“What do you think of that, Joe Brolly?”
At the risk of sounding like Father Ted at the Golden Cleric Awards, it is time for me to answer Kieran’s question.
I have been thinking about Kerry since the final and how their image as the kingpins of Gaelic football no longer accords with the reality. Since 2002, they have faced nine serious tests in Croke Park. Their record in these has been abject. Armagh, Tyrone (three times), Dublin (three times), Donegal (2012) all brought war and on each occasion Kerry wilted. Their only All-Ireland victories during that period have been soft ones, where the games were over by the end of the first quarter and they were made look like the Harlem globetrotters against the white men. The single exception was last year against Donegal, which I will return to anon.
Last Sunday week, when it was put up to them, they flopped again. Dublin did nothing more than play with heart and courage. Indeed, their tally of 0-12 was woeful. It was raining, but then again, this is Ireland. Kerry simply surrendered and that is the bottom line.
Colm Cooper is a barometer for this Kerry era. Often described as the greatest player of his generation, I have always strongly disputed this tag. What he is, is the most skillful player of his era. At an All-Stars night some years ago, in the vampire hours, Michael Lyster was in full flow at the bar, which is one of the most awe inspiring sights in Irish society. The northern journalist, Paddy Heaney, sober as a young Mormon going door-to-door, later described the events. Gooch wandered over and sat up on a bar stool next to Lyster. As the two men chatted, an astonished Heaney noticed that Gooch had dropped an empty beer bottle on his foot and was casually playing keepy-uppy with it. Indeed, we have seen the man produce countless moments of genius throughout his career, but only when he has had time and space.
When the heat is turned up, he disappears, starting with that second half in 2002 against Armagh, after ‘Big’ Joe Kernan had smashed his 1977 runners up trophy against the changing room wall at half-time and asked his players why they were “being so f*****g polite”.
Or that trilogy against Tyrone.
Or the second half of the 2013 semi-final against Dublin when Cian O’Sullivan picked him up.
Or 2012, against Donegal when he was entirely anonymous and simply gave up.
Or last Sunday week, when Philly McMahon was rampant and Colm – as usual - went with the flow.
My point is that he’s not a leader. In adversity, he fails. He cannot turn the tide for his team. Unlike say Peter Canavan.
Or Bernard Brogan.
Or Michael Murphy.
Or Michael Darragh.
Or Tomas O’Sé.
If Philly McMahon had tried that stuff with ‘Wee’ Peter he would have been waking up next morning with a very sore face and probably about 1-3 scored off him.
The Kerry adoration industry, led by Michael O’Muircheartaigh, were upset once when I described him as the greatest first half footballer in the history of the game, but it is the truth.
One man, and one man alone, has rescued Kerry from a generation of nothingness: Kieran Donaghy. After being unable to cope with Armagh’s sheer courage in 2002, then trounced by Tyrone in 2003 and 2005, Kerry, and the Gooch, were in a very bad place. Then, in an act of desperation by Jack O’Connor, as his team were sliding out of the 2006 series, he brought in the big man from the TG4 underdogs program to play against Longford in the qualifiers. A ‘Star’ was born. But most importantly, he was a heavyweight competitor. So, he led Kerry to pushover 2006 and 2007 titles against abject opponents and Cooper and Co flourished off the back of his trojan work. But against Tyrone’s warrior team in 2008, Star couldn’t do it all by himself. There was no one else to step up, so Kerry lost. The pattern has continued ever since.
It was the same old story last year. The narrative was about Eamonn Fitzmaurice’s tactical acumen but there was little sign of it against Mayo. In echoes of Jack O’Connor’s last desperate throw of the dice in 2006 against Longford, Fitzmaurice, five points down with a few minutes to go, brought on the big man and hoped for the best. And as he has done so often in the past, the big man delivered. ‘Star’ drew the game for Kerry, Fitzmaurice hinted it had been his plan all along and in the replay, Donaghy wiped the floor with Mayo’s defence, doing the dirty work that allowed his team mates to look like the ‘Golden Years’ crew. That, coupled with Mayo’s natural generosity of course.
The final against Donegal was a curious affair. Jim McGuinness told me earlier this year that before the Dublin semi-final, his squad was at fever pitch. They knew that if they didn’t go for it 100% they would be annihilated. So, they played as though their lives depended on it. But before the final, their thinking was, “We can only screw this up ourselves.”
So, instead of going for it, they played conservatively. Even so, they were well on their way to winning the game when Durcan’s freak kick-out handed the trophy to Kerry. And of course it was Star, again, who made the telling contribution. His 1-2 from play – in a game where O’Donoghue didn’t even get a shot off – was the crux.
Fast forward to last Sunday week, where for 50 minutes, Kerry were entirely subjugated by the Dubs. Timid, fearful, uncompetitive. I will never understand how Eamonn Fitzmaurice delayed it for so long, but when he brought the big man on, he almost won them the game.
Why? Because he is a competitive big b*****d and won’t lie down to anyone. Suddenly, Rory O’Carroll and the boys were out of their comfort zone. The first impossible ball ‘Star’ won, he put the goal on a plate for Cillian Young only for Young to slip. Shortly afterwards, he was denied an absolutely clear penalty when a high ball came in and the Dubs panicked. Six points would have won Kerry the game and kept the ‘Kerry Adoration Industry’ rolling. As it is, the truth is out there.
What do you think of that Kieran Donaghy?