My favourite sporting moment: 2011 All-Ireland football final

Dublin’s day of deliverance proved a sporting epiphany for those with blue blood

Bear with me a moment as I start off by digressing a little. It is five years since Bryan Cullen has lifted the Sam Maguire Cup to end the drought and we're sitting high in the corner of the upper Cusack Stand where the two youngest offspring are either side of me. Except, Róisín isn't there. Nothing to worry about, she's just gone to the toilets. It's half-time.

Kerry’s stunning late first-half unanswered salvo of 2-4 has turned this 2016 All-Ireland football semi-final on its head and Dublin’s supporters are as stunned as the players who use referee David Gough’s half-time whistle to race to the sanctuary of the dressing room for some respite. Kerry, from five points down, have miraculously flipped the game to be five points up.

It is 10 minutes into the second half and I’m lost in the onfield action as Dublin kick point after point to get back into the game.

“Dad, shouldn’t Róisín be back?” asks Fionn.


Who's the parent here? Of course she should. I've been so wrapped up in the game I haven't noticed her continued absence, and also failed to hear the stream of missed calls from my other half (safely at home) who has been alerted that her seven-year-old is a lost soul among 82,000-plus people in Croke Park.

On my son's promptings, I leave my seat to go in search of my only daughter and, glad to say, she is found safely in the care of the First Aid room. (And, yes, there is a disapproving look from the nurse). And of course Dublin do what Dublin under Jim Gavin do and go on to win the match.

Afterwards, with enough apologies to daughter and her at home to fill a book, I ask Róisín if she was at all frightened?

“No,” she replies, “but it was funny to hear all the women when we were waiting to go into the toilets.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I was the only one with a Dublin jersey, and they were all from Kerry and they were shouting at each other, ‘We have them, we have them’ . . . but they didn’t, did they?”

She is of an age that doesn’t know how the mere mention of Kerry could make folk of a certain generation break into a cold sweat and tremble at the knees. How the great Kerry-Dublin rivalry of the ’70s transformed Gaelic football and how, more often than not, it was Kerry, not Dublin, who walked away with the great prize.

Or how Mikey Sheehy's cheeky quick free goal in the 1978 final made the great Paddy Cullen look like a mere imposter, as the Kingdom steamrolled the Dubs into the ground that day, and that moment of genius/tragicomedy became the hallmark of Kerry superiority.

Dublin’s custodianship of the Sam Maguire would prove to be few and far between in the ’80s and ’90s. Once in 1983, then again in 1995.

Startled earwigs

Which is why the 2011 All-Ireland Football final proved to be a sporting epiphany for those of us with blue blood; just two years earlier, Kerry had inflicted a 17-point defeat on Dublin in an All-Ireland quarter-final, after which Pat Gilroy compared his team to being like "startled earwigs".

Two years on, still underdogs, Dublin’s return to the biggest day of the football year brought with it anticipation – and, yes, also an element of fear given the day’s rivals – that the drought, extending back some 16 years, could possibly end.

Being a witness to the event proved harder than I ever could have envisaged. When Dublin contested three finals in the 1990s (losing to Donegal in 1992, to Down in 1994 and finally edging out Tyrone in 1995), I was – at the time – chairman of a GAA club, St Monica's in Edenmore, and was, as they say, entitled to a ticket. I wasn't used to the new demands of actually having to hunt one down.

In 2011, my search for a final ticket came down to the luck of the draw and a friendly gesture. As one of the mentors of an underage team with St Sylvester's in Malahide, where tickets were like hen's teeth (a tale repeated in every club in the county), my name went into a raffle. It didn't come out. But my fellow mentor Paul O'Toole's name did. He opted to watch on TV; I got his ticket!

This was a match where Mary McAleese – for the last time in her second term as president – would meet and greet the two teams at an All-Ireland football final, and the packed stadium would see first hand a battle of body and minds and skill to rank with any of the great Kerry-Dublin matches of any time.

So, with my solo ticket, I got to sit in the lower Hogan Stand. On either side of me, two men in the same boat. Also flying solo. Strangers, but not for long; the common bond of being fans, being there, sharing agonies and sharing ecstasies as the game swung one way and then the other, bringing us together on the roller-coaster with the destination of the spoils in the balance until the end.

And as the clock ticked down and moved into the endgame, the loudest roars were those of Kerry's supporters. The Gooch was doing what The Gooch does, providing his sorcery, with left foot or right, to that of Kieran Donaghy, a towering presence. Those charged with putting the winner's ribbons on the old trophy were lining up the green and gold. And, then, in one thunderous moment, Hill 16 came alive and all was changed utterly.

Switches inside

It is the 64th minute. Kerry lead 1-10 to 0-9 and Cian O'Sullivan is in the middle of the pitch with ball in hand. A free. Quickly, he plays it to Alan Brogan and he in turn passes to Kevin McManamon who goes to move to his right but switches inside on the left and Kerry's Declan O'Sullivan –- an attacker in defence – is like he isn't there at all. McManamon, just over 10 minutes on the pitch, glides by and through and , right-footed, fires home.

One point game. Not for long. Kevin Nolan has never scored a point in his career. He is right in front of us and he takes a pass from Diarmuid Connolly and only goes and kicks it over the bar. Level. Not for long. Bernard Brogan – St Bernard to the faithful – brings deliverance. A point, Dublin ahead. Hill 16 goes barmy. We all do. Not for long. Kerry don't lie down. Ever. Kieran Donaghy kicks an outrageous long-range point from close to the sideline. Level.

And, then, in injury time, McManamon – supersub himself – is on the ball again. Foul. Frantic waves to Stephen Cluxton to make the journey up the pitch. Forty metres out. Left foot. Over. One point game. Endgame.

Two hours ago, we were strangers with solo tickets to the big game. Now, we’re hugging and crying. Sport. What a moment.

The three overall winners will be published on Saturday, April 18th.