do you rank the race for Sam after those two semi-finals -- Kerry conjuring something special from Sean O’Shea and Galway winning thanks to the genius of Damien Comer on the day?
It’s too easy to say that the winner of the Dublin-Kerry game are odds on to reign supreme again next Sunday. Way too simplistic. That would be to deny the fact that Pádraic Joyce has brought Galway on in leaps and bounds from the “Fancy Dans” of recent defeats to a genuine outfit able to win from the front or behind, or even when, as happened against Armagh, they appeared to throw the game away in normal time.
Putting aside the euphoria that Kerry beating Dublin always engenders, the reality is that they just about stumbled across the line despite having the benefit of a five-point lead and a missed penalty.
In other words, this is a game that only a fool or a knave would say that Kerry only have to turn up. They will need to have their “A” game with them as well, as their manager Jack O’Connor knows only too well.
Both himself and Joyce have put massive emphasis this past six months on getting mental steel into their squads – and you could say this paid off handsomely for them during their run to the final at various times.
Let’s recap at how both managers saw their teams as they were put through tests of different sorts in the semi-final in Kerry’s case and Armagh in Galway’s quarter-final joust.
Overall, O’Connor’s view on how Kerry got off the ropes to land a knockout blow was summed up thus: “That game [against Dublin] was going against us. We had thrown everything at it up to then and I think the absolute key to it was in the last 10 minutes, when Dublin were pressing our kick-outs Shane Ryan got off all our kick-outs. I think that was hugely significant.
“If they turn over one of those kick-outs I thought we were done. Fellas like Brian Ó Beaglaoích must have shown short for four or five of those kick-outs and more importantly broke out and broke the line and got us moving again. We were still creating a bit down the other end, even though we were a bit wasteful. But what a battle, Dublin are a great team. Probably the greatest team of all time so you can imagine how much it took for us to finally get over the line,” he stressed.
At the end of the day O’Shea, who could so easily have been the villain of the piece due to his first-half penalty miss, became the Kingdom’s hero when he defied the breeze against and the baying locals on Hill 16 to send his exocet over the bar, albeit on a trajectory that saw the ball orbit from four feet outside the right upright to curve well inside the scoring posts. And it didn’t just make it, the shot had legs enough to hit the protection nets behind the Dublin goal, showing his armory can deliver from further out if required in the final.
From my own seat in the old Canal End, now the Davin Stand, I thought he had sent it too far out to come back and I wasn’t the only one. O’Connor felt it was too far out for a player who had given his all for over 70 minutes to had the power to deliver the kick to a glorious ending.
O’Connor agreed but from a different perspective. “Personally, from the line, I didn't think it was kickable to be honest with you, straight up. I didn't think a man could get the distance because Seanie Shea had emptied the tank. That was the 76th minute. He had given a ferocious performance up to then. To have the resilience and the strength and more importantly the technique to kick that with the instep and just glide it in from the right hand-post, into the breeze and into the hill,” the green and gold supremo stated.
He added: “So that has to be one of the best pressure kicks we've seen here, and we’ve seen a lot of kicks, that I’ve seen here in Croke Park in a long, long time.”
“We were mentally preparing for extra-time with two or three minutes to go because you know, we were even discussing on the line who we'd put back in.”
He had a warning for his players and Kerry fans, though, with his final summing up.
“Mayo were in this exact same position last year and I had the feeling that Mayo had made a huge breakthrough but they didn’t get over the line in the final. You have to go the distance. Getting there isn’t enough. That’ll be a big, big incentive for us over the next two weeks to finish the job now. At Christmas, this game will be forgotten about if we don’t get over the line in the final.
The Northern cyclone that had been Derry all season finally blew out tamely when it headed south for this All Ireland semi-final against Galway.
It buffeted early on as if it might blow up a storm but it was Galway’s second-half showing, which was the real hurricane on the day. And at the epicentre of that gale force recovery was Damien Comer, whose 2-2, including two great second-half goals, flattened the Oak Leaf men, who could have no complaints at the end as the better team won on this occasion at Croke Park.
Three years into his tenure, Manager Joyce has now got to the portals of where he always wanted to be – the All Ireland final.
It has taken several false starts and reincarnations but now he has a team that will be well able to put it up, if not beat, Kerry in Sunday's final.
Following the win over Derry, the two-time Sam Maguire winner as a player said: “I’d said from day one since I got the job, it’s about winning an All-Ireland. It’s taken us three years to get here but look it, we're here now so we're definitely going to make the most of it.
“Ye lads know from writing about us, there'd be a soft belly that people see in Galway. And until we actually go and win these big games in Croke Park, that tag is going to follow you around.
“So after winning that game [against Armagh] and the way we won it, being six up, letting them back into it, and the row, normally gone by we might have folded a bit, but we took a lot of solace from that,” he emphasized.
Praising his men for finding a way, he added: “They eked it out, they put the shoulder to the wheel, worked really, really hard. They took the hits, they gave the hits, I think they completely snuffed Derry out. Semi-finals are for winning. It mightn't be pretty at times. We have won it and we have a final to look forward to.”
And that’s just about it from both camps – it is a case of winner takes it all and the loser will go home to bury their heads for a long winter of personal and public recriminations.
