Monaghan and Derry had nearly all the support of unconnected football followers in their recent semi-final clashes with Dublin and Kerry.
Outsiders knocking at the door will always have neutrals cheering for them. The Monaghan men acquitted themselves well but they had no answer to the late blitzkrieg of scores by Fenton, McCaffrey, Mannion and Rock.
In the other semi-final the Kerry road to victory was very different with a much closer result after an enthralling game revealing high-level footballing skills by both sides. The Derry forwards were buzzing in the first half and kicking wonderful points from distance, leaving them ahead by three points at the break.
The second-half introduction of Stephen O’Brien was a pivotal move by Jack O’Connor, the Kerry manager. He accounted for two vital turnovers as well as kicking a fine point and winning a dubious free which led to another.
Still, Derry was ahead by two points with just a few minutes of normal time remaining and only for a brilliant save in the 52nd minute by Shane Ryan, the Kerry goalkeeper, a Kingdom comeback would have been akin to scaling Mount Everest on a stormy night. Instead, Kerry showed style and panache to get to the finish line with two points to spare.
While lovers of the game wanted the underdogs from Ulster to prevail, they are watering at the mouth for the clash of the titans in Croke Park. This final promises to be one for the ages with both teams at full strength and gearing for this climactic clash from the beginning of the season.
We have been saturated with negative football for the last decade. Too often, the ball is passed laterally mostly along the half-back line by players who are wedded to possession football – keep it away from opponents, starve them of handling the ball and you increase your chance of winning.
The only problem with this negative strategy is that spectators find it mind-bogglingly boring. High fielding and long kicking, the most-admired features of the traditional game, are not favored by coaches who, understandably, want a good result rather than a display of aesthetic athleticism.
Dublin and Kerry are much more committed to moving the ball forward by judicious kicking, giving their inside forwards an opportunity to show their skills close to goal. Dublin enjoys a surfeit of great forwards. Against Monaghan, Dessie Farrell, the impressive Dublin manager, did not start Dean Rock, Jack McCaffrey or Ciaran Kilkenny, three players that would feature for any selection of the best footballers of our generation but are now super subs who were eventually introduced and contributed an impressive goal and two points of the seven point victory.
Farrell clearly places a premium on experienced players. He rates highly the lessons learned by men who have been through the immense physical and emotional turmoil of big days in Croke Park.
In a post-game interview, he revealed his priorities and his managerial philosophy. Referring to the crucial importance of experience on a big day before a bulging attendance in Croke Park, he said, “You can’t coach it. You can’t give it to young fellas. They are brilliant and they want to be involved, but there are certain things that only come with life experience like how to close out big games.”
True to the manager’s perspective and values, three of the Dublin players assured of starting places on the team - Stephen Cluxton, Mick Fitzsimons and James McCarthy – will be playing for a record ninth All-Ireland medal. That is a heap of experience before mentioning the names of the super-subs and long-established players like Con O’Callaghan, Brian Fenton or Cormac Costello.
While Kerry won the Sam Maguire cup last year, their opponents will have more experience of big championship days in Croke Park – a factor that will surely figure prominently in the psychological talking points by the Kerry management.
Former successes on big occasions against the opposing team also register with players. If a team has a history of previously defeating opponents, it cultivates an important dimension of self-belief and confidence. Here Dublin has a clear advantage. Kerry have failed to beat them in an All-Ireland Final for 38 years, losing four showdowns to the Dubs during that time.
Kerry and Dublin met first in an All-Ireland Final in 1892 and next when Kerry won their first title in 1903. They played again a hundred years ago in 1923 and 1924 just after Irish Independence was achieved followed, unfortunately, by the awful civil war.
An interesting aside to the 1924 victory. There is a plaque displayed in the Kerry Building in Yonkers honoring the captain of that team, Phil Sullivan, because a cousin of his from the village of Baltimore in West Cork requested it after providing a major donation for the development project.
The modern intense rivalry between the two counties can be traced back to the 1955 All-Ireland when the Dubs adopted a policy of selecting only players born in their county. They had a fine team that year led by the legendary Ollie Freaney, playing on the 40, and Kevin Heffernan at full-forward.
This was presented by the sportswriters and cultural commentators as a showdown between the super-fit city boys and their opponents from the bogland who had to to worry about milking cows and chasing ewes every day. During Dublin’s semi-final replay victory over Mayo – who else! – Ollie Freaney reportedly taunted his opponent by whispering in his ear that the pong of cow dung was disgusting him.
Stories like that one - probably apocryphal because what is now called sledging was unknown in those years – heightened the lore about the divide between the smart and modern boys from the capital and the supposedly backward men from the mountains. The tension and build-up to that September final sixty-eight years ago has never been matched since.
On the day before the showdown, the Kerry team travelled by train to the capital and were staying in Barry’s Hotel under the tutelage of Dr. Eamon N. M. O’Sullivan who worked in the Killarney Mental Hospital and had an international reputation for promoting occupational therapy for patients. After a steak dinner and the recitation of the rosary, Dr. Eamon ordered an early bedtime in preparation for the momentous confrontation the following day.
This ran counter to the established ritual of some of the players who liked to enjoy a few pints the night before big games. Center half-back, John Cronin and his colleague at full-back, Ned Roche, were joined by corner back, Micksie Palmer and star forward Tadghie Lyne in exiting the hotel through a window and engaging a taxi man to find them a snug where they could have a drink incognito.
No chance of hiding in Dublin so he transported them to a bar in the Curragh area of Kildare. The owner was apprised of his important guests and he found them a private room to enjoy their libations. Sometime well after midnight the taxi driver returned and, reputedly, the Kerry men re-entered their bedrooms before two o’clock.
The Kildare innkeeper had little interest in the big match, but with his knowledge of the drink consumed by the Kerry stalwarts he laid a big bet on Dublin and notified his friends of his clandestine knowledge of Kerry weakness.
Great writers tell us that the gods thrive on ironic twists in heroic stories and surely this one qualifies. John Cronin held Ollie Freaney scoreless and Roche did the same marking Heffernan. Tadghie Lyne scored five of the twelve points that won the game for Kerry, and Micksie joined the other corner back, Jerome O’Shea, a teetotaler, as joint Sport Stars of the Week, a prestigious award appearing in the Irish Independent newspaper every Friday.
David Clifford is the cynosure of all eyes this week. He is being written about as the greatest footballer ever – a preposterous assertion about any young player in his mid-twenties. However, he is a highly-accomplished footballer with burgeoning leadership ability. He is shadowed by opponents in every match, but he has yet to be outplayed.
David, who is also the Kerry captain, will likely face Dublin’s most-experienced defender Jim Fitzsimons. A Kerry victory depends on a big display by their captain.
Will he or the indomitable James McCarthy, playing for his ninth winner’s medal, be accepting the Sam Maguire Cup around 5.00 p.m. on Sunday?
Gerry O'Shea blogs at wemustbetalking.com