It will, I know, be through wistful Green and Red tinted eyes that I’ll be watching the action at Croke Park on Sunday – with my own attendance at Croke Park for the final facilitated by those kind souls at Chill Insurance – but leaving our own travails aside for for now (we let the both of them off the hook in the last twelve months!), this year’s decider has to be seen as one to savour. Kerry, once more, aiming to stitch together back-to-back Sam Maguire successes and Dublin seeking their third title of a decade only half gone and looking to rack up a first ever championship three-in-a-row winning streak against the game’s aristocrats. What’s not to like about that?
Thirty years have passed since the only other Kerry/Dublin final I was at. The Green and Gold were aiming for back-to-back wins that day too and Dublin, like this time, had tasted All-Ireland success two years beforehand. The late, great Páidí Ó Sé captained Kerry to a four-point win on that September afternoon (on the same day that we won the minor final, beating Cork) and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Kingdom emerge from Sunday’s decider with a victory of similar proportions.
The main reason why I think Kerry will win is because in the key area where we were ultimately found lacking against Dublin, Kerry have riches in abundance. Our inability to get the right kind of ball into our forward line in the right way, coupled with our lack of a rapier-like cutting edge inside to complement Aidan’s ball-winning aptitude, meant that we were never able to take advantage of Dublin’s backline frailties. I doubt Kerry will have the same problems and it’s easy to conjur up a scenario that sees Dublin’s foul-happy defence getting gutted by the combined talents of Gooch, O’Donoghue, Geaney and the rest feeding off fast, high-quality deliveries from out the field.
The second big advantage that Kerry will have on Sunday – which we had too but never really exploited – is their midfield. Dublin cannot afford to go toe-to-toe here or else they’ll be destroyed so they’ll have to build from further back, like they did against us. We had some (though not enough) success in making life hard for them and I’d expect Kerry will focus on this too, as well as being prepared to go for long-range restarts themselves. Fitz won’t have needed to have seen Cluxton’s meltdown in the latter stages of the drawn semi-final to know that his lads will have to get under the skin of the Parnells man but it’ll have provided further evidence for him on the effectiveness of doing so.
The Fitzmaurice factor is, of course, relevant too. While I remain to be convinced that the Kerry manager is – as many Kingdom supporters would claim – an out-and-out tactical genius, it’s fairly clear at this stage that he’s no daw either. Having had an open book on Dublin twice in six days, you can be sure he’ll have come away from that double tutorial with plenty of ideas about what hammers he’ll want to see his lads hammering on Sunday.
That’s not to say that Dublin are without hope, far from it. It’s worth remembering that Kerry came within a well-executed James O’Donoghue dive from losing the Munster final to Cork and the Rebels showed over both matches, in particular the drawn game, how fallible Kerry can be against goal-hunting opponents. The Kingdom have conceded seven goals to date in this year’s championship (Dublin have only, as the Cork lads would say, left in four) and Tyrone provided further proof of the jitteriness that exists in their backline. And if there’s any team that knows how to put the ball in the net, it’s Dublin.
The two hard matches we gave them in the semis should also be of benefit. The resultant two-week gap to the final is pretty much perfect from Dublin’s point of view and with Kerry kicking their heels waiting for a whole month the Dubs should come into Sunday’s contest primed for action in a way that Kerry, with their long layoff, could well struggle to match.
But those two matches came at a cost to Dublin too. If they ever get around to letting the wider world know the details of their starting fifteen, it’s likely that Cian O’Sullivan won’t be named to start. If he is, then it’ll surely be a Donal Vaughan kind of situation only worse as O’Sullivan is the lynch-pin in their defence. If O’Sullivan is out, Dublin can, for sure, reshuffle – Jonny Cooper to 6 and Mick Fitzsimons (who’s actually a better corner-back than Cooper) in at 2 or else John Small in as a direct replacement at centre-back – but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that any such switches will weaken Dublin, most likely fatally.
With the pain of our semi-final defeat receding to some degree, I’m happy enough – the likes of Cooper and McMahon notwithstanding – to be heading to HQ to lend my support to the team that ended our interest in this year’s championship. Much as I’d like to see them prevail (apart from anything else, if Kerry triumph on Sunday I’ll have been there to see them win as many finals as I’ve seen us lose – how sad is that?), I fear that Kerry hold more aces in this particular decider. I’d expect them to have at least three points to spare on Dublin at the finish.