MIDWAY through the second half of Saturday’s All-Ireland final replay, the Kerry crowd were prompted into a cacophony of wolf-whistles and jeers before the noise was eventually drowned out by the Dublin roar when Paul Mannion got on the end of the move to score a point.
The sequence of play lasted two minutes and 54 seconds as Dublin stitched 36 passes together, stretching Kerry all over the field. The score only put Kerry three ahead. There was more than 20 minutes still to play but it still felt like a decisive moment in the match.
Kerry clearly set out with a defined counter-attacking game-plan and, while it worked for long periods, Dublin eventually broke it. Dublin never wavered in their conviction in how they went about trying to break through a wall of 14 Kerry bodies. Dublin’s accuracy and economy was off the charts but they were still smart and sharp in how they went about deconstructing Kerry’s system.
Jack McCaffrey was never likely to be allowed the same attacking threat that he had in the drawn game but Dublin still pressed hard against Kerry’s defensive shield. James McCarthy and Brian Fenton crossed the Kerry 45-metre line on 35 occasions, but Dublin were never afraid to push men forward, including any number of defenders, to probe and try and pick their way through Kerry’s system. As a result Paul Murphy was almost redundant as the Kerry sweeper.
Stephen O’Brien’s goal chance, which was saved by Stephen Cluxton, could have changed the whole complexion of the match but when Mannion pushed Dublin four ahead shortly afterwards, history was already clearing its throat to roar Dublin into history.
With five minutes remaining, Hill 16 erupted into a rapturous hand-clapping crescendo, echoing with joy and bedlam as an early salute to Gaelic football’s greatest team.
Kerry had pushed Dublin to the brink but their scoring rate had dried up and they were just beaten down and worn out by that stage from trying to halt a raging machine.
Winning in such style was the ultimate way for Dublin to achieve the five-in-a-row because this was their best performance in an All-Ireland final. Dean Rock’s ’45 in injury time was their only score from a placed ball. Dublin had eight scorers to Kerry’s four. Dublin had 349 possessions to Kerry’s 305; those numbers may have largely stemmed from Kerry’s counter-attacking game-plan and, even if possessions are often immaterial in the modern game, when Dublin have more possession, they always do more damage.
Dublin got 19 scores from 28 shots; Kerry managed 15 from 28. It was about much more than just those numbers but Kerry will still look back with huge regrets. Dublin had just three wides in total while Kerry had five huge wides in the second half, at a key stage of the game. Five successive attacks yielded no score, one of which was O’Brien’s goal chance.
Eoin Murchan’s goal seconds into the second half set the tone but, when the game was there to be won, Dublin grabbed it; they had a 60% conversion rate in the second half, compared to Kerry’s 31%.
As they had done in the drawn game, Dublin also did huge damage off their own kick-out, scoring 0-8. Dublin had mined 1-6 off their own restarts in the drawn game but with 1-2 having come off long kick-outs, Kerry didn’t take the same risks in the replay. Kerry’s press wasn’t as aggressive as the drawn game but giving Dublin their own short kick-out (they won 23 of 25 in total) was always a risk given how Dublin generate such power and momentum from their own restart.
As Kerry were forced to go chasing in a sprint, Dublin started forcing big turnovers. Despite Kerry having invited Dublin on for so much of the match, Dublin still made more tackles (63-53). Paul Geaney and David Clifford scored eight points from play from a combined 33 possessions but they were tied up in Dublin’s defensive web once the game was played on Dublin’s terms down the home straight.
Dublin’s numbers were way up on the drawn game, especially those of Ciaran Kilkenny, Con O’Callaghan and Paul Mannion, who all scored four points from play. O’Callaghan was devastating in the first half when scoring three points and having two assists. Kilkenny, who didn’t have a shot in the drawn game, also had some key assists, while he had the most possessions of any player in the match with 41. Dublin had nine players with 20 or more possessions; Kerry had just three.
Kerry’s early attacking game-plan focused on a long ball into the square, which clearly wasn’t working. After hardly turning the ball over for 66 minutes in the drawn game, Kerry had turned the ball over five times in the opening eight minutes, four of which had come off long deliveries.
Kerry though held their nerve and trusted their system before tweaking it more to a running game once they began to force more turnovers; five of their first-half scores were sourced from Dublin turnovers.
That greater share of possession enabled Kerry to get their strike forwards on the ball more often. Clifford didn’t have his first possession until the 13th minute but he had three points from his first four plays by the 20th minute.
Dublin had 30 more possessions in that first half (158-128) but, while they dropped four shots short in that half, they were the only mistakes Dublin really made in that that period.
Apart from their profligacy, Kerry didn’t do a whole lot wrong either in a brilliant game; they won all of their own kick-outs; they didn’t concede a single scoreable free. And yet, Dublin still found a way.
That’s what this team do. That’s what great teams always have done. Immortality is theirs now because Dublin have deservedly earned the right to be called the greatest men's team in GAA history.