Dublin capable of going up a gear against Kerry in league final
‘Legacy issues’ from Tralee clash likely to give particular edge to meeting of old rivals
Kerry’s Shane Enright and Dublin’s Philly McMahon at the Allianz League Final media day. Photograph: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
It mightn’t be expected to pull in much more than half of the capacity crowd that attended last year’s league climax between the same counties, complete with 1916 centenary pageant, but Sunday’s Allianz Football League conclusion is the best pairing neutrals could have wished for.
The old rivalry has remained popular even through Dublin’s domination – Kerry haven’t won in five matches during the past two years – and it carries additional frissons after Kerry’s 84-year old unbeaten record was resurrected and equalled last month, in Tralee of all places, by the same opponents in an at times unpleasant match that has created “legacy issues” for the weekend.
It’s eight years since Kerry last won the league, and they face a team going for a fifth in succession, a feat unequalled since Mayo in the 1930s.
The clock started ticking on an eventful week for Kerry last Sunday, as what should have been their last match in this year’s league ended with the realisation that they would in fact be contesting the final against Dublin for the second year running.
Within 36 hours Colm Cooper’s retirement was made public, and sometime after that manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice conducted an odd finger-pointing exercise directed at Dublin, based on what he felt was the disproportionate blame being levelled at his team after the divisional fixture.
In his litany of Dublin edginess he steered clear of the match itself, unsurprisingly given that a large razor-blade factory wouldn’t have the amount of edge the home side displayed.
There has been comment on the fact that the Kerry manager may be feeling the pressure of his poor record against Jim Gavin’s Dublin and the unexpected – perhaps unwanted – necessity of playing the champions again so soon.
If that is the case it’s hard to know why. In Fitzmaurice’s time, Dublin have been manifestly the better side and yet he has generally sent out teams with a clear appreciation of what they need to do, as well as some tactical hacks to bridge the gap.
The performance three weeks ago very nearly toppled the holders and showed the cut and relentlessness of a seriously competitive team.
This season he has introduced some promising young players, and the opportunity to play Dublin in Croke Park will be worth any amount of training. If they flop on the day, that’s a valuable lesson in itself, and they will hardly do worse than last year’s league final, from which they recovered sufficiently by the time August came around to push the champions to the brink in the All-Ireland semi-final.
He may simply have been creating a fuss for the benefit of the referee, having been caught on the hop by having to play Dublin so soon after the well-publicised delinquencies of the earlier fixture.
On the subject of the match official, Croke Park policy on appointments for this fixture has been curious. There was publicity this week that Sunday’s referee Paddy Neilan had not taken charge of any Division One fixtures so far, and the same was the case with the Tralee official, Tyrone’s Seán Hurson, who ended up having to issue more cards than a postman in December.
Dublin have had an unusual campaign for an unbeaten team. Four of their matches required Lazarus acts – three draws and last week’s injury-time win over Monaghan – and two were wipe-outs, against Mayo and Roscommon. Only the opening day fixture in Cavan resulted in what might be categorised as a normal victory.
Against well-organised defences they have struggled for scores, even if their resistance to defeat has been outstanding. They’ve also given up goal chances, even if sometimes, for example in the Roscommon match, nothing has come of them, and that will need to tightening with Paul Geaney in such good form and the accuracy of old adversary Donnchadh Walsh’s shooting against Tyrone.
Positives to have emerged include Paul Flynn’s restored vigour in attack after sorting out a groin problem, as well as Bernard Brogan’s sharpness and Ciarán Kilkenny’s perpetual motion. Diarmuid Connolly is only back and struggling to get up to speed, which makes him crankier and more easily provoked than usual.
A signature aspect of recent meetings between the counties had been how well Dublin did at centrefield since the advent of Brian Fenton, but that tide turned a little last August, and three weeks ago David Moran had a stormer for Kerry, as newcomer Jack Barry made Fenton’s life uncomfortable, albeit in ways that won’t always escape detection.
This promises to be interesting. A year ago Kerry left Croke Park beaten all ends up, even if the scoreboard didn’t begin really to click until the final quarter. They have made changes for the better and if also inconsistent, they can be relied on to rouse themselves for this.
Thirty years ago Kerry were three-in-a-row All-Ireland champions and a young Dublin side ambushed them in the league final. Unlike Kerry back then, Jim Gavin’s team haven’t reached the end of the road just yet, and although they publicly disdain such visceral motivations, they were unhappy with what happened in Tralee.
Another reason they should win is that they routinely improve at this stage of the year, so they are well capable of going up the gears. They may need to.