There is no hiding place in Kerry, who have not won an All-Ireland in eight years and are in danger of being dubbed “the nearly men” should they fail again on Sunday.
O’Connor came back at a time when he thought he had made his contributions to the Kingdom with three senior titles in ’04,’06 and ’09 during two different spells.
But when the job fell vacant last autumn again and despite being in situ as Kildare boss, he decided to go back to his roots. The omens are good for in all three years he won All Irelands, he also won league titles. This year already he has the league under his belt again and will hope to complete a rare case of four doubles during his reign on three different management stints.
In contrast, Pádraic Joyce was a leading player when Galway won their last two All-Irelands in ’98 and ’01. He came into the job as successor to his former teammate Kevin Walsh with his eyes wide open as to what was needed – and what was expected. Most of all he declared at the outset that he was only interested in the job to win All Irelands with Galway.
That put the case bluntly in front of everyone – including himself. Now on Sunday he too knows that only winning will suffice – victory spawns a thousand fathers and defeat is an orphan.
I think Galway will put up a mighty fight and are an improving outfit but Kerry’s want is greater than for a long time and the Cliffords, Sean O Shea and Dave Moran will have enough nous to see them home in a titanic struggle.
GALWAY’S KEY TRIO VS. KERRY
DAMIEN COMER – He showed that when used as a target man, he has the beating of his opponent and knows where the net is. His 2-2 was vital on a day when Galway’s other forwards failed to function from play. Kerry will have worked out that there is no point in Jason Foley going head-to-head with Comer and will have a man plonked in front to prevent that direct ball inside.
SHANE WALSH – True, he wasn’t at the races from play but where would Galway have been without his accuracy from placed balls – yes, he even bamboozled Hawkeye into thinking his 45 before half-time was wide when it was obvious it was well inside the right upright. Walsh though is much more than his semi-final showing and Pádraic Joyce will expect and need a much bigger contribution for him if the men from the west are to cause a shock and win this game.
PAUL CONROY – He has been rejuvenated right through the championship, not just as a midfielder but as a scoring outlet as well. Kerry’s midfield is not tearing up trees these past few years and if Conroy can hit the right button, then his dominance of that sector could be a major plus for the Connacht champions.
KERRY’s KEY TRIO V GALWAY
DAVID CLIFFORD – There is little introduction needed for this modern-day gift to Gaelic football but he still isn’t as dominant as he should be in causing havoc inside in front of goal. Like Kerry with Comer, Joyce will need to provide a screen to ensure there is no easy long outlet towards the square because invariably he will win that ball. Should he have an off-day Kerry will be in trouble but my guess is that he will enjoy the big occasion and will be eager to get his first senior Celtic Cross with a man of the match performance.
SEAN O SHEA – The hero of the semi-final with that last-gasp stunning kick from outer space, O’Shea also has a voracious appetite for work and can score, like David Clifford, off either foot. He combines well with the older Clifford Paudie, and if that pair are held, it will go a long way towards Galway winning the title. My view is the maroons’ defence is still only bedding in for activity at this level and will be exposed on this occasion.
SHANE RYAN – The restarts are the most important part of Gaelic football and Ryan appears to be the best since Stephen Cluxton at ensuring his kick outs go to a teammate rather than an opponent. His coolness under pressure was a sight to behold against Dublin, particularly when Dessie Farrell ordered his boys to press ever restart in the last 15 minutes. If the Kerry custodian manages to replicate that form in the All Ireland, it will help Jack O’Connor’s crew claim the lion’s share of primary possession. From there that should build a platform to victory.
O’Connor’s big-day experience is crucial
The two supremos have come from very different backgrounds to lead their teams out for Sunday’s All Ireland football final, with Pádraic Joyce emerging as a player and Jack O’Connor gaining similar respect in the game, albeit from a managing position over two decades.
On the face of it, that should give the Kerry supremo a big advantage with his experience of running the line on the big occasion. However, Joyce has shown a great capacity to see what is needed to improve Galway both on the day and in planning the strategy for the season.
Bringing in Cian O’Neill, the former Kildare manager and former Kerry coach, has added to the depth at decision making time and it is noticeable that Galway have made the right decisions at the right time when under the most extreme pressure right through the season.
The Galway management didn’t panic against Armagh where they had to win the game three times before getting off the pitch as victors. Instead, they looked at their own shortcomings on the day, tinkered with fixing it and sent their charges back out to battle when it looked like the momentum had shifted with the late scores from the Orchard county.
O’Connor too has examined the squad he inherited from Peter Keane, particularly in defence and injected key players with pace to the exclusion of the likes of Paul Murphy, who he brought on against Dublin and whose pass set up the winning free.
He has also kept the two Spillanes in the wings and has kept Stephen O’Brien in ahead of Dara Moynihan simply because he wants quick legs for that wide expanse that Croke Park is on semi-final and final days.
However, it is the placing of Jason Foley at full-back flanked by the two lightning-quick O’Sullivans that has shown the greatest improvement under Jack’s reign. If they maintain that form against the likes of Comer and Walsh, that will go a long way toward helping their colleagues get over the line.
I give a hesitant enough vote for Kerry to push one ahead. But don’t rule out a draw and we may be back here again as unlike all the other rounds, should the teams be level at full time and after 20 minutes of extra-time, the GAA has decided there should be a replay.