Walking along the North Circular Road early this afternoon, it almost felt like All-Ireland final day. The vicinity was thronged and most of the people out on the streets looked like they were going to form part of the capacity crowd that was set to assemble at Croke Park. The weather was fine, the two most decorated counties in the game were set to go head-to-head in the Division One League final. Sure it’d be like championship in April.
Only it quickly became apparent once the ball was thrown in that this wasn’t going to happen. The contest was open and there was plenty of commitment and heart shown by the two teams but pared down to its bones this was just an ordinary League final, albeit one played in front of an extraordinarily large Croke Park crowd.
Kerry stuck with Dublin for most of the first half but even then you could see they were labouring somewhat. Gooch left Philly McMahon for dead with a nice feint before pointing and Stephen O’Brien was causing a bit of havoc closer to Dublin’s goal but further out the field Kerry were in trouble.
Their midfield was malfunctioning and every time Dublin came forward they looked capable of scoring. The second of Bernard Brogan’s points – his fetch, turn and shot was a model of efficiency, shaking off Marc Ó Sé with ease as he did so – was probably the pick of their ten first half scores.
The game was still in the mix at the break and this was also still the case until close to ten minutes from the end, though by then red lights were going off all over the place for the Kingdom. The fatal blow was undoubtedly Aidan O’Mahony’s sending-off – a wholly merited straight red he picked up for stretching Jonny Cooper off the ball – as this meant that the superiority Dublin were already enjoying in the areas of restarts and ball retention was immediately enhanced.
Even then, it took them a good while to seal the deal. O’Mahony walked on 46 minutes and Dean Rock was blasting the penalty Dublin got for a foul on Paul Mannion over the bar with ten minutes to go. That score put the Dubs three clear but by full-time they added a further 2-3 to their total while Kerry put on only a solitary further point.
A late avalanche of scores is this Dublin team’s calling card. However, the way they steamrolled Kerry in the closing stages today will surely result in deeply furrowed brows down south.
The first goal – belted home by Paul Flynn, who intercepted Brendan Kealy’s attempted short kick-out – exposed the gulf in competence between the respective counties’ restarts. This was an area of play that Dublin had the upper hand in all day, with Cluxton getting damn close to 100% of his kick-outs away to a blue shirt while Kealy frequently struggled to get his efforts safely to one of his own men. The calamity that led to Flynn’s goal was simply an accident waiting to happen.
What will, though, be of greater concern to Kerry was the degree to which their old guard was eclipsed so thoroughly this afternoon. Kieran Donaghy had a very frustrating day, with the only Hail Mary ball he caught all day – and this option appeared to be Kerry’s main attacking gambit today – resulting in a free out for a push in the back.
In addition Gooch, O’Sullivan and Walsh all contributed far less than they might have been expected to. The first two of this trio have been in sparkling form all spring but today on the big stage at HQ they utterly failed to stamp their authority on proceedings. As a result, Kerry’s attack never looked threatening or incisive and Dublin’s blanket – one that’s as suffocating as that of the Nordies when they deploy it – was easily able to cope with the best of what the Kingdom had to offer in attack.
To be honest, I felt Dublin played well within themselves, which isn’t surprising for April but also provides further proof (were it needed) about what rude health they’re in at the minute. Not getting out of second gear while dishing out an eleven-point beating to the Green and Gold – the fifth time in a row they’ve now beaten them in Croke Park clashes – has to be satisfactory from their point of view.
What all this means in the greater scheme of things is difficult to say. It’s tempting to conclude that the Kerry lads are a busted flush, as it certainly looked that way today. I’d always thought that it would take the likely late August meeting between the two counties for Kerry’s ageing warriors to be found out but that happened instead today. The question now is what will Eamonn Fitzmaurice do in light of this, seeing as his approach of relying so heavily on the thirtysomethings patently isn’t going to cut it in this year’s championship.
Still, it’s equally difficult to see how Kerry might fail to make it as far as the All-Ireland semi-final this year where, once they get there, they’ll surely meet a Dublin side that’ll have walloped every team they come across on the way to the penultimate round. Maybe Fitz will be able to refashion his forces to greater purpose in the meantime, maybe they’ll seize upon this extra ladling of hurt that’s been dumped on them today and use it as an incentive to come again over the summer. Maybe, though after today I’m not so sure.
And Dublin? They’re on offer for Sam tonight at 5/4 whereas, after thumping Cork in last year’s League final, the corresponding price was 6/4 and it was, I think, about the same after they hammered Derry in the 2014 decider. The point here is that this isn’t the first year that Dublin have emerged from the League looking unstoppable and while this could prove to be the case in 2016 – as it ultimately, and despite our best efforts, was last year – this year’s championship still has to be fought for and others, notably our lads, will want to have a major say in how that particular battle plays out.
That, though, is for another day. Today belonged to Dublin, even if the lukewarm lap of honour they did with the cup – that barely half the team joined in with – would suggest it’s not a win they’ll savour for too awful long.
PS: Top marks to the GAA for the day’s main event at Croke Park. Laochra was colourful, varied and visually stunning, with Micheál Ó Muirtheartaigh’s segment the high point of it for me. Despite his advancing years he was, for sure, the top performing Kerryman at Croke Park this afternoon.