AT the end of the 2015 season, Dublin could finally say they were firmly under Kerry’s skin.
Being the first Dublin team to beat Kerry three times in-a-row was an obvious reason but their 2015 All-Ireland win was much more satisfying for other reasons. Poor refereeing calls were a factor in their defeat but Kerry still effectively blew the 2011 All-Ireland final.
Kevin McManamon's late goal in the 2013 All-Ireland semi-final put a false complexion on the final score of a game Kerry could have won. After the 2015 final though, there were absolutely no doubts.
Kerry could rightly argue that another poor refereeing call cost them the 2016 semi-final but a fourth successive championship defeat to Dublin made the pain harder to stomach. And as Dublin marched to two more All-Irelands after their 2016 championship meeting, Kerry weren’t even able to get into the ring to throw a punch against their great rivals during that time.
At the outset of this season, as Dublin stood on the cusp of five-in-a-row, the thoughts of Dublin achieving the immortality that Kerry’s greatest team couldn’t manage was terrifying every footballing person in the county.
Last December, Mickey Whelan, the former Dublin manager and coach said that Dublin’s dominance over Kerry this decade had given them added steel. And a confidence which has allowed Dublin to colonise Kerry’s thoughts.
“We (in 2011) were just the second (Dublin) team to beat Kerry in an All-Ireland championship in 84 years – 84 years, do you understand that?” said Whelan. “Two wins in 84 years was in everybody’s heads, particularly in Kerry’s heads. They’re coming up saying, ‘These guys never beat us.’ But the roles have changed now. I think we’re a bit in their heads.”
They had to be. They were fears – especially in 2017 – that Kerry had almost become so obsessed with Dublin that they forgot about other teams.
“(Eamonn) Fitzmaurice has completely focused on Dublin,” said Jack O’Shea prior to the 2017 championship. “Fitzmaurice is a good bit down the road in terms of facing Dublin. But there are more difficult and awkward games for Kerry to overcome first. Mayo would be a big challenge. The football would be more physical, less open.”
That championship proved O’Shea right, especially after Mayo took Kerry down. Had Fitzmaurice and Kerry become too hung up with Dublin? Did they read too much into their 2017 league final success against Dublin that April? Dublin were flat and poor on the day and yet, a 6/10 performance still nearly secured a result.
In fairness to Fitzmaurice, everything had to start with Dublin. To beat them, management needed to restructure the team, to inject more pace and athleticism, which they did. More talented Kerry teams, with far bigger names up front, couldn’t get the job done against Dublin before. But that side did.
Fitzmaurice appeared to have found the players with the athleticism and pace to match Dublin in Croke Park but they weren’t able to get back there against Dublin to take them on; after falling to Mayo in the 2017 All-Ireland semi-final replay, a defeat to Galway and a draw against Monaghan in the Super 8s ended their involvement in the 2018 championship.
Kerry had stalled while Dublin had moved forward. When the sides met in Croke Park in the 2018 league, Dublin took Kerry to school, whipping them by 12 points. It was a young Kerry team but the most alarming aspect of the defeat was how Kerry collapsed when Dublin got a run on them early in the second half.
“They punished our mistakes,” said Fitzmaurice afterwards. “But for whatever reason then, we seemed to go into our shell a bit, which was disappointing.”
Despite all their underage success, Kerry had looked unusually insecure in themselves in many big games in 2017 and 2018. Kerry always had brilliant forwards but it’s a different game now. And the Kerry way hadn’t worked. They have tactically evolved but Kerry still needed to tweak their playing style further. The arrival of Donie Buckley as coach in Peter Keane’s management team was a boost in trying to get more of a balance between attack and defence.
The players also needed to get physically stronger and fitter. Their body shape and conditioning had to become more comparable to the Dublin players.
Kerry lost some hardened experience over the winter; Kieran Donaghy, Darran O’Sullivan, Donnchadh Walsh and Anthony Maher all retired. Keane also cut a host of other players from the 2018 squad.
Those losses were offset by five All-Ireland minor titles in-a-row, which produced a cornucopian level of young talent, more than any other county. Kerry are still the only county that will realistically threaten Dublin’s empire in the coming seasons. But Kerry were just desperate to topple it as quickly as they could.
And particularly in 2019. In the last 40 years, two of the most memorable All-Ireland finals were the iconic 1982 Kerry-Offaly match, and the classic 2010 Tipperary-Kilkenny final. Both were excellent matches, laced with spellbinding drama, but those games are burned into the GAA consciousness because of the history attached to both occasions, and how Kerry and Kilkenny were denied the five-in-a-row.
Of Kerry’s 37 All-Irelands, their last title in 2014 was regarded as one of their sweetest, largely because of how unexpected it was, and how it appeared to herald a new dawn for Kerry football. And then Dublin’s shadow blackened it out.
Kerry want to win the All-Ireland every year. But many within the county crave the 2019 title more desperately than any other All-Ireland since 1982. And for reasons much deeper than just clocking up another All-Ireland.
Kerry almost pulled it off nine days ago. And they get the chance again now on Saturday to win the sweetest All-Ireland Kerry could ever hope to win.