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Thursday 16 August 2018

Rhapsody in blue

Thrilling win over Kerry ranks among Dublin's greatest days

THE famine is over and the Jacks are back! In the space of eight and a half captivating minutes -- at the end of an utterly absorbing, energy-draining contest -- the footballers of Dublin turned a four-point deficit into the sweetest of All-Ireland victories.

In an instant, with one unerring sweep of Stephen Cluxton's left boot, 16 years of blood, sweat and tears were swept away.

The resultant release of relief and euphoria was on a par with anything witnessed in the new Croke Park. And with the pitch thankfully kept free for the celebrating players, Pat Gilroy's heroes were able to milk the moment for all it was worth.

And who could blame them? Cluxton, Alan Brogan, Barry Cahill and skipper Bryan Cullen -- to name just four of the more seasoned Sky Blues -- have suffered more pain on this famous green sward than any one should, by rights, be asked to endure.

As Gilroy noted afterwards in the Croke Park press room: "There's only so much pain humans can take ... I mean, I've only been here a short time really in comparison to some of these fellas. As a supporter, we've been through terrible days here, and there's only so much of that you can keep taking.

"Today, no matter what happened, we were going to get the result, to be honest. That's the attitude we had all week. We weren't just happy getting to a final. We wanted to push on and win it."

Immediately afterwards, in the Sunday Game studio, Colm O'Rourke suggested it was the "greatest smash and grab" since Seamus Darby shattered Kerry's five-in-a-row dream in 1982. And he had a point -- up to a point. Yes, this was a game that looked in the bag for Kerry with 63 minutes on the clock, after Colm Cooper eased the dominant favourites into a 1-10 to 0-9 lead. In a game of inches, it looked a yard too far for the Leinster champions.

But that wasn't counting on Kevin McManamon, who has showcased his goalscoring abilities on the spring stage many times before -- and who now chose the perfect time to land his first championship goal.



collective

Nor was it counting on the incredible resilience that has been Dublin's new-found forte all summer. Big-match chokers? Kings of the spectacular collapse? Too soft when it really matters? Eh, we don't think so. Not any more.

Consider how this team held out with 14 men for half-an-hour against Kildare. How they overcame something of a collective horror-show against Wexford to dig out a Leinster final that was in danger of running away from them. How they stuck to their guns when Donegal looked set to snare them in their ultra-defensive web, again with a man sent off.

In that context, should we be surprised when they reveal metaphorical balls of steel with Sam Maguire on the line? Not really: the only difference is that Kerry set the bar higher than most.

Ergo, to overcome such a fraught scenario against the ultimate yardstick on the third Sunday of September makes this one of Dublin's finest hours. Ever.

True, the capital has waited so long for this moment that they could have beaten Turkmenistan and it wouldn't have mattered. But yesterday they got greedy and delivered an Oscar-winning All-Ireland script. A first championship victory over Kerry since 1977. A first All-Ireland triumph against the green-and-gold since '76. It doesn't get any better.

In the cold light of day, Dublin will doubtless appreciate that this was a final they could so easily have lost. For the previous four seasons (and six of the last seven summers) they have exited the All-Ireland race to the eventual champions.

For large swathes of yesterday's second half, it looked as if they were staring at an unwanted five-in-a-row. After 40 minutes, courtesy of Denis Bastick's point, Dublin led 0-8 to 1-2 and it was Kerry who appeared in dire straits.

But then the momentum swung dramatically. Bryan Sheehan had a purple patch from both placed balls and open play. Cluxton came under enormous pressure on his own kickout. Dublin were struggling to get out of their own half. Signs of panic were evident in some reckless tackling. The result was that Kerry outscored Dublin by eight points to one between the 42nd and 63rd minute.

The Munster champions looked utterly in control of their own destiny ... enter McManamon with his priceless intervention after 63 and a half minutes, turning this All-Ireland final on its head. In the grim post-mortems around Killarney and Tralee, Kerry will lament this as the 37th All-Ireland that got away.

And there was, for sure, an element of the self-inflicted about it. Kerry teams aren't meant to surrender four-point cushions in the home straight, especially against teams for whom September is a whole new ball game.

It probably wouldn't have happened, too, but for the most costly turnover of Declan O'Sullivan's career. When his errant handpass was intercepted by Cian O'Sullivan, suddenly a channel of space and opportunity opened up the left flank of Kerry's defence.

The Kilmacud man's foot-pass sent Alan Brogan on his way; his hand-pass was weighted just right for McManamon; and when he jinked inside the despairing challenge of Declan O'Sullivan (trying to make amends for his error) there could be only one outcome.

Dublin were now totally re-energised. Kevin Nolan -- our choice for 'Man of the Match' -- landed an inspirational 65th-minute equaliser from distance. Bernard Brogan proved again he's a big man for the big occasion with his sixth point, and second from play, three minutes later.

The underdogs were now in dreamland. Kieran Donaghy brought them back to terra firma with a towering riposte from the left wing. Now the spectre of a first All-Ireland replay since 2000 loomed large, but Dublin had more momentum in injury-time and when McManamon cut inside Barry John Keane -- inducing the young Kerry sub into a desperate, ill-timed tackle -- the chance beckoned.

In between manning the Dublin goals with distinction this summer, Cluxton has double-jobbed as their left-footed free-taker par excellence. He duly made the long trip north from the Canal End, took aim from 40 metres out on the right wing ... and nailed it. Simple as that.

There was time for one last Kerry kick-out; but no time to launch a meaningful attack. And D-Day had yielded deliverance for the Dubs.

The winners had heroes everywhere. Cluxton, O'Sullivan, Nolan, Michael Darragh Macauley, McManamon and the two Brogans merit special mention, but this was a victory for the collective, first and foremost.

Once they survived a ropey first 10 minutes, during which they failed to score but limited Kerry to a single point, you sensed they were right in this game.

This sense that it might be Dublin's day was emboldened by their response to Cooper's 18th-minute goal -- created by the jet-heeled Darran O'Sullivan (Kerry's best player) and finished with ice-cool aplomb by their captain.

Kerry now led by two but, instead of kicking on, they conceded the next four points to Dublin who led at the end of a low-scoring first half by 0-6 to 1-2. Halfway to history.

An hour later, they'd arrived in All-Ireland heaven.

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