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Kevin McStay: Kerry’s monumental win over Dublin showed us Gaelic football in all its glory

Kerry’s feral approach almost cost them but Dublin’s revival was ended by Seán O’Shea’s stunning kick

Seán O’Shea scores Kerry’s winning point during the All-Ireland SFC semi-final against Dublin at Croke Park. Photoghraph: James Crombie/Inpho

Last weekend was a festival of football, starting with a bumper crowd enjoying a unique Galway v Mayo All-Ireland minor final in Roscommon town, an exuberant Tailteann Cup final, the rebirth of the Galway senior squad and ending with Sunday’s latest gripping instalment of the perpetual rivalry. Kerry v Dublin gripped the nation. And an eternal truth emerges this morning − confirming yet again what we already know − when Gaelic football is played even half right, it is a marvellous game to watch.

This season has revolved around the potential and magnitude of the Kerry v Dublin clash. Once the draws were made and we checked the provincial schedule, out came the yellow highlighters for last Sunday’s date. And what a day. It was a joy to be a small part of it, looking on from Level Seven in The Hogan and talking my way through this wonderful encounter with Ger Canning.

Victory for Kerry was an imperative and the consequences of another defeat at the hands of their greatest rivals could not be contemplated. They had lost to Dublin in 2019, Cork in 2020 and Tyrone in 2021 − their three historic rivals.

Something had to give. I felt they would go after Dublin with a feral intensity. And they did. Five yellows cards for Kerry and just the one for Dublin hinted at their desire to keep the temperature gauge in the red. It almost cost them. Out of subs and out of gas, the Dubs almost caught them on the home straight. But before then, there was a barrowful of incidents and accidents to keep us chattering for weeks.


The follow up by Seán O’Shea on that save was certainly full-blooded and depending on where your allegiance lies it was no card, a yellow card, or a red card

The John Small black card looked a little harsh in hindsight and Kerry’s Paul Geaney certainly went down quite easily. But this blocking and pulling of support runners is yet another scourge of this summer and needs to be stamped out of the game.

Was the Kerry penalty the correct call? I see that a few revisionists have concentrated on the foot contact and deemed that illegal. And that may well be so. But they should keep their eyes on the referee who clearly indicated the penalty was awarded for a foul because of the tackle with the hand/arm. Which, in my view, was harsh and maybe not a foul at all as the hand tackle goes in and out immediately and this is what we coach in the execution of a good and fair tackle. At best, it was a marginal call. Then came the place kick. Dublin’s Evan Comerford was off this line before the ball was struck, thus conferring an advantage on himself and aiding his save.

The follow up by Seán O’Shea on that save was certainly full-blooded and depending on where your allegiance lies it was no card, a yellow card, or a red card. My view is that Seán was fortunate: that at a minimum it merited a yellow card. Thankfully for him and the game, he received no card as the yellow he got in the second half added to the one he might have got would have robbed the game, and us, of that magnificent winner from 55 meters.

These controversies deepen the real sense that the rule book, in many aspects, is in disrepute. We see once again another weekend, yet another major football game and players and management free to ignore the notion of rules being enforced fairly.

Small, out on that aforementioned 10-minute period, stood on as it became a series of injuries, bookings, visits by medical teams, sub goalkeepers warming up and any other bit of nonsense that could be dreamed up to waste time. All of this was facilitated by the rule makers who declined to add that the black card timekeeping should be stand-alone as a stop-clock period. Hopefully, somebody is keeping a list of these outrageous rules and this winter we will get a few revisions.

Even the game’s final play is open to interpretation. Was it a foul on David Clifford or not? I feel it was. Davy Byrne stopped the play by foul means in the knowledge that the kick was too far out to be converted and it would be the last play before the referee called for extra-time. Except, it was not too far out!

The occasion demanded an epic ending. It was exhilarating

I am fully aware from watching him in league games that this distance (55 metres) with a wind assisting him is not a problem for Seán O’Shea. And of course, the game was level so the pressure was not as great as a kick to draw level. But other factors were stacked against him. Tired legs are not conducive to taking frees, the wind was against him – as was crowd in The Hill.

But the adrenaline was pumping through the body, counteracting the tiredness and the prospect of extra-time. So, he demanded of himself that he kick the winner. In those cases, give me Seán O’Shea over three good men! It was a Kerry moment, a kick for the ages.

