Kevin McStay: Gaelic football followers need to learn rules of the game

We were left with one certainty: when teams go at it right, Gaelic football is a sublime sport

Dublin’s Jack McCaffrey celebrates scoring a goal with Paul Mannion in the All-Ireland SFC final between Dublin and Kerry at Croke Park on Sunday. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Dublin’s Jack McCaffrey celebrates scoring a goal with Paul Mannion in the All-Ireland SFC final between Dublin and Kerry at Croke Park on Sunday. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

 

On the first of May, Kerry were 9/2 to win the All-Ireland. On September 1st, they were 5/1. The sheer mathematics of that astounded me on Saturday, when the game was on my mind. In fact, it seemed to be the only topic of conversation in the city over what was a brilliant weekend, culminating in a truly wonderful All-Ireland final. At the end, we were left with one certainty. When teams go at it right, Gaelic football is a sublime sport.

I met Kerry’s John O’Keeffe over the weekend. He was joking with me that I was following in his footsteps on these pages. Which is true: I used to read John’s column all the time. This was at a GPA function. They were honouring the teams that won the All-Ireland in the years ending in “nine”, from 1979 to 2009 with a sprinkling of the ’69 lads as well. John won his first All-Ireland that year and was receiving a lifetime achievement award. But to see the footage of him playing – the athletic prowess and presence. It was just a thrill to meet him and sit down and chat with him and to hear his thinking about the game.

And he played it completely above board – there wouldn’t be a foul stroke in him. He is one of these mythical figures: the Kerry greats. And it gave you a real insight into the kind of path these young Kerry players are now walking.

If you looked at the statistics between Dublin and Kerry all summer, you could see Dublin scored five points more and conceded five points less than Kerry on average. And Dublin have played without losing All-Ireland final matches seven times running.

Another chance

And yet on Monday morning they became the fourth team who found themselves unable to complete the hallowed five in a row. At least they have another chance. Twice in the match they went five points clear. And the second occasion left them just inches from home. Paddy Small takes a shot to put them six points clear in the 56th minute of the match. So Dublin could have gone two goals clear then and I think that was the All-Ireland done and dusted. Instead, Kerry have the ball in Stephen Cluxton’s net 15 seconds later.

Why didn’t it happen for Dublin? This season has pushed me towards one neon number, and that is the shots-to-scores ratio. I’ve touched on this before but these statistics are incredibly indicative of what happens in games. I had Kerry at 8 for 18 in the first half. Less than 50 per cent – which is just not good. And if you burrow deeper into that story, you think of David Clifford’s two early efforts and David Moran’s miss, these by Kerry standards are unexpected wides. Plus you add in three goal chances: Paul Geaney off the line, then the penalty and Stephen O’Brien flashing one just over the bar.

If Kerry, as postulated, needed three goals, they could have had them in that half. I had Dublin at 10 for 14. They weren’t the better team in that first half and yet their efficiency – 71 per cent – meant they left the field four points clear.

And it’s not just the raw numbers that are significant. There are two ways for Kerry to look at this. Was it a chance missed? In one way, perhaps. But Kerry started 11 lads in their first All-Ireland final. That won’t happen again. They have gone through it now and they have survived. And they can put out of their minds the narrative that they left it behind them – I think that is nonsense.

Dublin squeezed them towards the end of the game. But when Kerry went one up, it seemed as if they said: what we have, we hold. They didn’t have that absolute belief to have a real cut going down the home straight. The injury-time number of seven minutes probably knocked them back. That is a long stretch to navigate. But . . . it was their first time at it. They were in a place where nobody outside their camp expected them to be. So if they backed off, I don’t blame them.

Amazing courage

And this is where you have to admire Dublin too. Those 14 players showed amazing courage. Your brain is telling you: we are one down here and it’s injury time and you’ve run yourself stupid. But they somehow stayed in that moment, collectively. They made four huge turnovers in that period. And in the end, Kerry were lucky to get out of town with a draw.

Seán O’Shea kept Kerry ticking when they couldn’t buy a score. His conversion rate was phenomenal

All Kerry were doing in that period was trying to survive. But they can take all of that and realise they ripped that Dublin defence apart in the first half in every sense but on the scoreboard. And over the next fortnight, they can build on this thought: what if we relax and stick these over? What if we catch fire?

Seán O’Shea kept Kerry ticking when they couldn’t buy a score. His conversion rate – while being marked by James McCarthy – was phenomenal. That will give them great solace. It was the same with Dean Rock. O’Shea finished with 0-10 (three 45s, four frees, three from play). Rock also had 0-10 (six frees, a 45 and three from play).

We have begun to take the quality of free-takers for granted – 45s are seen as routine now. But look at the height and speed at which these guys are putting on the football from that distance. In my day, the ball would kind of fall over the bar. But their striking quality is phenomenal. And look at the conviction with which O’Shea struck those place kicks. A friend of mine said that one of his kicks had 10 yards of curve when it took off. Rock had just one miss, but that last-minute free was a bonus: a shot to nothing with a horrible run up. In hindsight, he might have been better taking it from his hands.

The role of the free-taker is to exact revenge for an indiscretion and to make sure that the team-mate who had the chance to score is rewarded indirectly through the free shot. And it was fabulous to see both these guys so tuned-in all day long.

