The Dublin of '23 are Kerry's real test of maturity and ambition

Stephen Cluxton kicks his famous 2011 winner. Dublin lost semi-finals in 2012 and 2014 before they entered their robotic phase. Kerry's team don't have the time for that if it's greatness they want. Picture: Sportsfile
Stephen Cluxton kicks his famous 2011 winner. Dublin lost semi-finals in 2012 and 2014 before they entered their robotic phase. Kerry's team don't have the time for that if it's greatness they want. Picture: Sportsfile

* All-Ireland SFC final: Dublin v Kerry (Sunday, 3.30pm, Croke Park, live on RTÉ2 & BBC2) *

THE week before the 1976 final, Mick O’Dwyer took a call from his players.

It was a young bunch at his disposal. Most of them had become All-Ireland champions for the first time the previous autumn, the first of what would turn into eight in 11 years.

Cork had taken them to a replay and then extra-time in the Munster final. O’Dwyer could feel the trappings of success on them.

When the phone rang, the players were looking training cancelled. They’d been invited to the Tralee Races. Free bar.

Training was cancelled.

“It was a fierce piss-up. That showed immaturity. Any teams win an All-Ireland that young, it’ll come out,” said Ger O’Keeffe a few years back.

All year the Dublin lads had taken on an extra Wednesday night session on their own, and on weekdays their student contingent went out to Portmarnock and kicked ball on the beach.

Dublin beat Kerry in the final.

The immaturity passed through. By 1978, Kerry were a different animal. And so they stormed through the halls of history, setting records nobody ever thought would be beaten.

The last one standing could go tomorrow.

If Dublin win, then the ceiling of eight All-Ireland medals held by Pat Spillane, Ógie Moran, Ger Power, Mikey Sheehey and Paidí Ó Sé will have been broken by the nine Stephen Cluxton, James McCarthy and Mick Fitzsimons will own.

The Kerry team standing in their way began a fresh cycle of success last year, but they’re not a new team.

Sure, only four of them had winners’ medals from 2014, but David Clifford and Diarmuid O’Connor are the two youngest on the starting team, and both will be 25 before the year is out.

Only Paul Geaney and Paul Murphy would be considered retirement threats this winter, but while their age profile right now is perfect, it will only remain that way for a very short period of time.

Kerry have never relied on minor teams to win All-Irelands as a platform but winning five-in-a-row felt like a fairly strong launchpad to propel into the space that would inevitably be vacated by the Dubs some day.

It took Dublin five years of winning All-Irelands to definitively find the maturity to keep on winning them.

The 2012 loss to Mayo was just one of those days but the transformative effect of their defeat by Donegal two years later needs no further analysis.

They became so robotic and single-minded and controlling of football matches afterwards that they were literally unbeatable for almost seven years.

You can say we’ll never see it again but we are seeing it again with Limerick hurlers.

They, too, had to lose that 2019 semi-final to Kilkenny, the year after winning their first. That remains the only roadblock they’ve hit in six years.

The question here is can this Kerry team ever become that Dublin team?

In short, if they’re going to maximise themselves, they don't have time for a 2012 defeat or a 2014 loss like Dublin had, least of all both.

They’ll always have a bit coming through to replenish the stocks but their lack of options on the bench at the minute, particularly in attack, tells a tale.

Whatever way it goes, tomorrow is perhaps the day that Dublin's wingspan of 2011 is finally removed, whatever way it goes.

We’ve wondered it before but for Cluxton, McCarthy, Fitzsimons, what’s left when this is over? Has McCaffrey’s 2023 fulfilled him the way he thought a return might? Or Mannion’s?

The end was called when Mayo clawed their way to victory in that 2021 semi-final. Kerry’s first championship win in 13 years over a much-changed team last summer seemed to only staple the theory down that it was all over.

Yet here we are, four years after their 2019 replay success with 16 of the 20 players they used in the drawn game available to Dessie Farrell. Ten are named to start but as it’s so often been, the six on the bench could be the difference.

This season has had a Hangover III feel about it. One more big go at replicating the unthinkable and then everyone can move on with their lives.

And for a while it felt like the movie, destined to fall flat on its face as they struggled to make the story fit back into the mould created years earlier.

Then Farrell cracked it and realised that the ultra-controlled stuff wasn’t within their powers any more. So they kick the ball more now, they take more risks, they have the odd poke from distance because they know they can’t rely on having 65 per cent of the ball.

What suits them is that Kerry don’t seem the slightest bit interested in the same type of asphyxiation of football as a contest as they were. 

People say all the time, that Kerry are a one-man team. It’s unfair, but it wouldn’t be unkind to suggest they’re still quite one-dimensional in the way that they attack.

When the dimension is David Clifford, though, you can’t really argue.

So much goes through him and a lot of it is still off the long, early kick-pass. The brother Paudie, Tadhg Morley, Tom O’Sullivan, Gavin White, Micheal Burns, they’ve all found him with early ball in the last two games, and scores have come off it each time.

It was the wanton early seasoning of Clifford that kept Kerry in the final long enough for them to win it last year.

Maybe it’s mindset or maybe it’s the provincial imbalance, but the approach of a late start and an easy run at the league that so disastrously backfired on Tyrone as champions has stood to Kerry.

It’s undoubtedly easier when you can score 5-39 in your two Munster championship games without having had to bust yourself to be in that space.

Tyrone’s two Ulster championship defeats in the two years have come to this year’s All-Ireland semi-finalists, Derry and Monaghan.

When Kerry gritted their teeth against the Red Hands in the quarter-final and firmly left their Killarney kicking by Mayo behind, you got the sense that it was all a ruse. And then they were so nearly blindsided by Derry, and probably deserved to be.

For 43 minutes last year they exerted complete control over Dublin. It was 1-8 to 0-6, they’d missed a penalty and left another goal behind when Stephen O’Brien picked the ball off the ground when clean through.

Either of those go in, maybe it gets ugly. Maybe the 2023 reunion never happens for the Dubs. 

But they’d had just about enough of Dublin over 13 years to not let it happen.

The question now for Kerry is whether to win just once is enough for them.

Dublin’s greatness was the insatiable appetite for another and another and another until the rest of football almost starved to death.

Kerry’s All-Ireland winning history is pockmarked with final defeats to nemeses like 1960s Down and 2000s Tyrone. That a team could win four All-Irelands in six years and not be seen as the team of the decade was just about that little bit of ruthlessness to take Tyrone down even once.

Last year’s win over the Dubs had the same kind of Mayweather - Pacquiao feel about it as beating Tyrone in 2012, that it was just a year or two late to be a true reflection of anyone’s best.

Of all that they’ve won in the last 13 years, it’s hard to think of an All-Ireland final Dublin would be more motivated for than this.

This is the real test of this Kerry team, of their mindset and the maturity.

Like Tyrone of the noughties, when Dublin are gone they’re gone. Lose this and beat a shadow of them again in a year or two, people will always remember it.

We know Kerry are very good. 

We’ll only know at half 5 on Sunday if they can be great.