Dublin put in a champion performance to make Irish sporting history

Jim Gavin’s football team has broken the speed of sound, and look unbeatable

Stephen Cluxton lifts the Sam Maguire as Dublin celebrate beating Kerry in the All-Ireland senior football final replay, at Croke Park. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Stephen Cluxton lifts the Sam Maguire as Dublin celebrate beating Kerry in the All-Ireland senior football final replay, at Croke Park. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

 

On a clear day, you can see forever. Monday morning now and the skies of Dublin’s football team are blue and cloudless. The football landscape has been transformed from a city of clay to a city of marble. Through five full seasons Dublin remained unbeaten and so bring the GAA and Irish sporting culture into a place that had previously been the preserve of fatalistic Kerry mythology. In the lifelong battle for supremacy between the counties, Saturday night saw Dublin’s grip tighten.

In 1982, Kerry stumbled within minutes of completing a half decade of football perfection. It came down to the children of that generation – literally, in the imposing frames of David Moran and Tommy Walsh – to somehow try and defend that legacy in the final game of 2019. But like every team who has met them from the beginning of the 2015 championship, they discovered that this Dublin team does not stumble. They have breached the fourth wall. Jim Gavin’s football team has broken the speed of sound.

In the end, the scoreline above the Hill 16 end was emphatic as the All-Ireland final replay entered five ceremonial minutes of injury time. The evening had turned all shades of blue. Dublin led 1-18 to 0-15 and the cast of their brilliant yesterdays – Messrs McManamon, O’Sullivan, MacAuley, McMahon and Connolly – were all on the field of play.

In fact Diarmuid Connolly, physical if ring-rusty after his second-half introduction, led the charge for a second goal in those final few seconds which would have caused a minor earthquake along Dorset Street had it been finished. It was a sight, for sure: Connolly carrying the ball at pace at two stricken Kerry defenders flanked by his team-mates. Choices galore. It seemed certain that he would flick the ball left, but possibly mindful of the aesthetics of the moment; of his colossal and controversial role through this unrivalled period for Dublin football, and of the fact that he might so easily have been watching this from some ale house in Allston, Connolly went for gold himself.

Gusting groan

Shane Ryan got gloves to it and recovered then to make another brilliant save. From the other end of the stadium came a gusting groan from the Hill. But this was just theatre to them now. Flies to wanton boys and all of that. The Sam Maguire had long been won. All Ryan did was prevent this from being the biggest winning margin of that golden period.

It was hard not to feel for the Kerry men at that moment. In the first half, they had engaged Dublin in a shoot-out of the very highest quality. The teams shared an audacity to better the original game for quality. It was as though both Jim Gavin and Peter Keane decided that whatever happened, the other crowd would be made to score from play.

There would be no placed-ball roulette between the respective sharpshooters, Dublin’s Dean Rock and Seán O’Shea, who had dominated the scoring two weeks ago. This was a free-for-all. So in that first half, Ciarán Kilkenny and Con O’Callaghan of Dublin, along with Paul Geaney and David Clifford, presented the quality of the old game in a brighter light than we had ever seen. And it was a jewel.

It didn’t last: Kerry were sucker-punched by Eoin Murchan’s sensational goal just 16 seconds after the second-half throw-in and from then on, Dublin kept them at bay. The Dubs grew colder and clearer in their thinking and approach through the final minutes, even as Kerry gradually became befuddled and lost. For some reason, a mood of acceptance settled on the pitch after Stephen Cluxton saved Stephen O’Brien’s goal-chance in the 54th minute. There was only a goal in it then, but with that denial, it was as if you could hear a door slamming shut in the sky above Dorset Street. Dublin would not be denied. They looked sinewy and gritty and stubborn and decisive when it mattered. They looked like champions.

Ragged and fractious

In the end, it turned ragged and fractious on the field, with the younger Kerry players understandably frustrated and upset that while they had taken the four-time champions to the very brink, it was not enough. Four would become five. Peter Keane’s first year in charge had been framed around a group of players who had enjoyed their own version of splendour at minor level. So the bitter taste of this defeat will stay with them.

The Dublin team celebrate in front of Hill 16 in Croke Park after beating Kerry in the All-Ireland senior football final replay. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times
The Dublin team celebrate in front of Hill 16 in Croke Park after beating Kerry in the All-Ireland senior football final replay. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Even as the golden streamers fell and the warm husk of Phil Lynott’s voice filled the stadium, it was true that this latest show of Dublin strength and football superiority will lead to new questions about whether or not they have just become too good for the rest. And it is probable that GAA president John Horan and the other custodians may have felt that rising fear akin to what Dr Frankenstein experienced when the creature came alive.

In 2010, the Dubs had only won a single All-Ireland since Kevin Heffernan’s swansong in 1983. They were sometimes brilliant, sometimes blustery and could usually be relied upon to fall apart. Everyone wanted them to get their act together. But nobody dreamed of what that act could look like until now.

What can the others do? As a golden light fell across the city and the Dublin players enjoyed the field, Peter Canavan stood up in the television broadcast booths and argued that Dublin uphold an amateur ethos with a professional structure while the rest maintain an amateur ethos within an amateur structure.

The Tyrone man hit on something there. It’s hard to avoid the sense that there has been a paradigm shift. Dublin won’t be returning to the half-assed old ways. They won’t be anybody’s soft touch ever again. If the other counties – perhaps with GAA strategic help – cannot match them, there is a distinct possibility that the city team will continue to exist on a different plane.

But that is not the problem of Dublin GAA. Their senior men’s team has discovered something new within themselves over each summer. They’ve chased down internal excellence week after week after year. And now there are thousands of city kids wearing Murchan and Howard jerseys this week who have never seen Dublin lose an All-Ireland championship game. It is one of the most reliable cliches in sport: no team is unbeatable. Perhaps, perhaps. But the question could be sprayed like graffiti across that blue sky this week.

Who out there can beat Dublin?

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