The Thursday before my last All-Ireland final in 2009, I was walking down the street in Tralee when I ran into the Bomber Liston.
Now, most people know the story when they meet a player the week of a final. It’s a tradition as old as time – you keep the whole thing light, you stay upbeat and optimistic, you don’t talk tickets and you definitely don’t start going into specifics around the game. You wish the player all the best and you go about your day.
Bomber isn't most people. He wouldn't be the sort of man who ever worried if the rules applied to him. No sooner had he collared me than he was probing me for the inside track on everything that was happening. How is David Moran going? How is Tommy Walsh getting on? What'll the team be?
Ah now, Bomber. There’s a time and a place. None of this was doing anything for my sense of calm or perspective. I was 34 years old, three days away from my last All-Ireland final, telling myself I was still well able for it, trying to get into the right mindset to steal one last medal on my way out the door. And here was Bomber, asking me about two young lads who were trying to get into the team – one of whom who was chasing my place!
“Well it’s like this, Bomber,” I said, deciding to have a bit of fun with him.
“As long as the three Sés are in it, they can build the team around us. After that, I don’t really give a flying . . . ”
And I turned and walked away laughing to myself. I heard afterwards that Bomber went straight to Seánie Walsh and told him all about it.
“I wouldn’t mind,” says the Bomber, “the f**ker was serious!”
So the week of a final can be a tricky one for a player. That said, it’s all fairly quiet down here this week. This is the first final Kerry have been in since the calendar was changed so it’s the first time we’re getting to experience an All-Ireland final and the Rose of Tralee in the one week. Tourist season is such a big part of August in Kerry and it takes a bit of getting used to.
Normally, if you were looking forward to a final, you’d have nothing else going on apart from work or school or college or whatever. So maybe that’s why it hasn’t really caught the imagination down here this week the way it has in other years.
Or maybe it’s because a lot of people are like me in that the heart is saying Kerry can win on Sunday but the head is telling you to cop onto yourself. There’s no point getting lost in fairytales. Dublin are an awesome football team. If you’re any way realistic about it, it’s very hard to see them being beaten.
Both teams had their training weekends and set their stalls out for what they’re going to do. The level of analysis available to both sides here has gone through the roof since I retired. Kick-out strategies, match-ups, likes and dislikes – all of it goes into the mix, down to the finest detail. The days of being surprised by what the other crowd bring to an All-Ireland final are long gone.
I enjoyed those weekends in the run-in to a final – up to a point. Everybody has a sense of being in it together and there’s a good bit of nervous energy around the place. But I wouldn’t say I killed myself in them either. I wouldn’t imagine a lot of the Dubs have either.
The more of these finals you’re in, the more you know what it takes. And by that I mean you know what it takes for you, specifically. It might suit some fellas to be going around at full tilt in a training game a fortnight out from the final. And if it does, good luck to them. But I always saw it as wasted energy.
The one thing I've noticed this year with Dublin is that Jim Gavin seems to have settled on a team and more or less stuck with it. In other years the Dubs have chopped and changed, keeping competition for places high all the way through. Maybe that same competition is there this year but, if it is, a lot of the same fellas seem to be winning out.
A final is a place to be borderline reckless in
How many places are really and truly up for grabs in the Dublin team? Maybe Philly McMahon or Cian O'Sullivan might be pushing for a place in defence but who would they squeeze out? Michael Darragh Macauley is having a mighty summer in midfield so there's no room there either. And apart from Dean Rock coming in for Cormac Costello, the attack has been the same in every game that mattered. We all know about the Dubs' strength in depth but it's been a very hard team to break into this year.
So although the Dubs went on their weekend down to Cooraclare, I wouldn’t be too sure they were going hammer and tongs at it. I’ve played in Cooraclare and it’s a lovely part of the world. But there’s a fair chance they were playing away there with lads sitting up on the back of tractors watching them as they were taking in silage. Gavin would have been bringing them there for a bit of freshness above all else. Get the city lads out into the country, let them smell the air.