Rewarded hugely

Jack McCaffrey is a risk-taker and he was rewarded hugely on Sunday. The goal, left foot, right foot, fisted points: I didn’t know he had that kind of range of skills. But it was odd that, for all of Kerry’s astuteness, the most dangerous man on the field was given the freedom of the park. McCaffrey was largely left unattended. Everyone knows he has that speed, but the execution was incredible. Has he even scored 1-3 for Clontarf? To do that in an All-Ireland final is outrageous. And the goal was special. The kick-out from Cluxton was intentionally sliced to get the ball to drift towards the Hogan Stand. Howard’s leap is magnificent – it was like the old Aussie Rules leap with the knees raised and eyes on the ball.

And it was hugely important. And as soon as he comes down, he knows there is a gap over the top of that thicket of bodies. He gets the ball to Ciarán Kilkenny. But if you watch, McCaffrey is like a guy racing against Usain Bolt at that moment. He is out of the traps and gone. And Scully’s handpass was perfect because he took the weight of it so it bounced and sat up in front of McCaffrey. From a coaching perspective, a good hand pass allows the receiver to make the decision. A bad hand pass makes the decision for him. So Scully’s contribution was critical: it went unnoticed but it allowed Jack to come onto the ball at full tilt and the goal opened up in front of him. It was one of the brilliant plays.

The move could have been a Dublin set-play or at least a sketch planted in the minds of the players. But that strategy would fail dramatically if Kerry hadn’t pushed up. Pushing up is all fine and good if you can break the ball. But if you concede a clean possession, you better foul fast or you will pay. Dublin took them for 1-3 from that aggression. It was amazing to see just how brave Kerry were on pressuring Dublin’s kick-out. But it cost them.

In Gaelic football, the followers don’t seem to think it important to know the actual rules of the game

Jonny Cooper’s red card was a huge moment. Dublin recognised that David Clifford was the pre-eminent threat and they put their senior defender on him. It was a battle royale from the start. I was right behind the delivery of the ball which led to the penalty. Paul Geaney is a genius at spotting these mismatches and he delivered instantly. And Cooper was in a slight panic: he was out of position and his back was to the ball and he grappled and interfered with his man. He knew what he was doing. Most referees are not strong enough to award that penalty. David Gough was.

Actual rules

When I go to watch a rugby match with friends, I rely on them for the rules. And they can always tell me. But in Gaelic football, the followers don’t seem to think it important to know the actual rules of the game. Even players can be ignorant of them. To me, it is a failing. Would you go watch a world snooker final not knowing the rules?

To give a fair critique of what happened next, you must have an understanding of the noting infractions as delivered by a referee. These are limited to two or three categories of fouls. So remember Jack Barry tackling the guy with the closed fist? It was a noting offence. Two noting offences mean a yellow card. So for the penalty, Cooper was told he was being noted. The next infraction was the foul on the 13-metre line. That was the second noting offence and it meant a yellow. What you have to understand is that the next noting foul means an automatic yellow. So Cooper’s third foul is an immediate yellow. And hence it was a double yellow and a red.

There was a debate offered that the last play was actually a foul by Clifford. I thought this was nonsensical. And this idea of, well, it’s an All-Ireland final so the threshold has to be elevated for these infractions – it is silly. Sport doesn’t work like that. I was astounded that there was any debate on this.

The big black mark for Kerry is how did they let Jack McCaffrey run so free?

Now, Tom O’Sullivan was very lucky his infraction was deemed to be a noting rather than an automatic yellow. You could argue Gough was very brave here also because the stadium was demanding he level up the books. And this was a hugely difficult game to officiate. It was so close and, with a century of history riding on it, I thought he was brilliant. Now, Cluxton was a fair bit off his line when he made the penalty save. But Gough has just given a penalty that the Dubs feel was “harsh”. To order a retake would have been to invite anarchy. For me, the big pity is Gough can’t do the replay, but Conor Lane is having a fine season also.

Full range

But Cluxton might have saved it again anyway. On Sunday, we saw the full range of his gifts. We have always accepted his housekeeping is top class. His composure sets him apart. The penalty save, his distribution, the save from Paul Murphy – it was one of the very best all-round goalkeeping displays we could hope to see.

Will Dublin put Cooper on Clifford again? Probably. They felt he was the best man for the job so that is unlikely to change. It was high-risk stuff but the game was littered in yellow cards. No matter what way Jim Gavin shuffled the decks, Jonny was going to be marking a dangerous forward while on a yellow card.

The big black mark for Kerry is how did they let Jack McCaffrey run so free? I would have thought Paul Murphy is perfectly cut for that assignment. Against that, Jack Barry powered into the game, so starting him was a big call and it worked. Killian Spillane coming in also worked hugely well. That goal he got was a brilliant finish, going left and then immediately right, which always throws the goalkeeper.

Normally, the All-Ireland final ends the season. Strike the tents. Any difficulty – like who you didn’t pick – doesn’t really matter. But in this case, it does. Both managers have a bit of parenting to do. Obviously, Bernard Brogan, Eoghan O’Gara, Eric Lowndes and Rory O’Carroll didn’t make the Dublin 26. But Diarmuid Connolly did and he made the field of play. I don’t know the fine details of this but I do know it is a situation to manage.

Was James O’Donoghue fit to make the Kerry 26 also? For those lads, it is bloody difficult to accept this and carry on with positivity in the camp. I don’t care how empowered or humble they all are, they will be hurting. But their managers have two weeks now to make sure everyone is in the right frame of mind to prepare for what must be one of the most eagerly awaited games in the long history of Dublin versus Kerry.

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