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Tuesday 24 October 2017

Do Kerry last sting have one in the tail?

'Unfancied' Kingdom may be legends on the slide but memories of 2011 may be ideal motivation to overcome Jim Gavin's misfiring Dubs

PLENTY OF MOTIVATION: Kerry captain Colm Cooper suffered the '13' hoodoo in 2011 (no player wearing No 13 has lifted the Sam Maguire - substitute Eoin Brosnan is the official captain, but Cooper will captain the team on the day) and will hope his redeployment at '11' will bring better luck tomorrow.
PLENTY OF MOTIVATION: Kerry captain Colm Cooper suffered the '13' hoodoo in 2011 (no player wearing No 13 has lifted the Sam Maguire - substitute Eoin Brosnan is the official captain, but Cooper will captain the team on the day) and will hope his redeployment at '11' will bring better luck tomorrow.

HOW has it come to this: Dublin and Kerry in an All-Ireland semi-final and the bookmakers decreeing, in advance, that it's almost a done deal? Kerry a distant 9/4 in a two-horse race ... can anyone last remember when the "aristocrats" of Gaelic football (as Jim Gavin loves to describe them) were so unfancied/such a great bargain?

Some of you will doubtless riposte: "Eh, 2009, stupid!" But even then, the bookmakers weren't remotely so convinced; Dublin were 5/6 before that shock-and-awe quarter-final with Kerry 5/4 before ... well, they edged home by 17 points.

Four years on, the odds are tilted even more heavily in favour of Sky Blue subjugation of their one-time nemesis.

There is plenty of sound logic to support the general (if not quite overwhelming) pre-match consensus here.

Dublin are younger and faster; we won't say fitter, but they've been far more dynamic this summer.

Where Kerry remain reliant – to an onerous degree – on a coterie of living legends whose mileage tachometer is through the roof, Jim Gavin has key men in every age bracket from early 30s to not-long-out-of-minor.

From the peerless veteran that is Stephen Cluxton, to a handful of team leaders in their mid-to-late twenties (Ger Brennan, Michael Darragh Macauley, Paul Flynn, Bernard Brogan), and through to the next generation who already look born to the senior stage – Jack McCaffrey, Ciaran Kilkenny, Paul Mannion, all three contenders for Young Footballer of the Year.

Then you have the respective form lines. Dublin have endured a number of ropey spells (Kildare's opening blitzkrieg, the first half against Meath, several mini-wobbles against Cork), but their summer – nay, their entire season – has revealed a level of consistency that Kerry have never come close to achieving.

Instead, Kerry have beguiled us with sporadic flashes of their easy-on-the-eye genius. The first half in Omagh last April, thereby preserving a top-flight league status that looked doomed just a month beforehand. Better still, the first 50 minutes of their Munster final against Cork in July.

Yet even these two cameos of excellence come with a caveat. Kerry beat Tyrone by just one point having led by 11 at the break. They defeated Cork by two points having led by nine with 20 minutes remaining.

We had more of this oscillating tendency in their quarter-final, when Kerry led by 0-11 to 0-2 at half-time and only won by six (0-15 to 0-9) against a limited Cavan that shot nine second half wides.

The sloppiness of that forgettable last-eight encounter, more than anything, has convinced some people to write off Kerry. Even Eamonn Fitzmaurice remarked afterwards that his team "will not be given a snowball's hope in hell against Dublin now" ... in the context of how poor Kerry were in that second half, you could almost forget that this is the county that invented rogues, cute hoors and the art of making fools out of everyone else.

So now we come to the penultimate stage. Four weeks have passed since Dublin created a multitude of goal chances against Cork – and took only one of them – to win by five points and ditto since Kerry stumbled past Cavan.

Have Kerry a snowball's chance? More than that. Is this a perilous fixture for Dublin? Far, far more than their quarter-final against Cork.

In trying to second guess this most intriguing of semi-finals, the big conundrum here is not so much figuring out which Dublin turns up but, rather, which Kerry does.

In 2009, their backs were to the wall after a fumbling journey through the qualifiers and it required the carrot of Dublin in Croker to reignite the flame within.

Only problem today, however, is that Marc and Tomas ó Sé, Paul Galvin, Colm Cooper, Declan O'Sullivan and Kieran Donaghy are all four years older. Moreover, neither Galvin, O'Sullivan nor Donaghy are playing close to old peaks, to such an extent that Donaghy has lost his starting place for the second time this summer.

This is not to say this stellar core isn't capable of one glorious last hurrah. If the fire still burns within, surely Dublin are the ideal opposition to bring it out? Here, after all, are many of the same opponents who picked their pockets in the last 10 minutes of the 2011 All-Ireland final to bring Sam back to the capital.

The four-week gap is probably a good thing for Kerry, allowing Fitzmaurice & Co to figure out how best they might stymie the obvious yet (to them) unfamiliar threats posed by McCaffrey's explosive counter-attacking from deep, Kilkenny's scheming on the '40, Mannion's rapier bursts closer to goal.

By contrast, Kerry are well accustomed to facing Stephen Cluxton's usually pinpoint deliveries: they put his kickout under huge early pressure in '09 and will probably look to replicate Meath's Leinster final tactic of man-marking high up the pitch from his restarts.

In this context, Dublin must beware the aerial midfield threat of Johnny Buckley and Anthony Maher especially. They must also hope Michael Darragh Macauley and Cian O'Sullivan reprise their quarter-final excellence, not their fitful Leinster final.

Presumably, too, Kerry will throw one positional curve ball at Dublin's defence. Colm Cooper has generally revelled in his relocation to centre-forward, but will Fitzmaurice be tempted to switch the Gooch with Declan O'Sullivan? Or maybe he'll move Darran O'Sullivan out to counter the pace of McCaffrey?

So many questions about the Kingdom. Ditto, albeit to a lesser extent, with Dublin. Against Cork, Cluxton was top-scorer and their entire starting full-forward trio – Mannion, Diarmuid Connolly and Brogan – failed to score a single point from play.

 

RUTHLESS

The fact that the team still amassed 1-16 is a testament to Dublin's democracy of scoring options, but Gavin needs more from his inside line. How he must also crave a more ruthless conversion of goal chances: with their pace and their speed of ball-transfer, the league and Leinster champions have cut opposing defences to shreds, time and again, this summer.

Too often, though, either the finish has been skewed or the blinkered shooter has missed the obvious offload to make it a virtual tap-in.

The saying goes that, one of these days, Dublin will take all their chances and we'll be left with a massacre. And maybe a Kerry defence buttressed by those formidable ó Sés, but also containing four relatively inexperienced campaigners, including a rookie spine, could be the ones who suffer.

But ... what happens if Dublin keep creating, but keep on missing?

At least, against Cork, Brogan showed signs everywhere bar the scoreboard that he was edging back to form. His likely duel with Marc O Se could be worth the ticket price alone – it could also be instructive about where this match is heading.

Which brings us to our ultimate belief: even though the recent Dublin/Kerry history of 2009 and 2011 warns us to beware the millstone of favouritism, this time we reckon the bookies have got it right.

In which case, a Dublin collective on the upward curve will meet a team of legends on the incremental slide ... and pass them by in the home straight.

BOYLESPORTS ODDS: Dublin 4/9, Draw 9/1, Kerry 9/4

VERDICT: Dublin

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