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Sunday 11 December 2016

Eamon Carr: This isn't just a game, it's epic history in the making - get ready for a clash of the titans

Denis Bastick, Dublin, in action against Kerry's Anthony Maher in the Allianz Football League
Denis Bastick, Dublin, in action against Kerry's Anthony Maher in the Allianz Football League

This Sunday is the big one. The blockbuster. The epic. The clock is ticking down to the next thrilling instalment of a saga that defines Gaelic football rivalry. It's Dublin and Kerry.

The Dubs Vs The Kingdom: The Never-Ending Quest for Sam.

This is the contest that everyone wants to see. The two teams with the most compelling competitive history in the game battling it out for the famous piece of silver that goes by the name of Sam Maguire.

To fully understand what's at stake, we need to go check out the backstory. The evolution of the defiance that drives both these counties to athletic and emotional extremes can only be understood by excavating the layers of sacrifice, punishment, disappointment or delight that are embedded in the psyche of both counties.

The first time these sporting arch-enemies played each other in a final was in 1892. Dublin won by four points. There were just 5,000 people at the match. On Sunday, 82,300 will urge on the players in Croke Park. Around the world, over two million more will watch on TV.

Both teams are packed with a stunning array of talent and, it being Dublin Vs Kerry, there's more than just a trophy and bragging rights at stake.

LEGACY

There's a legacy that's woven into history . . . a legacy of dreams. A legacy as tangible as the ground on which we walk.

Over the decades both teams had enjoyed plenty of success. Kerry more than most. But, like celestial bodies orbiting the sun, both counties only rarely cross paths. Before 1975, Dublin and Kerry had met in an All-Ireland final just five times. However, the sporting gods on Mount Olympus must have become bored, because as the 1970s dawned they set in train a chain of events that forged the most sensational Gaelic football rivalry ever.

In 1975, when Dublin, the reigning All-Ireland champions, were unceremoniously dethroned by a young Kerry side in the first ever 70-minute final, another sporting legend became enshrined in the annals of sport.

What followed was a sporting feud as intense as the Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier trilogy of heavyweight fights culminating with "the Thrilla in Manilla".

What happened here was this. Dublin football had been in the doldrums when Kevin Heffernan took over the county. His first demand was for players to give total commitment to the cause. The year of 1974 proved to be a glorious one. Dublin captured the public's attention, winning a Leinster title and then the All-Ireland. The legend of Heffo's Heroes was born.

The next year, an unproven Kerry team met Dublin in the final and, sensationally, left with Sam Maguire.

The other counties couldn't have known it then, but Dublin and Kerry would all but dominate Gaelic football for the next decade.

Both teams had managers whose coaching and tactical skills revolutionised Gaelic football, raising the amateur sport to unprecedented levels of professionalism.

In Dublin, Kevin Heffernan was a titan who virtually reinvented how football is played.

In Kerry, Mick O'Dwyer, gifted with a conveyor-belt of talent, brought squad fitness to new heights and added psychological cunning to the mix.

For a decade, Dublin and Kerry was the only game in town. The seeds of a rivalry that continues to this day were sown.

expectation

Statistics don't do justice to the levels of expectation and excitement that were generated. After their shock defeat in '75, Dublin bounced back with final wins in '76 and '77. Kerry upped the ante with wins in '78, '79, '80 and '81. Dublin reasserted their dominance in '83.

Currently, Kerry are reigning champions. They know Dublin denied them a title four years ago (inset) with a display of heroics in the final seconds. Two years ago, Dublin defeated Kerry in the semi-final before going on to claim Sam.

To say the outcome of Sunday's match is balanced on a knife-edge is not hyperbole. As All-Ireland finals go, this one could be the best ever.

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