Kerry fend off Dublin comeback to triumph in mini-epic
Diarmuid Connolly black card costs champions dear as Kingdom end unbeaten streak
Kerry celebrate with the trophy after defeating Dublin by a point in the Allianz League final at Croke Park. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
When a man is tired of Dublin and Kerry, he is tired of life. For there is, in Kerry and Dublin, all that life can afford. We came to Croke Park not entirely sure if this league final would be worth us mustering up a whole pile of enthusiasm. We of little faith. We left having seen another mini-epic, this time with Kerry on the right side of the knife-edge for a change.
Numbers, numbers, so many numbers. In front of 53,480 paying customers, Dublin’s 36-game unbeaten streak came to a raucous end after 765 days. They had a chance to extend it at least another 20 minutes but Dean Rock’s 48m free deep into stoppage time clanged off the upright in front of Hill 16 and Kerry got home by a point, 0-20 to 1-16.
In among the maths of it all, there was poetry too. After all the talk of hard edges and physicality during the week, this was a league final relatively free of the pulling and dragging that tends to knot the knickers of the general commentariat. Instead, we saw commanding performances from the likes of David Moran and Paul Geaney on the Kerry side and James McCarthy and Ciarán Kilkenny for the Dubs.
Kilkenny’s battle with Tadhg Morley has become prime viewing, by the by – a war within a war where both sides adhere strictly to all points of the Geneva convention. They play it hard and they play it clean, each of them bursting out of their skin to beat the other from the front. They’re a throwback coupling, Bogie and Bacall for millennials.
In truth, it was Kerry who gave the more complete performance here. Dublin’s early dominance faded as the game wore on, a fact not unrelated to the black card picked up by Diarmuid Connolly 10 minutes before half-time. Connolly had been moving into a nice gear, stitching one point of his own and creating a couple more with trademark raking passes and one burst through the middle that would likely have ended in a goal but for Jonathan Lyne’s black-card foul.
But a needless off-the-ball haul-down of Kerry substitute Gavin Crowley bought Connolly his second black card in two games, meaning he will be on a tightrope for the summer since a third black card across the season would mean a one-game ban. It was a pointless act and it cost Dublin dear. For the rest of the game, they lacked any great imagination in their forward play and relied on the speed and urgency of Kilkenny and Paul Mannion off the bench to cause Kerry problems.
Dublin led at half-time by a point, 0-10 to 0-9. But the third quarter belonged to Kerry as they reeled off six points in a row. Paul and Michael Geaney were buzzing in the Kerry forward line, Michael in particular profiting from Jim Gavin’s decision to take Cian O’Sullivan off – a call that appeared to baffle O’Sullivan as much as the rest of us. Kerry forged into a 0-16 to 0-11 lead with 15 minutes to go and Dublin were wobbling.
“We’re disappointed with that performance,” said Gavin afterwards. “Too many unforced errors. Gave the ball away too much. Certainly had enough of it. The third quarter of the game, we kicked an awful lot of the ball away. But all credit to Kerry. Their score execution was very good there today. They got some great points and fully deserved the win, so hats off to them.
“We had enough [ball in the third quarter]. Some great defensive play and we worked the ball up the field, and just turned it over needlessly. Kicked it away, handpassed it away – very uncharacteristic. But they certainly punished us, and put us in a very tough position going down the stretch, five points down.
“I thought they showed great heart again, great resilience to come back and be within the width of a post to put the game into extra-time, a long-range free from Dean. And we had a bit of momentum at that stage, but unfortunately this time a little bit too late.”
Kerry held out though, fending off a comeback that included a brutalising cameo off the bench from Michael Darragh Macauley and potent shooting from Mannion. It meant that history will record the 36-game run as being bookended by defeats to Kerry. More pertinent to matters Kingdom, the Dubs were beaten. First, last and all in between, that’s the thing.
“I think you are kind of portraying that there is this psychological damage there and that every time [Kerry lose to Dublin] we are going down the road banging our head off the window of the bus,” smiled Éamonn Fitzmaurice. “We come out and give it everything we have.
“We have come up short but we have come up short going at them, bringing the best out of them; the Kerry-Dublin games have been some of the best games that have been played in the last 10 years. If Dublin had beaten us today it wouldn’t have been the end of the world.”
Ah, but they didn’t. Even a Kerry man at his gnomic best would struggle to pretend that doesn’t matter.