I looked to my left to track the ball towards the Hill and there seated next door to our commentary position was Kerry’s Bryan Sheehan, a man noted for such feats with the dead ball. What must he have been thinking? Probably, ‘Yerra. It’s a tap over for this fella …’

The occasion demanded an epic ending. It was exhilarating.

The previous day in Croke Park offered the good, the bad and the ugly of the sport. Some games get lost in the technical verbiage of matchups, and sweepers and plus-ones and overloads and perhaps we all contribute to a lot of this fog.

And then there is the slightly condescending description of a more innocent or naive game between two Division Three teams. Well, give me the Tailteann Cup final appetiser rather than the overcooked and overthought main course any day.

Cavan looked to be in control of the curtain-raiser but the manner in which Westmeath took the Tailteann final by the scruff of the neck was admirable. And you could see the significance of the game to both teams. I was an early season naysayer but am delighted to be proven wrong. The competition will have a different structure next season and that is good but there are tweaks that could help to make it great. So, I’ll stay consistent and state once more: the final must be played on the same day as the senior one. Is it not the obvious curtain raiser- now that we have none?

Perhaps the openness of that game heightened our sensitivity to the overwhelming negativity with which Derry set out their stall. This was a great day for Derry: back in an All-Ireland semi-final after too long away. So many Derry people asked me afterwards what I thought of their display.

It was obvious that the key to beating Derry was to establish a lead over them as the Ulster men had no Plan B to fall back on in such a scenario

‘Dreadful’ was the word I kept using. How can thousands of Derry fans allow their county serve up this rubbish? Who would want to watch it? It served a purpose, perhaps, in gaining the Ulster title and a much-needed foundation for the years ahead. But you simply cannot win in Croke Park by setting up roadblocks all over town – while forgetting to tell the sentries they can advance from their posts from time to time.

The neutral support went immediately to Galway and the hope they would quickly remove Derry from the championship. They really were that bad to watch. But it took Galway a considerable amount of time and effort to break free. It was obvious that the key to beating Derry was to establish a lead over them as the Ulster men had no Plan B to fall back on in such a scenario.

I will focus on Galway next week in more depth, but it was Derry that interested me most in the lead-up to the weekend’s semi-finals. They have a handful of talented players. But my sense is the tactical analysis brought them down a deep hole from which they failed to emerge. Too much energy on matchups smelled of negativity and of neutralising the opponent. What were Derry going to do to actually try to win the game?

I argued in the build-up that Derry would struggle to go beyond eight or nine points with their tally and goals were the only route to victory. In the end they scored just the six and went nearly a full hour’s play without a score from play. You simply cannot win a game in Croke Park this way.

In the end I, like all neutrals, was thrilled to see Galway emerge as winners. Their two goals were superb … look back at the quality of foot passing and both Damian Comer finishes, which were sublime.

So it topped off a wonderful weekend for Galway football. Connacht produced two of the best minor teams to come along in a while and it was no surprise that both Galway and Mayo survived to meet in Friday night’s All-Ireland final.

The switch of the minor grade to under-17 has had a transformative effect on the competition. I coach the grade at club level and can see the difference it makes. Rarely, if ever, is a player involved in the Leaving Certificate examinations and only a handful will be sitting the less stressful Junior Cert equivalent. The majority are transition year students and can fully commit to their football schedule of training and games and enjoy those months without the pressure of exams.

There is even more innocence involved in the environment, and, I would argue, more enjoyment. The lads are certainly sponges when it comes to learning the game. Their development, physically, technically, and tactically, is witnessed right before your eyes and the season, whether a winning one or not, is most enjoyable for the coaches, the players, and their parents.

We had four lads involved with the county, so it was lovely to watch them don Roscommon colours in a more forgiving arena and witness them make considerable progress from game to game. Reaching the final is a milestone event in young lives but it must be understood that while winning is a key focus, there will be football life after defeat too.

The GAA’s objective is to encourage lifelong participation and outside of the disappointment of defeat for Mayo, plenty of those lads will be seen again. Galway were terrific, well-coached, well set up and, as ever, more than decent in the fundamentals of the game … plenty of two-footedness and two-handedness and some beautiful evasion skills on view.

The game is evolving and the skill sets of the best young players improving with the passing seasons. So, they need and deserve a clear and consistent system of rules and guidelines to ensure that the great games of the future are not compromised or obscured by brawls or controversies or refereeing decisions. Because we saw enough this weekend to remind us that at its best, Gaelic football is a glory.