GAA Football

Dublin will be alright on the night to complete drive for five and kill Kerry dreams

Kerry boss Peter Keane insisted his men hadn't missed an opportunity when they left Croke Park with a draw two weeks ago. The result of tonight's replay will decide whether that is true. Picture by Philp Walsh
Neil Loughran

All-Ireland Senior Football Championship final replay: Dublin v Kerry (tonight, 6pm, live on RTE2 and Sky Sports Arena)

YOU'D have spent a penny on Peter Keane's actual thoughts as he sat on the team bus bound for the Kingdom a fortnight ago. Jim Gavin may be the undisputed champion of saying absolutely nothing of consequence in public, but the Kerry boss is pushing hard for a shot at the title.

His post match interview was predictably benign, full of shoulder shrugs, awkward pauses and little else, but a host of conflicting emotions must surely have eaten away once the cameras and microphones had been switched off.

There was no Sam Maguire taking pride of place as they set off for home, no celebrations, yet no mourning to be done either. Just a weird purgatorial feeling as they left the M50 for the N7.

Keane may have said afterwards that it wasn't an opportunity missed, but it was. Just ask the Mayo players who made that same soul-searching trip away from Jones's Road after the drawn All-Ireland final of 2016.

The facts speak for themselves. Kerry saw a penalty saved, spurned two other gilt-edged goal chances, and played the entire second half with a man advantage following Jonny Cooper's sending off just before the break.

A Dublin side driving for five snatched at chances, as well as attempting (and missing) their first shot from play from beyond the 45 metre line in three years' worth of Championship football.

Kerry largely got their match-ups spot on too – Brian Fenton and Ciaran Kilkenny were peripheral figures, while Paul Mannion and Con O'Callaghan managed just three points between them. Their subs were more effective than those brought off the bench by Gavin too.

How much more can you ask to go your way without actually over the line, even when coming up against Gaelic football's equivalent of the T1000?

And yet, all is far from lost. For every tinge of regret Keane and the Kingdom support may have, it must also be a huge source of confidence and encouragement knowing that they had the Dubs rocking at times.

Considering how lamentably poor Kerry had been in the first half of their semi-final against Tyrone, the Kingdom were widely written off coming into that September 1 showdown.

And, much as Mayo's near miss would do in 2016, pushing Jim Gavin's juggernaut to the brink has shaken Dublin's aura of invincibility to the core. They were supposed to stamp the Kerry insurgency into the ground but instead found themselves facing down the barrel of a gun.

The Dublin boss was clearly unimpressed afterwards, admitting the performance “wasn't good enough”. That is just about as strong as you're going to get from Gavin, and a reaction can be expected when they take to the field this evening.

Not that they will have been overly panicked by what occurred at Croke Park on September 1. Considering Kerry only led for 10 of the 78 minutes last time out, it would be foolish to try and argue that Dublin had produced some kind of Houdini-esque escape.

Let's not forget, it was they who could have scooped the goods at the death when Dean Rock stood over that free on the sideline.

But Gavin was clearly concerned by aspects of what he saw, and it will be interesting to see whether a man renowned for his dedication to the process and controlling the controllables opts to throw a cat among the pigeons.

Given the difficulty Jonny Cooper had in dealing with David Clifford, it appears unlikely that he will be handed that detail again. But then, in the absence of a sweeper safety net, going mano-a-mano with a guy who has the vision to bring others into play, is capable of holding his own in the air and kicks points off either side for fun is a thankless task for whoever is asked.

Michael Fitzsimons may have played his way into that job after faring fairly well against the Kerry wonderkid in the second half last time.

Gavin may also consider playing with a sweeper to try and close the space available in front of his full-back line but, with the injury-hit Cian O'Sullivan the only established option for that role, it would be a risky move.

A more realistic move might be the introduction of pocket battleship Eoin Murchan. He came on for John Small with 12 minutes to go and made a significant impact as Dublin pulled a draw from the fire in the dying minutes.

Murchan negated the impact of Niall Sludden in last year's All-Ireland final, and could be the man to quell the influence of the brilliant Sean O'Shea.

James McCarthy struggled with the Kenmare dynamo, and could push into midfield at the expense of Michael Darragh Macauley, who couldn't find the space to make any kind of impact in the drawn game.

By the same token, Keane will surely keep the faith who performed so admirably, though whether that extends to captain Gavin White will be telling after a chastening afternoon chasing Jack McCaffrey.

Stephen O'Brien is a more likely companion for the Clontarf man this time around, while the quicksilver Adrian Spillane could yet force White from the reckoning altogether if Keane decides to rearrange the furniture.

Had Kerry taken the chances that came their way, there would have been no need for this replay. They should still be celebrating All-Ireland success number 38.

But they aren't, and it is almost impossible to imagine that the likes of Kilkenny, Mannion, Fenton - even O'Callaghan to an extent - will all be kept to the fringes in the same manner again.

For so much to go right once was a huge achievement, but pulling it off for a second time might require a miracle. The Dubs to complete the drive by five.

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