So now we know. It’s the Leinster and defending All-Ireland champions Dublin we’ll be up against in this year’s Sam Maguire decider in three weeks time.
In the lead-up to today’s semi-final I couldn’t make my mind up as to which of the two I’d prefer it to be. The match was a bit like that too – Dublin so dominant early on, then rocked by an astonishing Kerry barrage shortly before half-time, Dublin then clawing their way back into it before Kerry pushed on again and then finally Dublin making it over the line with a last, decisive push.
I never had any intention of going to today’s semi-final. We were away on hols and zoned out when the tickets went on sale and, anyway it seemed a bit churlish to be looking for tickets when so many would be aiming to get to their first (and possibly last) football match of the year.
But one of the advantages of living within walking distance of HQ is that a late, late offer of tickets is something that can readily be availed of. I got the call at 2.45pm and, some quick afternoon rearranging later, was apologising my way into a cracking seat in the middle of the Lower Hogan shortly after the ball was thrown in.
As the saying goes, nothing beats being there and there was, for sure, an electric atmosphere in Croker today, where, as is the norm for semis, the support split roughly 75:25 in favour of Dublin. The other great advantage of being there rather than on the couch at home was that I didn’t have to listen to Moe, Larry and Curly on the box.
It was a strange game in many ways. Kerry took an age to get moving and it was gone thirteen minutes before David Moran registered their first score of the day, Dublin having put four points over by then. Ten minutes later Dublin were nine to four in front and threatening to disappear out of sight.
The Kerry comeback in the last ten minutes of the first half was as stunning as it was unexpected. Their lassitude up till then gave no hint that they had such an explosive burst in them, one that, when it occurred, stunned the crowd and the Dublin team in equal measure.
The two points they got before the first goal steadied them. From the kickout after the second point, Paul Geaney intercepted the short one to the corner and the ball was quickly transferred inside where Darran O’Sullivan applied the finish to the net. He ended up in the net too, courtesy of a hefty shove from Jonny Cooper, but surprisingly no card was flashed for this.
When Gooch swung the left peg out under the Hill to loft over another score, giving Kerry the lead for the first time, the air started to fill with all kinds of possibilities about how this game would go. Was this the moment when the bubble of those valiant Corinthian lads in blue had burst?
Such sentiments got legs soon after when Paul Geaney rose to meet a high ball in from Anthony Maher and fisted it over the line. Stephen Cluxton pawed it back out but the umpire was already jogging over to snatch and wave the green flag. A Cooper free just before the break stretched Kerry’s improbable lead – at the conclusion of a half in which they’d been fairly thoroughly outplayed – to a full five points.
As the stadium buzzed with conversation at half-time, much of it must have revolved around the astounding turnaround we’d all just witnessed. Could Kerry keep the foot to the pedal? Were the Dubs capable of wresting back ascendancy in a contest that had canted wildly out of their control?
I was disappointed with Kerry in the third quarter. Sure, Dublin were always going to come at them but it wasn’t as if they did so with all guns blazing. Kerry seemed to shrink back into themselves and invited the champions onto them. Bad move.
With twenty minutes to go, Dublin were back level. Dean Rock – who would end the day on twelve points, ten from placed balls (including two superb ‘45s) – did much of the heavy lifting on the scoresheet, with Kerry apparently content to concede scoreable frees rather than give up clear goal chances.
That Dublin leveller at last prodded the Kingdom into action. Three super scores from play – from sub Barry John Keane, Paul Geaney and sub James O’Donoghue – restored some breathing space to them. Ten minutes to go and now it was looking like it might be our boys in black against the Munster champions in the decider.
But back, once more, came Dublin. With six minutes to go they were level again and an incredible score from way out on the left from Kevin McManamon put them in front with the game entering added time.
There was still time for Kerry to level, which they did via Stephen O’Brien, but time too for Dublin to sink the dagger twice at the other end to claim the spoils. Two pressured, and precious, scores from play – from sub Eoghan O’Gara and Diarmuid Connolly – finally broke Kerry’s resolve and sent Dublin through to their second final in a row.
There was plenty of controversy about incidents in the game, with Kerry in particular incensed over the decision not to award Peter Crowley a free for a frontal charge by Kevin McManamon in injury-time. A free awarded there would surely have been converted by Bryan Sheehan (Kerry were one down at the time) and, in a game of tight margins, it could well have helped to push the outcome the other way.
Them’s the breaks, though, and I’m not wholly convinced that David Gough’s reffing had a decisive outcome today. Dublin looked the better team for much of the afternoon but they took an inordinate amount of time and effort translating this into victory.
Kerry, by contrast, seemed to be hanging in there by the seat of their pants for long periods, the miles on the clock of all those ageing titans all too obvious. It wouldn’t surprise me if up to half a dozen of them played their final championship game for their county today.
And so it’s now down to us to do what we can to stop the unstoppable blue juggernaut. Dublin under Jim Gavin have only lost one championship game since he took over ahead of the 2013 season and they’re unbeaten in League and championship for something like 26 matches at this stage.
It’ll require a herculean effort on our part to prevent them becoming the first county since Kerry in 2007 to complete back-to-back All-Ireland successes. But, as we know from last year, we’re one of the few counties out there with a team capable of fronting up to this Dublin side and I’ve every confidence we’ll do so three weeks hence. We’re surely in for one hell of an All-Ireland final contest then.