Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Kerry Still the Banker on Monday

The mood seems to exist among the cognoscenti that Dublin have evolved and Kerry have devolved as potential All-Ireland winners during the course of the summer, and that Monday’s eagerly anticipated All-Ireland quarter-final will be confirmation of this fact. An Spailpín Fánach isn’t quite convinced, and will be making his way to Ladbrokes this week to snaffle up that rarest of opportunities, Kerry at an odds-against price.

It’s hard to make too many predictions without seeing the teams – it’s hard to predict the future anyway, as a general rule – but it seems entirely reasonable to assume that Bryan Cullen will start at centre-back for Dublin. Ger Brennan got the line against Kildare, and Cullen had something of a stormer when he came on.

However, An Spailpín’s abiding memory of Cullen is the 2006 semi-final against Mayo, a game Bryan Cullen started as favourite to win the All-Star at centre-back, and finished as a trophy on Ger Brady’s wall. Is Cullen improved from that? He’s a fine footballer certainly, but is he capable of fulfilling a back’s primary function, which is to defend? And if he is – how come he hasn’t been first choice to start for Dublin all summer?

The narrative of the new and improved Dublin is one that we hear every year, but it’s hard to know just how much scrutiny it bears in this wet summer of 2009. Certainly, Dublin’s Championships have ended disastrously for the past thirteen years, if not winning the All-Ireland is considered a disaster. And if Mayo can be said to be deeply psychologically scarred by getting turned over in the All-Ireland final, surely it’s worse if that happens in a quarter-final, as happened Dublin against Tyrone last year?

Dublin’s Leinster Final win against Kildare has been identified as a turning point for this year’s team, but were Kildare all that good? Dublin won the day by springing the old guard – Cullen, Whelan, Ryan, Quinn – from the bench, men who’s benching in the first place was hailed as Brave New World material. In what way are Dublin better?

Bernard Brogan is having a cracking season at full-forward certainly, but what will happen when he meets a full-back of the old school? Is it Brogan’s destiny to be another Ray Cosgrove?

All these questions surround Dublin, even though they are not being asked. While only one question concerns Kerry, really, and that is: Have they got it in the belly anymore?

Jack O’Connor said, after Kerry crushed Mayo in 2006, that Kerry’s one year of hurt counted for more than Mayo’s fifty-five, and bitter pill though it was for Mayo, it was God’s own truth. Kerry were playing at a level of intensity that day that Mayo couldn’t dream of, and Mayo were left shattered in Kerry’s wake.

If Kerry can summon that same pitch of intensity, Dublin are in for a game of it. If Kerry can’t, if they really are old and tired and all banged up, then Dublin will certainly beat Kerry for the first time in 32 years, when the Brogan brothers’ father scored a famous goal in what remains one of the most epic games ever seen at Jones’ Road.

If, however, Kerry can get back on track then Dublin may find themselves reaping the whirlwind. One of An Spailpín’s abiding memories of that 2006 final is of the first ten minutes, when Kerry tore right up the middle of the Mayo defence and administered the coup de grace within the first ten minutes of the game. Bryan Cullen and Denis Bastick are the men charged with shoring up the middle of the Dublin defence – are they up for it? How will the Dublin forwards fare if they are not afforded the amount of time of space that Meath, Westmeath and Kildare provided?

Dublin have an advantage in midfield, where they can loose Ciarán Whelan and Shane Ryan from the bench when their starting pair begin to tire. (To start Whelan and Ryan would be an act of folly on Pat Gilroy’s part – if they do start, it’s advantage Kerry, because Dublin then have less cards to play in the final quarter). But that said, An Spailpín still can’t get over how fat Darragh Ó Sé was when he came on against Cork, and can’t get it out of his mind that Kerry have been playing a long game all summer. Just like cute Kerrymen do.

The impact – choice word! – of Paul Galvin is not to be underestimated either. Galvin plugs into a remarkable fury when he plays football, but the events of last year seem to have had their impact, and he is currently channelling that fury to its most productive level. Galvin is an outstanding player, and could be a difference-maker on Monday.

The point has been made in this space before that the Dublin v Kerry rivalry exists more in legend than in fact but the game on Monday does capture the imagination. It’s marvellous to see real bullets being fired after the phoney war of the first three months of Championship, and there is a real edge to the prospect of seeing a great Kerry side being taken out at last.

But just because Dublin have their best chance of a green and gold scalp since Liam Cosgrove was Taoiseach does not mean that they will take it. The notion that Kerry “have a performance in them” is not true – it’s just something journalists like to write as insurance against looking stupid – but your correspondent expects Kerry to have too much firepower for a Dublin team that might not have quite got there yet.

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