Down at the Dublin team bus, there was nothing left to be said. One by one, the Dublin players shunted their bags into the belly and hopped up the stairs to their seats. Con O’Callaghan limped out of the dressing room, his brow knotted with the frustration of a day when he couldn’t be any help. He stopped to sign a youngster’s shirt and climbed gingerly aboard.
James McCarthy came past looking hollow. They don’t do the three nominees for Man of the Match thing anymore but if they did, he’d have made everyone’s list. There was a sequence at about 55 minutes, just after Paudie Clifford had pushed Kerry into a 1-11 to 1-9 lead, when McCarthy seemed intent on taking on every Kerry person in the ground — on the pitch, off the pitch, on the train home if that’s how they wanted to do it.
He buried Adrian Spillane with a shoulder to force a half-turnover, then sprinted to get a toe to the first 50-50, then picked himself up to go and chase down a second. Dublin broke clear and McCarthy let out a roar, like it was the Battle of Thermopylae and he’d just told a gang of Persians where they could find their lunch.
Soon after, he kicked a skyscraper into the Davin End goals and in the next breath, he rose to win the kick-out to set up the equaliser for Ciarán Kilkenny. It may or may not be his last half of football at Croke Park. Either way, he left every bit of himself out there. “Just exhausted,” he said as he stashed his bag. “We came out on the right side of those games plenty of times.”
This is the thing. As Dublin work their way through a second off-season in a row as just another county, one of the things they will need to address is why they don’t win these games anymore. For years, the definition of an epic was a close game that Kerry lost. Dublin are in that zone now, having got within touching distance of the final two years in a row but fluffed it when it mattered.
Much has changed, understandably, in the past three years. Most of the great Dublin team has moved on, bringing with it a world of talent, technique and attitude. But if this semi-final, and the one against Mayo last year, demonstrated anything it’s that the loss of game management and smarts down the stretch has hurt them more than any other factor.
With the sides level and the clock in the 72nd minute here, Niall Scully found himself a half-yard of space to the left of the Kerry D. It wasn’t a no-no position for a shot by any means and if Scully was in confident form and had been adding to the game all the way through, he’d have been well within his rights to go for it. He’s landed plenty of those kicks in his time.
But Scully hasn’t been that player this year. His form has dipped to such an extent that he didn’t see game time here until the 62nd minute. This was his first time putting boot to ball since he’d come on and he made a mess of it.
He took the kick of a man who’d forgotten all the old rules. He didn’t eat up the clock. He didn’t make sure his feet were set. There was no attempt to play one extra pass to get Dublin into a can’t-miss spot. All the boring old stuff that we spent years watching Dublin grinding the opposition to dust with.
The only reason to single Scully out here is that his shot was symptomatic of a real problem Dublin have to fix for the 2023 championship. On a very basic level, they have stopped surviving close matches. Until they start again, they will always live in the shadow of the team that went before them.
Losing the edge
One of the under-rated glories of Jim Gavin’s Dublin was their ability to be still on their feet when the gunsmoke cleared the saloon. Gavin managed Dublin for 107 games in league and championship. Of those, 33 ended with a margin of three points or less either way. Dublin only lost nine of them — and none were in the championship.
Under Dessie Farrell, this was Dublin’s ninth game to be decided by a goal or less. They’ve only won one, a league match against Donegal in 2020. They’ve only been involved in two close championship matches since Gavin left and lost both. By the time the league rolls around next spring, they’ll have gone three full years without winning a close game of any kind.
It is little wonder, then, that Farrell made a point afterwards of singling out the older breed in his squad and saying he hopes they keep turning up. Outside of Lee Gannon, Dublin haven’t uncovered a player who looks to-the-manor born since Brian Howard in 2018. Dublin have plenty of footballers. They don’t have plenty of James McCarthys.
“They were going strong at the end,” said Farrell. “Some of that crew have a lot of miles on the clock, they’ve given the most immense service to Dublin football. But I’d be hoping for Dublin football that James in particular stays around. The group dynamic has changed demonstrably, even in the last year and definitely in the last number of years. A lot of new players, young players. Many of them got game time today but a lot more on the panel as well.
“Those players need the likes of James McCarthy and the Jonny Coopers and those lads to stay around to lead the way because they have followed brilliantly to be fair to those young lads. Having that type of leadership at the helm is really important. So I’d be hoping that crew have more to give.”
Kerry scored two points from play in the last 34 minutes and still dug out the win. It used to be Dublin pulling that kind of trick. Of everything that has changed, nothing has had more impact.