Seán Moran: Kingdom eager to provide more evidence of Dublin’s fall

Farrell’s side face firing squad in Tralee – and Kerry will aim to deliver the coup de grace

It would bookend a remarkable decade. Dublin travel to Tralee on Saturday for what is shaping up to be a date with the firing squad. There's been a great deal of speculation about what the listless and doomed display against Armagh means for Dessie Farrell's team, but if the prospect of a trip to Kerry doesn't fire a response, the full-time whistle will sound a requiem.

During the past decade, league matches between the counties have been strikingly significant. To give it context, Dublin have always measured themselves against Kerry, and the championship history between the teams up until 2011 was as dispiriting for Dublin as it was extensive.

No two counties have met as often in the GAA's All-Ireland series – 31 matches, more than hurling's Kilkenny-Tipperary (27), which even after a decade's domination still reads clearly against Dublin: 11-17 with three draws.

The irony is that by 2011 even Kerry’s indefatigable ability to plamás the Dubs was wearing thin, and the city tendency to stick out its chest and boast about their “rivalry” with the Kingdom had given way to introspection.

Down at the Kerry media day that year, it was noticeable how little genuine excitement there was at the prospect of the great, iconic clash with Dublin. Kieran Donaghy was respectful but his first reaction was that at least it would be different from playing Mayo and Cork (and especially, one presumed, Tyrone).

Diarmuid Murphy, the former All Star goalkeeper and part of Jack O'Connor's management, was reflective and suggested that Dublin-Kerry meant more to supporters and older generations, such as his fellow selector Ger O'Keeffe, than it did to the current players, who by that stage could hardly even bring themselves to reference the Golden Years video.

Stopped caring

By and large they had stopped caring – not, obviously, about the impending All-Ireland final but the notion that their opponents, strangers to the big day for the previous 16 years, were in some strange way joint keepers with them of the football flame.

In 2011, Kerry hadn’t lost a championship match to Dublin for 34 years and not because they kept missing each other. There had been nine championship matches in the interim. For perspective, Dublin hadn’t ever put together more than two consecutive wins over their “great rivals” in championship history and they had managed that twice.

Pretty soon the mood changed. The ecstasy of Dublin supporters in Croke Park on September 18th, 2011 was transcendent. Vast numbers of them hadn't been alive in 1977 and very few expected Pat Gilroy's team to bridge the gap back to Tony Hanahoe's team and Michael O'Hehir's commentary: "Twenty-nine minutes still remaining in this game. Hallelujah."

Kerry were game and straight-facedly true to their “great rivalry” narrative. It was great to see Dublin back, so it was. Two years later, after a brilliant semi-final revived memories of 1977, disgruntlement had set in. One Kerry official leaving Croke Park was heard to complain that the match would go down as a classic – like all the ones that Dublin won.

By 2016 after another thrilling All-Ireland semi-final, Martin Carney remarked on RTÉ: "Dublin have gone from being an irritant to Kerry to a full-blown plague."

It’s surprising how much of this played out in the league during the decade.

In 2010, 20 months before the first Dublin All-Ireland, Pat Gilroy took a team to Killarney for the opening match of the league, introduced players who would become household names in the years to come and narrowly pinched a first win in Kerry for 28 years.

Backyard

Did it matter? Well, it was a rare win in the All-Ireland champions’ back yard.

Twelve months, later in the first season of the “Spring Series”, they beat Kerry in Croke Park for the first time in 17 years and in the process hit three goals, including one by Kevin McManamon – a premonition of what the year had in store.

With the genie out of the bottle, even the necessary scolding for fresh All-Ireland champions came courtesy of Kerry on the opening night of the 2012 league.

Jim Gavin’s arrival the following season laid down a marker. A scrappy but emphatic 0-11 to 0-4 win in Killarney also underlined an important point. League meetings between the two were by and large tight and at times claustrophobic affairs, and even the odd time they weren’t, such as 2013 and the 2016 final, when the teams were reacquainted later in the year, all bets were off.

No one could afford to get ahead of themselves.

Not that big wins weren’t indicative at times; Kerry’s biggest came in 2012 and prefaced a disappointing year for the champions, whereas Dublin’s highest margin came in 2018, a season that ended badly for their opponents.

By chance the fixture measured out one of the achievements of the Gavin years: breaking the record for unbeaten league and championship matches, previously held by Kerry’s first four-in-a-row team in the 1930s.

From the time Dublin lost to Kerry in the league in 2015 to the next defeat in April 2017 when they again lost to them in the league final, they went 36 matches unbeaten. The frustration for Kerry was that they could have stopped the run at 34 and prevented their predecessors’ record being eclipsed, but were thwarted by a late equaliser in Tralee.

Dublin’s place in history will be emphasised by how competitive and hard to break they were in the league and how that impacted on the old rivalry with Kerry.

Draws have become a feature of their matches in recent times. The last two league meetings have ended level. By Saturday evening that might in retrospect look like a levelling off before decline set in, and no county will be more eager to administer the coup de grace.

smoran@irishtimes.com