Dublin versus Kerry in the All Ireland semi-final is a classic clash of ages
As youth meets experience in Croke Park, the big question is whether or not Kerry have the legs
Like a lot of ex-players, Enda McGinley hasn’t really done the DVD thing. With two young kids and a wife and a job and a life, the hole in the hourglass gets wider by the day and time pours through it all too easily. And anyway, he was there. He remembers his Tyrone days as they were, not as a TV director decided they would look. So no, he’s never been one to pour himself a glass and flip on this victory or that defeat.
There’s always YouTube though. And given an idle moment from time to time, he’s found himself clicking on a link. Occasionally it’ll be from an All Ireland final against Kerry or one of the classic arm-wrestles with Armagh.
It was inevitable that somewhere along the way, he’d come across his last game in white and red – the 2011 All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Dublin. It was the night Diarmuid Connolly scored seven points from play and Dublin went from flaky maybes to no-joke probables for the All-Ireland. And it was the last time we saw McGinley, Brian Dooher, Philip Jordan, Brian McGuigan and Kevin Hughes play for Tyrone. Father time stays undefeated.
“I remember just feeling that night that they were at a level of sharpness and fitness that we struggled to match,” says McGinley. “I have come across a few clips since then, not just of that game but of us in ’08 and ’05 and ’03. And in those early years we had a pace and an energy to our game that just wasn’t there in 2011.
“Sometimes it’s hard when you’ve been there and done that to recover that sheer hunger and drive that makes the difference between a team operating at 90-95 per cent of its potential and a team going at 100 per cent, which is what All-Ireland winners do. When a team has that, they are dynamic and explosive and they have an energy that just overwhelms the opposition. Dublin had it that night and we hadn’t.”
The parallels between the Tyrone team that night and the Kerry one named to face Dublin are all too easily drawn. Tyrone were eight years removed from their first All-Ireland, this version of Kerry is nine (apart from Tomás Ó Sé, who won his first 13 years ago). Tyrone started six survivors from the ’03 team, Kerry will start five from ’04 plus Darran O’Sullivan who arrived a year later. And for Dooher, McGinley and Stephen O’Neill coming in off the bench for Tyrone, read Aidan O’Mahony and Eoin Brosnan, as well as Kieran Donaghy who likewise came on the scene in 2005.
It’s the framing most popularly put on this semi-final. Kerry (long of tooth) versus Dublin (fresh of face). The subtext being that Kerry are in danger of suffering the same fate as Tyrone did two years ago. The last remnants of a great team swept out to sea by a cresting Dublin wave.
Certainly the stats tell a story. Kerry start five players aged 30 or over tomorrow – Dublin start one, Stephen Cluxton. On the all-time list of Kerry championship appearances, six of the top 20 will start tomorrow – the Ó Sés, the O’Sullivans, Paul Galvin and Colm Cooper.
Indeed, if Brosnan comes off the bench to finish out the game, it will make it five of the top 10. In the Dublin panel, only Cluxton, Bryan Cullen and Alan Brogan have played over 50 championship matches; in the Kerry squad, that number is eight.
What’s up for grabs though is the effect of it all. The temptation is to take the Dublin team that has pinballed its way through Leinster and the quarter-final with Cork and assume that there will just be too much gas in it for Kerry to catch a hold of. Oisín McConville, for one, doesn’t buy it.
“I don’t believe in burn-out, I don’t believe in too many miles on the clock. I don’t believe in any of that. I think you can tell yourself that and use it as an excuse. But generally I think the people who say that are tired in their mind more than in their body. Because really that’s what it comes to. If you’re tired in your mind, if the whole thing becomes too much of a hassle and you are taking too much away from the other things in your life by playing, then yes, you will start to feel tired in your body
“I spoke to Marc Ó Sé last November and he was saying Kerry were training like madmen. And I was saying, ‘No harm Marc, but everybody’s been doing that these past 10, 12 years.’ But he was going, ‘Well this is the most focused we’ve ever been at this point in the season’. And that stayed with me and it was one of the reasons I went for Kerry at the start of the year. Because it means they weren’t going full-tilt from early on all the other years and so maybe there’s still a bit left in the tank.
