Jim McGuinness: Dubs revel in the pleasure of a rare and pivotal contest

All-Ireland SFC semi-final not only matched the hype of the occasion; it rose above it

Titanic struggle: Dean Rock of Dublin commiserates with  Marc Ó Sé of Kerry after the All-Ireland SFC semi-final on Sunday, which Dublin won by 0-22 to 2-14. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

Titanic struggle: Dean Rock of Dublin commiserates with Marc Ó Sé of Kerry after the All-Ireland SFC semi-final on Sunday, which Dublin won by 0-22 to 2-14. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho


On Sunday evening, we drove through the northside out to the airport and you could feel that the city was on fire after the game. All of the pubs we passed had a huge crowd standing outside and you got the sense the supporters were so proud of how their team had played against Kerry.

And it gave me a really strong sense of the city game, of what it means to support Dublin. These are pubs associated with club teams and this is where the fans need to go in order to talk about this game, otherwise they could just be swallowed up by the city. These are little enclaves, GAA strongholds, and it’s the supporters’ chance to stand on the street on a beautiful evening and have a couple of beers and just talk about what they have seen.

And that wasn’t just watching their team win a championship match but coming through something titanic and, I suppose, rare, really. It felt like a pivotal day in the age-old rivalry between Kerry and Dublin, which has been held up as the elemental rivalry in Gaelic football.

Coming into this game, you had the history and tradition of both counties: the All-Ireland champions against the most successful county in the history of the sport. Throughout the week, the message from so many past Kerry players was the same: Kerry must win, this can’t go on, we can’t allow this to continue. There was almost a desperation coming out of the Kingdom, a feeling that they had to turn the tide or the county could be in trouble.

They were heaping a lot of pressure on themselves. You had 83,500 people in the stadium. You had a Dublin team clearly hell-bent on becoming back-to-back champions. So the stakes were exceptionally high and all of that made the potential for a thrilling contest.

When Éamonn Fitzmaurice did his interview on Sky, he was asked how he felt the preparations went. He replied with true intent: “We are ready for the game.” And I knew then we would be in for a treat.

The big intrigue was how Kerry would approach this. Everyone knew what Dublin would bring, so the key was how Kerry would try to respond to the multiple threats and problems they present. How would they set up? How would they handle Cian O’Sullivan? There were many exciting variations tactically.

And it didn’t let us down. Dublin came flying out of the blocks. If you look at the history of the All-Ireland, the winning teams almost always have the best player in their ranks. And right now, I feel Diarmuid Connolly is the best footballer in Gaelic games. He kicked the first point and the last, and both scores highlighted a general theme: that the decision-making in the offensive half of the pitch was exceptional, by both teams.

Percentage game

There is so much to be learned by every player and coach in the country just by watching that game. Both sides play a percentage game. Look at the number of times Kerry fist the ball into their full-forward line. That is a 99 per cent pass. Or look at how they dink the ball – two metres to the outside of the defender and into the forwards’ hands. Even when they go long, it is away from the sweeper and over his head.

One of the fascinating things is that both teams made Aidan O’Mahony and Cian O’Sullivan, the respective sweepers, redundant by the quality of their passing and decision-making. That comes down to coaching. Yes, Dublin and Kerry have quality players, but it would be very unfair on Jim Gavin and Éamonn Fitzmaurice to suggest this was just about talented players. They have provided a framework of coaching.

For example, one of the most exhilarating things for me was Dublin’s keep-ball before their last two points. You could feel this energy mounting. What’s going to happen, I was thinking, who is going to inject the pace and at what moment? And Dublin were recycling the ball and keeping it out of contact and stretching the pitch, and the next thing the runner comes off the shoulder. And suddenly the whole stadium knows this is the moment.

It was Eoghan O’Gara and Diarmuid Connolly with two incredible scores, but the collective contributed to those scores by dealing with the pressure and moving the ball and having the patience to wait for the perfect moment. That is top-quality play in a pressure situation – and it is coaching.

The strange thing is that Dublin were almost out of sight before the game took hold. Philly McMahon had a fine game, but one of his few errors was failing to play in Kevin McManamon when he was through for the brilliant goal chance. Had Dublin lost this match, there would have been intense scrutiny on that moment. These are the fine margins. It didn’t come back to haunt them. But had McMahon scored it, who knows what would have happened? Dublin were so dominant it was difficult to see Kerry living with them.

