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Monday 1 May 2017

Dubs to finish last lap of the drive for five

Allianz FL Division 1 Final Dublin v Kerry (Croke Pk, Tomorrow, 4.0 Live TG4)

Dean Rock will hope to punish any Kerrry indiscretions in tomorrow’s Allianz FL Division 1 final. Photo: Sportsfile
Dean Rock will hope to punish any Kerrry indiscretions in tomorrow’s Allianz FL Division 1 final. Photo: Sportsfile

The photo to your left says it all. As Jim Gavin checks his own watch, the scoreboard clock in Austin Stack Park reads 71 minutes and five seconds. Ciarraí are ahead by 13 points to 11.

Kerry are about to halt Dublin's quest to equal their own 84-year-old record, an unbeaten streak of 34 league and championship games ...

Except they didn't. In the injury-time that remained, Dean Rock tapped over a free and then Paul Murphy, a most unlikely candidate for such carelessness (or panic), delivered a stray free in his own half. The ball was intercepted by Kevin McManamon and, a handful of passes later, Paul Mannion was firing over Dublin's equaliser.

The record was equalled. The run continued. And now Dublin are two clear, at 36 not out.

Truth is, that photo gives us a lot more than one snapshot from a feisty night in Tralee. It is Dublin's history-making run in microcosm: even when down, they are never out.

Dublin manager Jim Gavin checks his watch in injurytime of his side’s draw with Kerry in Tralee. Photo: Sportsfile
Dublin manager Jim Gavin checks his watch in injurytime of his side’s draw with Kerry in Tralee. Photo: Sportsfile

More specifically, it encapsulates the big picture of their latest Allianz Football League campaign, one that has brought them within 70 minutes of completing a famous 'Drive for Five'.

Even as records tumbled and tributes abounded, the last two months have not been a saga of ongoing Dublin domination or a litany of routs ... but it has reinforced one of their greatest strengths. Much like Seán Boylan's Meath teams of yesteryear, they never know when they are beaten and they don't do panic.

Look back at those seven Division 1 outings. There were just two annihilations (of Mayo and Roscommon) plus one more victory (over Cavan) that qualifies as comprehensive.

Dublin could have lost any or all of their other four games. They trailed Tyrone by five points after an hour; Donegal by four after 43 minutes; Kerry by four after 49 minutes; and Monaghan last Sunday by six, prior to Bernard Brogan's goal on 48 minutes.

Triumph

Their net return from these four potential defeats? Three draws and one thrilling triumph in Clones.

"We've got a lot of work to do," insisted Gavin after their latest escape. "I think our performances through those seven games have been clunky. We're consistently looking for that consistency of performance and we haven't got it yet ... we'll have to keep striving for that because if we don't, it just won't be good enough going forward."

All this from a manager whose side had finished with 11 points - three clear of a chasing peloton of four. Kerry were the ones to emerge from that pack, via a superior scoring difference and a sequence of last-day results that brought them from sixth in the table to second.

And afterwards, it was hard to escape the suspicion that another Croker showdown - three weeks after they had failed to seal the deal on home turf - may not constitute ideal timing for a Kerry team in danger of being defined by its ongoing failure to beat the Dubs.

Publicly, of course, Eamonn Fitzmaurice was saying nothing of the sort after their cruise past Tyrone.

"It is certainly where we want to be," he assured. "Playing Dublin in Croke Park is about as tough as it gets and that will be great for us."

Fitzmaurice had a whole lot more to say later in the week, venting his spleen over a "complete lack of balance" in the narrative about last month's fractious stalemate and the implication that Kerry had sought to rough up the Dubs.

Without naming names, it was apparent that comments from Paul Curran (of this parish), Philly McMahon and maybe even Gavin too (with his reference last Sunday to "off-the-ball activity" in Tralee) had irked the Kerry boss.

Orchestrated

He harked back to last September, echoing the view of others that there was "an orchestrated campaign against Lee Keegan that was effective for the All-Ireland final replay".

And he cited incidents in three matches - the 2011 All-Ireland final and 2016 semi-final against Kerry, plus the 2013 final against Mayo - to back up his contention that this "fantastic" Dublin team boasting "brilliant" players and an "outstanding" manager also possesses a "seriously hard edge".

Is he right? Yes. It's a trait you'll find in virtually every serially successful team.

Were Kerry more physical than usual on March 18, striving desperately for that elusive win? Yes again. But it was also pretty hot-and-heavy the last time these sides met on Kerry soil (and the last time Dublin lost) in Killarney 25 months ago.

Can we expect more of the same now? Our gut instinct is that it will be full-blooded and feisty with a few inevitable flashpoints - but it won't be too different to what Dublin face from a Mayo or Tyrone when they're in the zone.

They cannot expect chief rivals to sit back and admire their trophy hunt.

But the game itself will, almost certainly, be less attritional and more open. For starters, it's in Croker. For seconds, with more of their established stars returning to the match-day fray, Dublin have become more prolific at the business end of this league: even if you ignore the 2-29 against Roscommon because of the porous opposition, they eventually came good against a wonderfully defiant Monaghan to score 2-15.

Gavin's gilt-edged bench ultimately delivered in Clones. He has more options than Fitzmaurice, whose hand has been hampered by a number of injuries - not to mention Colm Cooper's retirement.

Kerry have boundless motivation: they badly need to prove (to themselves) that Dublin are not this unbeatable machine. The latter's motivation is more basic: they hate losing and they love lifting trophies.

ODDS: Dublin 2/5 Draw 9/1 Kerry 5/2

VERDICT: Dublin

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