I’m still chuckling over the absence of the inevitable Dublin/Kerry final this year.
Even a few weeks ago the notion of ourselves and Tyrone making the decider was a borderline crazy one. That was reflected in the betting markets with Kerry installed as odds-on favourites to win out, even with two knockout games left to play.
But I guess everyone has become used to a world where Dublin and Kerry feature so highly. This is, of course, understandable in Dublin’s case, as they’ve been in every final bar one since 2011, winning seven times.
Kerry, though? Beaten in the 2011 and 2019 finals and winning – with just a half-formed team – in 2014, their absence from the game’s biggest day shouldn’t be seen as a shock.
It’s only, in truth, because of the media fawning about them that their defeat yesterday appeared to be so seismic. In reality it wasn’t. This is a team that has forgotten how to win at Croke Park and were beaten there yesterday by a better and smarter outfit.
So the Championship has now careered off in a completely different direction but, while it’s different, it’s not exactly a voyage into the unknown. We’ve certainly been in such territory before.
The most recent year in which neither Dublin nor Kerry featured in the final was 2012, which was also the most recent time there was an Ulster/Connacht pairing on the game’s biggest day of the year.
We all remember plenty about 2012. I always chalk that one down as one we could have won – as opposed the should-have-won ones of 1996, 2013, 2016 and 2017 – and even though Jim McGuinness’s messianic leadership of Donegal made victory for them seem inevitable, this narrative was only really developed in retrospect. Going into that final, they had as many doubts as we had about their place in the world and their capacity to go out and win the thing.
Both ourselves and Tyrone will head into this final with similar hopes and worries. Our big-day experience and our toppling of the Dubs will stand to us but they’ve beaten Donegal, Monaghan and Kerry this year so they certainly won’t fear us.
From our perspective, there’s likely to be at least some reorienting of our focus. I doubt, though, that James Horan and his colleagues had discounted Tyrone to the extent that the rest of us undoubtedly did, though I do think that the multi-faceted challenge Tyrone will pose requires plenty of different thinking within our brains trust.
In a wider sense, there is for sure a welcome air of freshness about this final. While ourselves and Tyrone know each other well we’ve never met in a final before so to that extent it’ll be a novel Sam Maguire decider this year.
That should also make for a different kind of build-up to the final too. I don’t know about the rest of you but the last time I really enjoyed the lead-in to a decider was ahead of that 2012 one. As Dublin’s successes racked up over the course of the last decade, the prospect of taking them on again became an ever more grim task. I was truly thankful last year’s final was played behind closed doors.
This year, then, feels like a new beginning. We’re still there, knocking on that door, now with renewed insistence. Tyrone have seemingly come from nowhere but they’ve been through the door more recently than us and will be confident in their ability to do so again.
We might be slight favourites but this is in every sense a 50:50 contest. We’ll approach it with optimism, albeit grounded with caution in light of our horrendous final record.
All those lost finals are, though, all history now, there’s a whole new ball game to be played on Saturday week. And one thing is sure – both teams will be well ready to play it.