herald

Monday 26 June 2017

Old rivals hit new low

Cold war comes to a boil ahead of Croker final duel

Dublin and Kerry had a few heated exchanges off the ball when they met in league action back in mid-March. Photo: Sportsfile
Dublin and Kerry had a few heated exchanges off the ball when they met in league action back in mid-March. Photo: Sportsfile

In the best tradition of mixed metaphors, it appears that the Dublin/Kerry cold war has come to the boil.

It has been simmering away for weeks, ever since that tetchy stalemate in Tralee.

Paul Curran stirred the pot in last Friday's Herald. On Sunday, Jim Gavin alluded to "off-the-ball activity" in that most recent league encounter. On Monday, Philly McMahon spoke of a "more physical" Kerry approach in that game.

By Tuesday evening, Éamonn Fitzmaurice had heard enough. On a day that should have been all about the Gooch, following Colm Cooper's retirement, his old manager felt compelled to tackle the new narrative, declaring: "I don't think it's balanced at all."

Brilliance

For all their attacking brilliance, Dublin also possessed "a seriously hard edge", Fitzmaurice insisted. Adding flesh to the accusation, he cited a few examples.

As if the bean-counters weren't delighted enough with a Dublin/Kerry Allianz League final that few had foreseen before last weekend. Now the ante has been upped, off the field, ahead of Sunday's Division 1 decider. But will it all kick off on the Croke Park pitch too?

Time, then, for a more forensic look at the Dublin/Kerry 'narrative', to see if there really is a case of bad blood brewing between rival camps.

Gavin and Fitzmaurice are both in their fifth campaigns. They first squared off in February 2013 - a year before the black card came into being.

Sunday's rematch will be their tenth head-to-head. Dublin's recent domination is no secret (won seven, lost one and drawn the most recent encounter) but no one has compiled a disciplinary audit of these games. Until now.

In nine games, Dublin have accumulated 27 yellow cards, three blacks and four red cards (three straight). One of those black cards, for Denis Bastick, was downgraded to yellow on appeal. On the flip side, Philly McMahon shipped a retrospective one-match ban for a flashpoint with Kieran Donaghy during the 2015 All-Ireland final.

On that basis, Dublin's revised card count reads 28 yellows, two blacks and five reds.

How does that compare to Kerry? Favourably - with one notable exception.

The Kingdom have amassed 37 yellow cards and five blacks, eclipsing Dublin on both counts. Yet only two of their players have been sent off - Anthony Maher for a late second yellow in the semi-final classic of 2013, and Aidan O'Mahony in last year's league final.

Ergo, Dublin have been more likely to finish with 14 men … as was the case last month, when Ciarán Kilkenny picked up a second yellow at the death.

That made five bookings for Dublin. By then, over-worked Tyrone referee Seán Hurson had entered eight different Kerry names in his little black book.

Thirteen yellow cards in one night represented a new high (or low) since Gavin and Fitzmaurice became touchline rivals. Yet their previous clash on Kerry soil - Killarney in March 2015, the last defeat preceding Dublin's 36-match unbeaten run - was just as unruly.

Here, Eddie Kinsella brandished seven yellows, four blacks and one red. Statistically, with five yellows, two blacks and one red, Dublin were chief offenders but their manager's post-match comments painted a different picture.

Of his own players, Gavin insisted: "Any hits that they got they got straight back up and played the game, didn't try to influence the referee." Whereas some Kerry players, he claimed: "seem to me to be a bit reactionary".

Now it's a case of the Kerry manager turning "reactionary" in the face of recent commentary about his team.

Citing incidents from the 2011 All-Ireland final and last year's semi-final (both against Kerry) plus the 2013 All-Ireland against Mayo, he declared: "They have a hard edge but so have we. I have never tried to paint us whiter than white."

Then he cut to the chase: Fitzmaurice had a duty to ensure his players faced a "level playing pitch" on Sunday. "My worry was that it was developing into a situation like the All-Ireland final replay last year where there was an orchestrated campaign against Lee Keegan that was effective," he maintained.

Paul Curran's comments in The Herald six days ago - especially his line that "Kerry really should be ashamed of themselves" - clearly raised hackles in the Kingdom.

Yet if you read his quotes, whereas the former Dublin star claimed Kerry had abandoned their values, he wasn't directly complaining of aggression or cynicism - rather a defensive mindset.

When they went four points up in Tralee, he maintained: "they had the chance to drive on. And what did they do? No, they decided 'We'll keep men back, we'll protect' … but that just invited Dublin on."

Fitzmaurice didn't name names when citing a lack of balance - although curiously he said this pertained "even without our own county". It begs the question: who was he talking about?

A few days after Tralee, writing in his Irish Examiner column, former Kerry midfielder Mike Quirke offered a few intriguing insights into that night.

"I'm sure there are still some Kerry supporters who believe we are always the victims who are only defending ourselves against the thuggery of other counties. But that's not always the reality," he wrote. "It started with Kerry's Jack Barry man-handling Brian Fenton from the off. He pawed, pulled and prodded at him like a tiger playing with a lump of meat," Quirke asserted.

As for the flare-ups, he said: "It was going off all over the field. Constant flashpoints, with both sides sharing the role of instigator, it was impossible to keep up with the ball and the wrestling at the same time."

After all the first half squabbling, an absorbing football contest eventually erupted. That's often the way with Dublin/Kerry … only this time the pressure gauge has hit red before the first whistle.

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