It’s the match that the so-called national media has been dreaming about all year. Like they were last year when only Mayo stood in the way of its consummation. Instead, we screwed the Dubs and then, for our pains, got well and truly screwed ourselves by the Kerrymen.
But that was then and now is now . . . and so, now, let the presses roll with all those acres of newsprint about days long ago when the players sported hair that was far too long and shorts that were the wrong side of skimpy and Micheal O Hehir’s foghorn-like tones ruled the airwaves. Yes, folks, its Kerry v Dublin time again.
But it very nearly wasn’t because both the Leinster and Munster champions faced – and eventually faced down – tough Ulster opposition this weekend at Croke Park, in doing so keeping the Northern province without representation at the penultimate stage for the second year in a row. The West, by the way, is absent from this particular party for the second time in three years.
While they both skirted with danger, it was the Kerrymen who came closest to hitting the ditch, as Monaghan looked to have their number for most of the seventy minutes today, only to falter at the death. The Dubs could – and, perhaps, should - have won comfortably yesterday but a dose of the wobbles in the last ten minutes cut their margin of victory to three points, with Derry missing a late goal chance that could have earned them a draw.
Having seen our lads being comprehensively hammered by Derry, I had hopes that the Oak Leaf lads might be capable of springing a surprise, even if they would have to do so amidst a steaming cauldron of blue. That was the big fear for Derry: having played in front of small crowds all year and having virtually no recent big-match experience in front of a capacity crowd at Croker - their 2004 semi-final was against Kerry, in a less than half full HQ – the big fear was that they would freeze. Or poo themselves. Or both.
This being a major cultural event in the city, I took my three little Dubs out for a reccie a few minutes before throw-in to let them see the colour and practice their Come on Yew Boyz En Blew in the open air (well, I let the windows down in the car). And what cultural delights we got to witness too, such as the imbibing of cider on the kerbside and the happy sight of thousands of blue-clad Summer-only supporters streaming - late again! - into their beloved Hill.
Back at base, we all settled down on the couch to watch the battle unfold and a good battle it was too. Both sides had decent forwards and dodgy enough rearguards so this factor, as well as the wide open spaces at Croker, made for plenty of chances at either end. Liam O’Malley would, no doubt, have been happy to see Paddy Bradley skinning somebody else and the Derryman’s point-taking was superb all day. For Dublin, the Brogan brothers (from play) and the peroxide Mark Vaughan, deadly all afternoon from frees, were doing the most damage. Conal Keaney, their best forward all Summer, was getting precious little change out of the excellent Kevin McCloy.
The Dubs took a two-point lead into the break and it was noteworthy that all of Derry’s eight points had come from play in that opening 35 minutes. It was also significant, and highly unusual, that Dublin were managing to stay in front without having to rely on goals. That they managed to win by three points without finding the net was, to quote that noted Dublin sage Joe Duffy, extraordinary.
It’s certainly the case that the Dubs look for, and hence rely on, goals to keep them afloat more than any other major county does. So often, Dublin forwards receive possession twenty or thirty yards out and, instead of taking the handy point, will put the head down and make bull-headed for the opposition’s goal. Sometimes it works but more often than not it doesn’t and so easy points go abegging.
I have a theory that this is all to do with the Hill, 90% of whom are probably Man United fans and whose knowledge of the niceties of Gaelic football is a little bit sketchy. Three quick points in succession will never rock their boat up on the Hill but, if De Boyz En Blew score a goal, all hell breaks loose. The team quacks probably have some bullshit psychology about feeding off the positive energy from the Hill so, to satisfy the beast, the lads go for goals when they should really be going for points.
Well, that theory worked well up till yesterday, when the Dubs racked up 18 points and didn’t need a goal to see them home. It didn’t stop them trying to get a few, mind, but they did nail plenty of good points from well out. What really caught the eye, however, was Mark Vaughan’s free-taking. Say what you want about him with his bleached blond hair and his white boots but his old-fashioned, off-the-ground place-kicking was absolutely flawless as he whacked over point after point. At least three were Fifties and one early one must have been nearly sixty yards out.
For ages, Pillar tolerated Mossie Quinn’s deplorable shooting (okay from within twenty yards but your proverbial grannie was better than him further out) and, if my memory serves me correctly, we had plenty of reason to thank Mossie’s wayward deadball shooting in last year’s semi. It was a problem crying, nay, screaming out to be sorted, something that only happened in the replay against Meath. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Dublin’s oft-cited failure to close out games hasn’t been much of an issue since then.
Derry ran out of puff early enough in the second half, especially after Stephen Cluxton’s two point-blank saves when Derry goals looked a certainty. Their failure to convert those chances and continued good point-scoring at the other end – even Jayo managed to knock one over from well out – put the Dubs well clear and heading for home.
It’s difficult to know what to make of the last ten minutes, which Derry virtually owned and during which they reeled the Dubs back in from seven to three points. Pillar seemed to be reverting to type at that stage – how many changes can you make in a minute? – and, suddenly, Derry were ripping through them with ease. They needed a goal and although Bradley did get to pull the trigger, Henry deflected his shot away to safety and with it went Derry’s remaining hopes of success. The Dubs were worth their three points margin of victory, I thought.
Not so Kerry, who, for the second match in a row could and should have lost. Once again, a poor refereeing decision helped them home, when Meath ref David Coldrick (is that fella trying to write his life story while reffing? He seems to spend all day writing notes in his book) failed to penalise Darragh O Se for a wildly dangerous kick in the midst of a tussle for a loose ball around the centre of the field. Instead, play was allowed to continue and seconds later Tomas O Se fisted over the winning point.
It was a victory Kerry didn’t deserve and a match Monaghan were desperately unlucky to lose. As I’d hoped they would, Monaghan tore into the champions from the off and showed scant regard for the general well-being of their illustrious opponents. The quarter-finals is the perfect stage at which to ambush Kerry – they’re still not in top gear and this year they had an unusually long lay-off after their jammy Munster final success. They were vulnerable and Monaghan proved this over the course of a flinty first half performance.
They would probably have been disappointed to go in level at the break, as they should have built better on Tommy Freeman’s excellently-taken penalty goal, but they continued to take the game to Kerry in the second 35 minutes. With less than 15 minutes to go, they were three points up and Kerry were looking in trouble. The high ball into Donaghy wasn’t working and the insecure Kerry backline was continuing to leak scores.
Declan O’Sullivan’s well-taken goal thirteen minutes from the end – which brought Kerry level - looked like the hammer blow from which Monaghan wouldn’t recover but they just dusted themselves down and proceeded to tack on two more points inside the next five minutes. But that was it: Kerry had brought on Bryan Sheehan (what other county could afford to have a player like Sheehan kicking his heels on the bench for an hour?) and he put over two crucial points from play before the cruel denouement of O Se’s winning score.
Maybe it was just as well Monaghan lost today rather than getting a draw as they would almost certainly have taken a comprehensive beating in the replay. They gave absolutely everything today and it would have been difficult for them to go out and do the same again in a replay, especially since the element of surprise would also have been missing. I’d say the Dubs were happy enough too with this outcome: they wouldn’t have been overjoyed to see Kerry get another game under their belts before the semi.
I know Big Fat Tom would have been a bit pissed off if he’d lost another chance to flog that book of his but Monaghan, even more so than in 1985, were hard done by today. Twice this year, Kerry have ridden their luck but, significantly perhaps, they’ve used up the full reserve to reach only the semi-final and they’ll have two more hard matches to win if they’re to retain Sam. I’m not sure that their luck will or, more importantly deserves to, hold all the way to September. Up the Dubs! (Yes, you did read that last sentence correctly).