When it went 0-9 to 0-4, there was a moment when I remembered our own game in 2014, and I thought if they get another score here, this could be anything. There was that spell, around McMahon’s goal chance, when it occurred to people that maybe we were about to see a very proud Kerry team suffer an annihilation.

And then I thought about what Fitzmaurice had said. It was very unlike him to be so emphatic before a game, so I figured: nah, Kerry have the work done, it has to come to fruition at some stage.

Brave approach

Kerry had set up with a very brave, attack-minded approach. Critically, they played orthodox corner forwards in Paul Geaney and Colm Cooper. By shuttling their big man, Kieran Donaghy, between the square and the middle of the D, it meant Philly McMahon picked him up but he also drew O’Sullivan in as well. And then they looked to hit Cooper and Geaney with the long ball over the top. It was another smart way of getting around the sweeper.

Their first sign of this tactic was a vintage Donaghy fetch, and Geaney came on the loop and instantly chipped it over. Then there was a foul – harshly called, I felt, on O’Sullivan – when Donaghy had the ball. And those points gave them a chance to start working the Dublin kick-out. Kerry were going zonal. Every one of their players had their arms raised and were waving them frantically, trying to ruffle the Dublin goalkeeper. If you are Stephen Cluxton, all you see is movement and narrowing margins. But he dealt with it very well – until the moment came when he didn’t.

It is something you see in soccer, too, with good teams: they set traps for defenders. They invite the pass, and as soon as it goes: boom. They are all over it. Again, this was down to preplanning by Kerry. Cluxton is left-footed. The kick-out that Kerry swooped on was practically his default kick. He wraps his foot around the ball and he can ping it with pace. So they sat waiting to pounce and then they got in for the interception, and suddenly they had the goal.

A few minutes after that, Donaghy handed the ball to Walsh and he kicked the long diagonal ball into Geaney, who played Cooper on the loop. So now Kerry were forcing Dublin to go long, and David Moran won two big possessions, the second of which resulted in Anthony Maher’s speculative shot and Kerry’s second goal.

Now, that goal came down to a major Dublin mistake: a high hanging ball which should have been dealt with. Davy Byrne just needed to shepherd his man and then there would have been no threat. But he let Geaney run off him and suddenly Cluxton had to contest this very awkward dropping ball. What should have been a mandatory fetch became a horrible situation. It was an extraordinary 10 minutes: all of a sudden, it was 2-8 to 0-9 and you sensed Dublin panicking. John Small committed a needless foul and they found themselves in the dressingroom wondering how there had been a 10-point swing in as many minutes.

Fly on the wall

To have been a fly on the wall in both dressingrooms at half-time would have been fascinating. Dublin were in a tough spot. And their second-half response was sublime. They scored 13 points and some of their score-taking was brilliant. Within 10 minutes, they had played their way back into the match. And the game then grew into a really enjoyable, honest, huge-hearted game which not only matched the grandeur and hype of the occasion; it rose above it. Dublin were averaging a point every three minutes and the scores were coming fast for both teams. You could argue the pick of them.

So Kerry rallied and went three points up with 11 minutes remaining. I met a Kerry person in the airport on Sunday evening who felt they should have gone 15 behind the ball then and tried to kill the game. I myself felt Kerry had put themselves in that position by playing four up and by stretching Dublin’s defence. But from that moment on, they went with two up front. Maybe it would have been better to stay with their original game plan.

It is easy to talk about these things in hindsight. The truth is that Kerry executed an excellent game plan brilliantly and they were good enough to win. But Dublin were just better still.

It was sad, in a way, to see great servants such as Donaghy and Marc Ó Sé lingering on the pitch and saying their goodbyes. What a brave-hearted performance on which to bow out. But I wouldn’t be fearful for Kerry. In fact, I’d be fearful of what is coming down the line. They aren’t long in filling their sky with new stars. But for this September, it comes down to Mayo and Dublin. And the way Dublin won this game is significant.

Kerry threw all their invention and technical excellence at Dublin, hit them with two goals, and went three points up in the last 10 minutes. And Dublin just kept coming back. That’s why the northside was buzzing on Sunday night. If I was a Dublin person leaving Croke Park, I would have been very proud of my team after that. Everyone recognises their abundance of talent. But this win came from deep resolve and character.

They are one game away from confirming their greatness, and will be very difficult to stop.

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