The Dubs know the rhythm of this thing by now. They’re well used to it. I always made sure to put in a good 20-minute spell in a training game on those weekends just to let the management know my head was right and my body was doing what it was told. And then I kept the rest back. No point being a hero 14 days before a final. Especially when you know that the only thing that will keep you off the team is an injury.
All-Ireland finals make you cautious as a player. You carry a fear with you as you build up to them. Not a fear of losing or a fear of playing or anything like that. Just a fear of doing something wrong or thoughtless in the build-up that prevents you being the best you can be on the day. None of that enters into it for other games.
The key then is to lose that caution once the ball is thrown in. I’ve said it before – a final is a place to be borderline reckless in. It’s like that Jerry Seinfeld joke about how people always want extra-strength painkillers and when that’s not enough, they want max-strength. “Figure out what it would take to kill me and then back it up a little bit.”
That’s nearly how you’ve got to be in an All-Ireland final. Figure out where the line is that will get you either hurt or sent off and then back it up a little bit. You can’t be minding yourself. You have to throw your body into everything. You have to be a bigger version of yourself, faster, sharper, smarter and more ruthless than you’ve ever been. Because the only thing you can be sure of is that the opposition will be aiming for that too.
I've been turning this final over in my head constantly and the one thing I keep coming back to on Kerry's side is that first-half performance Mayo put in against the Dubs. They got a run on Dublin and kept them to six points. Their problem was that they only scored 0-8 of their own. Colm Boyle, Paddy Durcan (two ) and Séamus O'Shea scored half of those points and Cillian O'Connor kicked two frees.
You would have to think that if Kerry are able to get the same sort of run on Dublin on Sunday, they will find more than two points from play in their forwards. Now, Mayo are a more seasoned team than Kerry, they know how to keep a game against the Dubs tight, they were good with their match-ups and all the rest of it. There’s no guarantee that Kerry will be able to play as well as Mayo did for those 35 minutes. All I’m saying is that if they do, I’d be confident they’ll put up a useful score, including a goal or two.
Weatherwise, I’m afraid the old Jack O’Shea story doesn’t apply here. One year, he woke up the morning of the All-Ireland out in Malahide and the sun was splitting the stones and he said: “Excellent, exactly the weather we need”. The following year, he opened the curtains and it was lashing down rain and Jacko said: “Excellent, exactly the weather we need”.
Kerry might be able to go after Stephen Cluxton the odd time, Dublin will definitely go after Shane Ryan
My fear for Kerry is that if it’s a wet day, Dublin are too big and too physical to be denied. Kerry are young and developing and I would think they need a dry ball, first and foremost.
There is definitely a chance it could be all over very quickly. Dublin would love nothing better than to get their business done early. Con O'Callaghan and Paul Mannion will be ravenous for goals and, as we saw against Tyrone last year in the final and Mayo three weeks ago, they don't need to be asked twice. If they smell blood, they'll devour Kerry.
The Kerry full-back line doesn’t have the man-markers to hold the likes of O’Callaghan and Mannion for a whole game, especially the way Kerry leave them exposed. So if the game is played on those terms, with ball after ball going into the Dublin full-forward line, Dublin will win pulling up.
The only way Kerry can avoid that is for David Moran to have the game of his life and dominate midfield. There's some talk down here about Jack Barry coming in and going on Brian Fenton but I'd rather see Moran go and show what he's made of. It would be a huge call to be dropping Barry in there after a patchy season and David has been around long enough to take on the job himself. Just ask Bomber!
In the end, there's just too much in the Dublin column here. Kerry can score plenty, Dublin can score plenty more. Kerry might be able to go after Stephen Cluxton the odd time, Dublin will definitely go after Shane Ryan. Kerry's subs are either unproven or they're older lads hanging in there and trying to find a bit of form. Dublin's bench is so strong, Bernard Brogan and Eoghan O'Gara probably won't make the 26.
My heart says Kerry can do it – and if they do, it’ll be the sweetest one for a long, long time. But my head says it’s five-in-a-row. And a fully deserved one at that.