“Players get written off far too early nowadays. When they get to 31 or 32, people retire them straight away. But the truth is quite simply that most boys of that age or even up to 34, 35 would have absolutely no problem going out onto the field and competing for a full 70 minutes. Any of the Armagh teams I played on up until Joe (Kernan) was finished would still have firmly believed that we were good enough, fit enough, fast enough, strong enough and young enough to win an All-Ireland. That’s what we thought. That’s what the Kerry boys will be thinking.”
Some of them could have walked, of course. Had the man taking over from Jack O’Connor been anyone other than Eamonn Fitzmaurice, it’s a reasonable assumption that some of them would have. But he was variously a team-mate, a roommate, a selector and a friend down the years – and, in Paul Galvin’s case, a brother-in-law – so the gravitational pull of the exit door lessened upon his arrival.
But on top of that, turning your back on the show ain’t easy. Sure, the training weekends are a chore and the winter feels endless and the bleed of real life trickles into every decision you make. But generally retirement is a door where the handle is on the inside only. It takes a lot to decide once and for all to turn it.
“The whole dynamic there is interesting,” says McGinley. “These are the boys you would have gone to for advice all your adult life. In our case, we would have been part of Tyrone minor squads from we were 16. For any man developing his personality and coming into manhood, the years between 16 and 30 are your formative years. We lived those years with one tag above all others – we were county footballers.
“That’s how you’re known in your community, that’s how you’re seen by family and friends and even people who don’t know you. You become very reliant on your own team-mates and this image of a county footballer is almost the most dominant aspect of how you see yourself. And when you get to the stage when you walk away, you’re not simply giving up a game. You’re walking away from an identity you’ve held for your whole adult life. . . .
“You have a lot to offer as an older player, especially if you’re the sort of player who has been around for eight, nine, ten years and has won numerous All-Irelands and All Stars and so on. You’re dealing with personalities and men that are of a certain quality. Looking at them men in Kerry and having played against them, they are special individuals and therefore they always deserve respect. If they’re still involved, they’re going to be fantastically competitive individuals that are not going to just stand aside.”
Far from it. For all the counter-pointing of the two sides’ age profiles, nobody doubts that if Kerry pull through it will be the older players who have the tightest grip on the rope. Crunch the numbers and Kerry bear not just the stripes but the scars of success.
Of the team that starts tomorrow, only Anthony Maher made his debut between 2006 and 2009. Why? Because Kerry were in the process of winning three All-Irelands in four years and the shop floor didn’t have many vacancies. The upshot is a team with plenty of experience and plenty of youth but very little blend in between.
“The worry would be on both sides, to be honest about it,” says Weeshie Fogarty of Radio Kerry. “The backline are very inexperienced. Peter Crowley, Fionn Fitzgerald and Mark Griffin are stepping into new territory here and you can’t be certain about them yet. But the thing about it is, there was plenty of experience there for the manager and selectors to pick if they had wanted to. They obviously didn’t feel that O’Mahony and Brosnan were up to it or they would have put them in the team.
“The Kerry defence has to come up trumps. You have the two Ó Sés and their legs are going and then you have Shane Enright and the three young lads. We all know how pacy Dublin are and we all know that they’ll come at you from all directions. Crowley and Fitzgerald are very quick and whoever they are picking up, they won’t be caught for pace anyway.”
Any way you turn this game, the pace question remains the arrow pointing to the top of the dial. Young players are fast players. Dublin have more young players, ergo Dublin’s speed will do damage. Ain’t necessarily so, not in McConville’s book anyway.
“I get where people are coming from when they talk about Dublin’s pace,” he says. “It is devastating, especially when they get a run on you. But Dublin have played against teams who have made it very easy to do all that running from their defence. No team yet has asked them enough questions defensively. The best way to test the likes of Jack McCaffrey and JamesMcCarthy and these boys is to see what they’re like going the other way.
“Give them enough reason to have to pick and choose their runs. So instead of McCaffrey being able to go up and make 10 runs in each half, you get him going the other way and he only makes two or three in each half. He doesn’t have the same effect on the game, other players don’t come into the game as much because that supply line is cut off and there isn’t that big lift in the stadium every time he goes forward. Dublin have played against young teams who’ve let them play. Kerry are too experienced to do that.”
So which is it to be? Swash or buckle. Whizz or wisdom. Dublin or Kerry – 70 minutes will decide it one way or the other.