I went along to Croke Park this afternoon with no great expectation about seeing an upset in the big one. It was, to be honest, more of a scouting expedition – seeing as three of the counties in action were ones we’ll need to be beating in the summer if we’re to reach the summit (with the fourth a possible opponent in the qualifiers should we again bomb on the way like we did last year) – but it turned out to be a highly entertaining day’s action so it was well worth the visit.
Kerry are back. A strange proposition, I know, but having suffered so much at Dublin’s hands in recent years – today’s win for them was their first over Dublin at HQ under Jim Gavin, their most recent Croke Park win before today over the city slickers being the day of the startled earwigs way back in 2009 – there was a strong sense of redemption and renewal in the air as Croke Park emptied rapidly after the final whistle sounded. As it did, Kerry emerged as winners of today’s highly entertaining NFL Division One final on a scoreline of 0-20 to 1-16.
They may have only squeezed home by the narrowest of margins but Kerry were nonetheless worthy winners today. They played a cagey and clever game, keeping pace efficiently with the four-in-a-row League champions up to the break and then pushing on impressively to take the game to them in the second half.
Dublin briefly went three points clear in the second quarter, threatening to get a run on the Kingdom at that stage. Diarmuid Connolly’s black card seemed to unnerve them a bit, though, and despite missing a goal chance – which would have levelled the game, but Stephen Cluxton was equal to David Moran’s shot – Kerry upped their intensity sufficiently to pare the gap to just one point at the break.
According to Mrs WJ, Connolly’s black card resulted in plenty of caterwauling amongst the studio guests on RTÉ radio at half-time. I was behind the goal in the Davin Stand (thanks by the way, to Ann-Marie for the tickets) so I didn’t get a good view of the incident but when ref Paddy Neilan conferred with his linesman, the latter gave a clear jersey-pull-down signal and off went the Vinnies’ man.
The first black card, a drag down by Jonathan Lyne on Connolly, was a text-book black card offence. But then so too was a body check by Brian Fenton – if you’re not convinced, look at it here – in plain view of the ref. Fenton saw yellow for this but the ref bottled what was a black card infraction all day long.
Kerry’s strong running and neat point-taking after the break saw them surge five points clear. Dublin were now quite obviously rattled – Kerry kept them scoreless for nineteen minutes after the restart – and they should have been reduced to fourteen men when Philly McMahon landed a sly punch on, I think, Paul Geaney as the Dingle man was falling under a hefty challenge. I guess the ref didn’t see it but it was helpfully shown twice again on the big screen in the immediate aftermath. Not for the first time, McMahon somehow managed to avoid the line for what was a clear-cut red card offence.
Dublin still had the cavalry to come to pull this one from the fire but, for once, Jim Gavin’s mixing and shifting didn’t work. Ciaran Kilkenny – eschewing his by now normal role of essaying robotic five-yard hand-passes around the middle of the park – was doing well in attack, and had scored two high quality points, but Gavin switched him to half-back when Kevin McMananamon came on, Cian O’Sullivan strangely giving way.
There were other oddities in Gavin’s selection. Jack McCaffrey didn’t make the match-day 26. Niall Scully – Dublin’s most exciting find this spring – started on the bench. Is Jonny Cooper injured? And where the hell has Cormac Costello disappeared to?
Set against that, Niall Reddin did well in midfield, kicking two glorious points into the Davin end. So too did Paul Mannion, a player who blows cold as regularly as he does hot but whose goal – eight steps taken before the shot, by the way – dragged Dublin back into it.
It also awoke their soporific support, which up ’till then hadn’t given Dublin the kind of home advantage they should have enjoyed, given that at least two-thirds of the crowd of just under 54,000 were attired in blue. Sure, they booed every time a refereeing decision went against them and whistled in their usual unsporting way whenever a Kerry player was lining up a free but they never really got behind their team, especially in that period after half-time when Kerry had them under the hammer.
They went ape-shit, of course, when Mannion slipped the ball to the net and it looked then like the house party was about to get going. Before anyone had the chance to get Lionel Richie’s All Night Long on the turntable, however, Kerry steadied the ship and stretched the lead back out to three. Back into their sated selves went the Dublin support.
In the end, we did get a thrilling denouement. Dublin cut the gap back to one and then in the dying seconds Anthony Maher grabbed a large fistful of Mick Fitzsimons’ jersey, despairingly hauling the Cuala man to the carpet. Off went the Duagh substitute (who wasn’t on the field all that long) on black and you’d have bet your house on Dean Rock landing the free, which was dead in front of the posts, albeit a full fifty yards from the sticks. Rock had the distance but his effort came back off the post and Kerry were the winners.
So, it’s the first League campaign under Jim Gavin that Dublin haven’t won. It’s also the first game Brian Fenton has ever played in for the Jacks in which he’s ended up on the losing side. 37 games and finally out. Meanwhile, Kerry – who themselves were denied a much more significant five-in-a-row when they were kings of all they surveyed a generation ago – have denied their great rivals the same pleasure in the League. And, of course, we’re still the League specialists, our 80-year-old record of six NFL titles on the trot once more no longer under threat.
Two further points of note from today’s result. The first is that Kerry’s win today subtly alters the narrative as we head into summer. Kerry were, I know, already second-favourites for Sam before today’s decider but this result will, for sure, embolden them as they begin to plot for the championship. Last year’s they fielded a team with too many old legs in starting positions (coming up narrowly short last August) but Fitz seems to have hit on a better balance this year. With the likes of Enright and O’Donoghue to come back, it’s stronger they’ll get on harder ground over the coming months.
Second, it’s time for three cheers for the League itself. The spring competition has been growing in lustre in recent years and this year’s League action has been particularly good. Week after week of hard, competitive matches between teams of roughly equal quality, capped off today by a cracking final – who’d have thunk that could be an attractive proposition?
Between May and August, by comparison, we’re going to get a series of mismatches – if Kildare truly are Leinster’s second-best team, then on today’s showing there’s no point at all in running that provincial competition this year – as the slow, constipated crawl towards the All-Ireland series drags on and on. The case for regime change in the championship now looks overwhelming.
A quick word before ending about Galway. It was half-time in the Division Two final before I got to Croke Park today but, by the sounds of it, I didn’t miss much. Kildare looked to be on their way to victory as they opened a three-point gap on the Tribesmen in the second half but Kevin Walsh’s charges finished strongly to win by two.
What was striking was the gulf in quality between the curtain-raiser and the main event. There was precious little intensity in the Galway/Kildare game, both sides largely going through the motions for most of the seventy minutes, and one could only imagine what would have befallen these two had the card instead read Galway v Kerry and Kildare v Dublin.
Mind you, Galway’s final flourish was a decent one – Michael Daly’s two late points were particularly eye-catching – and it’s clear that under Kevin Walsh they are an improving team. They celebrated the win today – their first on hallowed ground since their All-Ireland success of 2001 – with considerable gaiety but, for sure, they’ll now be looking to build on this by giving us (assuming we account for Sligo or New York first) grief at Salthill in June.
That likely clash could, indeed, be one of the few footballing highlights between now and the August Bank Holiday weekend. Such is the mad, mad world of GAA fixture scheduling and competition structure. But things can and do change … as Dublin found out at Croke Park today.
Audio report from Croke Park: