Seán Moran: Open feel to football championship may signal a transformation

The signs are there that Dublin’s domination is weakening, with Kerry looking for payback

Kerry manager Peter Keane talks to  Paudie Clifford ahead of the Munster SFC Final against Cork in Killarney. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Kerry manager Peter Keane talks to Paudie Clifford ahead of the Munster SFC Final against Cork in Killarney. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

Transformative years in the football championship don’t come around that often, and the assumption is that we’re living through one at the moment. The signs are there that Dublin’s historic domination is weakening, and that Kerry, having paid heavy dues in the last two years, are now looking for payback.

Even Mayo, six times All-Ireland finalists without taking the tin home even once, looked reinvigorated on Sunday when taking the first of the season’s provincial titles.

You could validly argue, what’s new? Dublin, Kerry, Mayo, Tyrone – bidding to become Ulster champions again – are the counties which have run an All-Ireland final cartel for the past six seasons. No other county has made it to the last day of the season.

Unlike Dublin’s harrowing experience of defensive systems gone haywire against Meath in 2010, Kerry got no second chance

What’s obviously different is the adjusted dynamics between the counties. Anyway when your champions are going for seven-in-a-row the bar for novelty or transformation is set pretty low.

The last such year was probably 2010, which marked the end of the Kerry-Tyrone duopoly that had carved up the previous seven All-Irelands – just as in a more lopsided way Dublin and Kerry have currently “shared” the last eight.

It was also the high-water mark of the kind of anarchy that made the All-Ireland qualifiers such a success for their first decade, anyway. For the only time in 20 years no provincial champions made it as far as the All-Ireland semi-finals.

Cork finally stuck a flag at the summit of the game – an ageing team for sure although few could have anticipated the assorted distress of the decade to come.

Of greater long-term significance was how close Dublin came to Cork and therefore the All-Ireland. Ironically, as they announced themselves it was the last year they failed to win Leinster, mainly due to teething problems in the tightened-up defensive structure designed never to allow a team to take them apart like Kerry had done the previous year.

In the 2010 All-Ireland semi-final Pat Gilroy’s team featured 16 of the footballers used when winning the following year’s All-Ireland final. Just one player, Michael Fitzsimons, remains in Dessie Farrell’s starting 15 – and one other, Philly McMahon, on the panel.

Dying minutes

Kerry now fit that mould. Since their most recent All-Ireland success in 2014 they have played Dublin four times in championship, winning none – and extending the sequence to six in succession, a blue stretch unparalleled in relations between the counties; Dublin had never previously won more than two championship matches in a row against Kerry.

Under Peter Keane they came close in 2019 – leading 14-man opponents in the dying minutes before drawing and losing the replay. Arguably last year was an even tougher lesson as Kerry came unstuck trying to be methodical and defensive, which combined with a poor day in attack to leave them vulnerable to Cork’s late sucker punch.

Unlike Dublin’s harrowing experience of defensive systems gone haywire against Meath in 2010, Kerry got no second chance.

There was accordingly the sense of a punishment beating about last Sunday’s Munster final.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and Kerry appear this year to have realised that although their defence needs more work than their attack, that doesn’t mean worrying to the point of undermining their strong suit.

One thing we know from the 2000s is that no county was more successful than Tyrone in using the weight of Kerry’s expectations against them

Any match I’ve attended involving Kerry this year has been reviewed by Peter Keane counting the number of scores conceded even when the 13 conceded against Dublin in the league was made up of 4-9.

“Look, you don’t like conceding goals,” he said down in Thurles – a little unnecessarily – but it allowed his team recover a seven-point deficit. You suspect that if Dublin need four goals to draw with Kerry in the championship they’ll be in trouble.

That 2020 defeat was a killer. Nearly any other year this century and they would have been able to reorganise a vengeful response in the qualifiers. Instead they had a whole winter and a pandemic lockdown to brood on the mishap.

Defeats make a team. Dublin’s first All-Ireland was informed by consecutive humiliations by Tyrone and Kerry as well as the narrow defeat in 2010. Ten years on and Kerry lost to Galway for the first time since the 1960s, failed to get through the window of opportunity against Dublin, and then lost a provincial semi-final the very year they couldn’t afford to.

Even with all of that iron in the soul, Kerry know that if they are to play Dublin in the All-Ireland final it won’t be the Dublin that looked so diffident against Wexford and Meath but one with a win over Kildare and – should that also prove underwhelming – against a rejuvenated Mayo in the All-Ireland semi-final.

And say it’s James Horan’s Mayo, fuelled by the ultimate adrenalin rush of having finally beaten Dublin, their serial tormentors?

Blood in the water

Before all that, of course, come the weekend’s provincial finals. Kildare have not beaten Dublin in 21 championships, and although they can see the blood in the water as well as anyone else they’re unlikely to give Jack O’Connor the satisfaction of bookending the Dublin era.

Intriguingly, the Ulster final between Monaghan and Tyrone will give Kerry All-Ireland semi-final opponents with plenty of history. There hasn’t been more than a score between them and Monaghan in the past three championship meetings, including a draw three years ago, the most recent match.

The past few years’ history with Tyrone isn’t much different and the six-goal haymaker Peter Keane’s team delivered in the league last month may prove an uncomfortable precedent going into an All-Ireland semi-final.

One thing we know from the 2000s is that no county was more successful than Tyrone in using the weight of Kerry’s expectations against them.

The fact that the football championship is providing such open discussion is in its own way a transformation.

smoran@irishtimes.com

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