The Championship

Aaron Kernan: Dublin's mental strength shines through

Dublin hero Diarmuid Connolly salutes Hill 16 following last Sunday's hard fought victory over Kerry  
 

THIS was the one we all wanted to see. The reigning champs up against a wounded and desperate animal, a team who didn’t have to win, but needed to win.

Because this game had been flagged up since the end of last year’s Championship, in the back of my mind I had a slight fear it could be overrun with tactics and both management teams trying to second-guess each other.

There was also the thought it could boil over into a physical affair, with Kerry in particular trying to impose themselves in a manner they failed to in last September’s All-Ireland final. 

Truth be told, as neutrals we all would have been happy with a physical contest, but what we got turned out to be a mixture of everything that’s great about our game.

By the time the final whistle blew, I sat back in my seat with nothing but sheer admiration for the spectacle those players provided us with. It was everything we hoped for and proof that, when played in the right manner, modern day football can be an extremely enjoyable spectacle.

For those Dublin players to be able to sustain the level of top-speed running they possess for 70 minutes of gruelling Championship combat is outstanding. 

We’ve seen them do it consistently against lesser opponents for a number of years now, but to maintain it to the standard they did last Sunday under severe pressure makes them even more remarkable.

As the game wore on, I always felt that, for Kerry to stop any Dublin attacker on the move, was going to take the attention of two Kerry defenders, such is the Dubs’ athletic ability. 

To their credit, there was not one Kerry player who shirked his responsibility in this regard. They managed to channel all the hurt and disappointment from their three previous defeats to Dublin in the right direction to back up the wish of every former Kerry player who penned a column in which they demanded a Kerry performance to be proud of. 

The rot had to stop, they didn’t care how it was stopped, but it had to be done at all costs. Even in defeat, there was so much for Kerry fans to be proud of.

When Kerry looked like being blown away as Dublin raced into a six-point lead before half-time,  they did something I have never seen in a game of Gaelic football, although I had encountered it in Croke Park last November during the International Rules series.

As the Irish runner on the night, it was my job to get messages to the Irish players across the pitch at every opportunity. As Ireland began pulling away from the Aussies during the second-quarter, I was relaying info to our three full-forwards when the Aussie runner demanded that, from for every Irish kick-out, their full-backs were to leave their man and move up a line on the field.

They basically gambled by pushing three extra players into the Irish defence for each kick-out, in the hope the extra bodies would force more turnovers, allowing them to work scoring opportunities without allowing the ball out of the Irish half of the field. 

For a spell, they struggled, allowing Bernard Brogan, Aidan O’Shea and Conor McManus to tap over easy scores but, once they got to grips with it after the half-time break, it was the platform which allowed them to close the gap and almost pip Ireland at the end.

For Kerry’s first goal last Sunday, this same full-court press put Stephen Cluxton under enough pressure to force the turnover and, within seconds, the ball was in the net. It was an extremely bold and brave tactic, but one which paid off. 

All it would have taken was one Kerry player to switch off and it would have been worthless but, to a man, they were tuned in and ravenous for possession. 

Dublin's Johnny Cooper attempts to get clear of Kerry's Paul Geaney

Darran O’Sullivan’s goal brought the game to life. Did Eamonn Fitzmaurice come up with this idea on his own, or did he learn from his fellow Kerry man Tadhg Kennelly, who was a member of the Aussie management team last November? 

Either way, it was genius, but something which wouldn’t be sustainable throughout the game as it is too risky to leave the likes of Diarmuid Connolly and Kevin McManamon unmarked for long and, as with everything, those Dublin players wouldn’t be long adapting and manipulating the situation to their advantage.

The consensus was half-time saved Dublin to a degree. It allowed their management space to clear their heads, put mistakes behind them and start afresh.

There’s no doubting it worked as they started the second-half in the same impressive fashion they started the first, outscoring Kerry 0-6 to 0-1 in the third-quarter to level the scores

However, they were met with another Kerry onslaught and, when Paul Murphy pointed superbly to give Kerry a three-point lead with eight minutes remaining, it looked like Dublin were in serious trouble yet again. 

Throughout their 26-game winning streak, stretching back to March 2015, we’ve been used to seeing Dublin strolling through most of those games in second gear. Did they now have the inner belief to salvage something?

Their actions for the remaining 13 minutes put to bed any doubts regarding their mental strength in a battle as they finished the game kicking five of the last six scores. 

There was no half-time to save them, Jim Gavin couldn’t call a time out, they were on their own and had to try to figure this one out for themselves. They did that, albeit with the help of a few favourable calls from David Gough.

The greatest satisfaction I have had following a win was Crossmaglen’s All-Ireland semi-final against Kilmacud Croke’s in 2011, a team who beat us in the All-Ireland final two years previously.

Twice in the first-half, they went six points ahead before we clawed them back, only to see them go three ahead with 10 minutes remaining. The bravery we showed to get something from that game, more than football ability, has always stuck with me. It was, without doubt, the making of our team and the driving force for us to win the next two All Irelands.

The elation on the faces of each player and supporter I met on the field at the final whistle will stay with me forever. It was more than the fact we had won. What was even more important for our team’s confidence and belief was we had done so by beating a quality opponent laced with 
inter-county stars.

Not that Dublin are short on confidence, but to win a game in this manner, against a quality, hugely motivated opponent will be something they take the most pride from. 

The fear now is for Mayo. Has a game of this magnitude brought Dublin’s play to another level? You’d be hard pressed to find someone who thinks otherwise.

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