OpinionPat Spillane

Spillane: Kerry to lay down marker and expose over-hyped Dubs

Denis Bastick (left) and Bryan Sheehan will face off today in the League final
Denis Bastick (left) and Bryan Sheehan will face off today in the League final

This is finals day in the GAA’s second-most important national competition.

The Division 1 showdown between old rivals Dublin and Kerry is a game everybody is looking forward to because they are the two best teams in the country at the moment.

However, an innocuous question I was asked last week got me thinking about the competition.

I was asked how many National League medals I had – and I was flummoxed!  

I could reel off how many All-Ireland medals, Munster championship medals and All Star awards I have.

As for league medals – I wasn’t too sure. So I looked up my profile page on Wikipedia, where I was informed I had won two. 

Actually, I think I have four, but I’m open to correction. As all my GAA medals are stored in a biscuit tin which I cannot locate at the moment – don’t fret I didn’t spend much time looking for it – I can’t be sure.

(Four is correct: two on the field of play in 1977 and 1984 and two as a non-playing substitute in replay wins in 1974 and 1982. Sports Editor.)

This oversight illustrates how much the National League is a poor relation of the GAA. 

Oddly, it has never managed to generate the kind of hype surrounding the Guinness Pro12 series, for example.

Enough of the frivolity, though, let’s concentrate on predicting how the contest might pan out.

At face value everything looks rosy in the Dublin camp.

They are unbeaten in 21 league and championship games and are the first county to go through the competition unbeaten since the current format was introduced.

Better still, they have reached the decider without ever getting out of second gear. They used 35 players and never fielded a full-strength team.

Indeed, there is a Groundhog Day feel about analysing Dublin because they are so consistent. Still, it is worth repeating a few key points.

They are playing with a composure that befits their status as All-Ireland title holders and they don’t do panic.

Based on his semi-final performance against Donegal, Stephen Cluxton is back to his best when it comes to kick-outs.

Ciaran Kilkenny is in outstanding form, Dean Rock is blossoming into a top-class forward, while Cormac Costello is maturing into a wonderful finisher. 

They were superb against Donegal, with 11 different players – including five backs – getting on the score sheet.

They have also become incredibly difficult to score against. Together with Tyrone they had the best defensive record of any team in the top three divisions – a significant achievement given that All Star defenders Rory O’Carroll and Jack McCaffrey have  missed the campaign.

No team can match their athleticism and pace. Indeed, I have never seen any inter-county GAA team which boasted so many pacey players. 

However, I think their secret weapon is the ferocious tackling of their forwards, which means they win a huge number of turnovers high up the field.

Finally, the entire project is overseen by Jim Gavin, who has managed to keep his side fully focussed despite all the distractions.

The favourites go into the game in good spirits having beaten Kerry in their last three championship encounters – indeed, the Dubs have won their last four games against Kerry in HQ.

So they have good reason for thinking they now have the Indian sign over the Kingdom. They won’t want to concede that psychological advantage ahead of a possible showdown again in the All-Ireland semi-final later in the season. 

In the wide expanse of Croke Park the Dubs will try to expose the lack of pace in Kerry’s thirty-something brigade – which includes Aidan O’Mahony, Marc ó Sé, Kieran Donaghy and Colm Cooper.

The latter is very uncomfortable when forced to chase back and defend, which means that whoever is marking him – probably Philly McMahon – will feel he has a licence to bomb forward.

Finally, Dublin will endeavour to exploit two weaknesses in the Kerry game plan which have been glossed over during their six-match unbeaten run.  

When opponents run at them they are prone to foul –18 of the 29 scores they conceded in their last two games came from frees – while they have a habit of allowing teams back into games in the final quarter.

So, are Dublin unbeatable? 

Well, so far this year they have never really been under sustained pressure for an extended period so we don’t know for sure how they will cope with the loss of O’Carroll and McCaffrey.

But the lack of a natural full-back could be a serious handicap, as Cork’s Peter Kelleher and Roscommon’s Senan Kilbride exposed weaknesses in this sector during the league.

I remain to be convinced as to how good the newcomers, such as David Byrne and Eric Lowndes are, while the form of Paul Flynn and Bernard Brogan must be a source of concern within the camp. And one wonders why Diarmuid Connolly hasn’t featured even on the bench in the last two games.

They are vulnerable when they drop the tempo and, of course, there is always the danger of them believing their own hype. They are being talked up as the greatest Dublin team ever, which is a bit premature. 

Kerry are making their first appearance in a league final since 2009 and undoubtedly it has been their best campaign since then. They are on a six-match unbeaten run and their +32 scoring difference was the best in Division 1.

This is the fittest ever Kerry team to appear in a league final. The form of the veterans, Kieran Donaghy, Aidan O’Mahony, Marc Ó Sé and Gooch Cooper, has been a revelation. 

Even allowing for their tendency to concede frees, their new-look defensive system, with O’Mahony operating as a sweeper and Paul Murphy acting as the link man, has worked well.

The variety, movement and rotation play of their forwards in the semi-final was a joy to watch.

Donaghy with either Bryan Sheehan or David Moran alongside him has been the best midfield partnership in the league this season.

So, who will win? 

Kerry will surely have learned from the mistakes they made in last year’s All-Ireland final, when they over-analysed the opposition, played with fear and allowed Dublin to perform on the front foot.

I fancy Kerry for several reasons: Apart from having a more settled team, they are probably fitter and certainly hungrier given that they desperately need to lay down a marker ahead of another championship showdown against the Dubs. 

Today’s game reminds me of the time that Dublin looked to have the Indian sign over us after we lost to them in the 1976 All-Ireland final, the 1977 semi-final, as well as a couple of league games.

Our next clash was in a charity match on a near water-logged Gaelic Park pitch in New York in May, 1978. The late Joe Keohane, then a Kerry selector, made an passionate speech before we took the field.

He warned us to shed our ‘Mr Nice Guy’ image: If we got hit we were to hit them back twice as hard. That’s exactly what happened and all hell broke loose.  

Eoin Liston, Pat O’Neill and the late Páidí Ó Sé were sent off and Jimmy Deenihan and I ended up with broken noses! 

Crucially, we won easily (2-11; 1-3) and amazingly Kerry didn’t lose again to Dublin in championship football until 2011.  

The current Kerry team are in the same place as we were in 1978. So I expect Kerry will win in what could be a very robust encounter, though if the sides meet again in the championship this season it will be an entirely different kind of game.

Verdict: Kerry.