Survival of the fittest
Gilroy's rebuilt Blues now designed to withstand the might of Kerry's firepower
THE GAA has got its dream final, the first Dublin-Kerry decider since 1985. For one team, the dream will lead up those heavenly steps of the Hogan Stand. For the other, the dream will deliver a nightmare result come 5pm tomorrow.
So, who's it to be then? Will it be the aristocrats who have been there, won that, so many times before? Or the hungry-as-hell challenger, ready to defy history and pen the latest and long overdue chapter in the tale of Dublin's All-Ireland love affair?
We'll try and answer that conundrum -- eventually! -- but first let's remind ourselves that Dublin/Kerry is not the great romantic rivalry that some (green-and-gold) mythmakers would have you believe.
The modern reality is that Kerry don't lose to Dublin in SFC combat. They haven't done so since 1977. Seven of the team selected by Jack O'Connor for this year's final also started the 2004 quarter-final -- that figure would rise to eight if a certain Paul Galvin was suddenly parachuted in tomorrow.
Kerry won at their relative ease in '04; squeezed home by two points in the '07 semi-final; then devoured 15 "startled earwigs" whole in the '09 quarter-final that dare not speak its name.
What this recent history underlines is that the generation of Colm Cooper, Tomás and Marc ó Sé, Tom O'Sullivan, Eoin Brosnan, Aidan O'Mahony, Declan O'Sullivan and Galvin expect to beat Dublin when it matters.
They also expect to make it this far every year -- this will be Kerry's eighth final since 2002. Their gilt-edged experience is beyond dispute; their innate talent and ring craft and ability to think on their feet has been showcased, time and again; they have a manager who has consistently proven himself in the art of getting his players to peak in September; they possess the best forward line in the country, pound for pound ... all these things considered, it is entirely logical to conclude that, of course, the favourites will prevail.
We're not so convinced. We appreciate that there are more imponderables about a team playing in its first All-Ireland final, but even Dublin's greatest sceptics must admit that Pat Gilroy's men are here on merit.
We'll go further: they have a genuine chance of going all the way, not just an outside punt.
Kerry have several clear advantages, already touched on above, but the same applies to their challengers.
While Kerry have produced periods of spellbinding football (the first half against Cork, the second half against Mayo), they haven't produced a 70-minute performance to match Dublin's tour de force against Tyrone.
The Leinster champions have been seriously road-tested en route to the final, far more so than Kerry. The semi-final against Donegal may have been an abomination to look at, but playing through it and coming out the far end, intact, can only be a positive.
Psychologically, that game will have steeled them. Likewise, beating Kildare with 14 men and overcoming a disastrous period against Wexford suggests Dublin are now possessed of a greater resolve than old.
True, even during Gilroy's reign they have endured some Croke Park horror shows -- most infamously the 17-point implosion against Kerry two years ago, and most recently this year's league final against Cork when a sublime first 40 minutes was followed by the ridiculous surrender of an eight-point lead.
But here's the rub: Dublin have changed beyond all recognition since 2009 -- for the simple reason that they had no other choice. None of the six backs who started that day will play in defence tomorrow. Denis Bastick, Bryan Cullen and Barry Cahill have relocated further outfield, yet all three will still have a critical role in keeping Kerry at bay -- as auxiliary defenders.
Essentially, what Gilroy did after '09 was rebuild his team from scratch. That was Dublin's 'Year Zero' moment.
The imposition of a new zonal defensive system has had its teething problems, but the policy has largely worked: Dublin are now less susceptible to leaking big scores in short, fatal bursts and this is reflected in the concession of just two goals in five matches this summer.
Changing the defensive personnel has also helped in that the current incumbents aren't mentally scarred by past calamities against Tyrone or Kerry. These players have bought into the system: they hold their shape, even when observers in the stand may have been screaming for them to engage further out the field when faced by Donegal's one-man attack.
Ultimately, Donegal lacked the forward artillery to beat a Dublin team that was there for the taking shortly after half-time. The same cannot be said for Kerry, and this must be the biggest concern for Gilroy.
The peerless Colm Cooper, the jet-heeled Darran O'Sullivan and the ever-classy Declan O'Sullivan have the pedigree to destroy if given half a chance. Then who is to say Kieran Donaghy won't emerge from his recent form trough to reveal 'the Star' of old?
This is not forgetting Galvin's proven capacity to change a game coming off the bench -- if he doesn't start in the first place.
Kerry have averaged 1-20 on their way here; a repeat can have only one consequence. By the same token, three of their five games were against Division Three counties and they have yet to encounter the athleticism and physicality that Dublin will bring to the table -- not even against Cork, strangely muted for much of the Munster final.
Few teams -- bar Donegal -- can match Dublin's intensity in the tackle and ability to execute turnovers.
Once upon a time, this template was perfected by a younger Tyrone, the only team that consistently outfoxed and outfought Kerry in Croke Park.
Essentially, Dublin have embraced this model and they have refined the counter-attacking element of it this summer.
It's no longer a case of stifling Bernard Brogan and Dublin are goosed. The rejuvenation of his brother, Alan, coupled with the X-Factor that is Diarmuid Connolly, leaves Kerry with three strike forwards to worry about.
With Connolly, you just never know. If he lands his first chance, he could be heading for 'Man of the Match' territory. Miss it, and the bench may ultimately beckon.
But Tom O'Sullivan (presuming he's handed the job) cannot afford to give Dublin's Mr Enigma any latitude.
Obviously, defensive match-ups at both ends will have a critical bearing. O'Connor has proven himself a very shrewd operator on this front, but a bigger worry for the Kerry boss will be the amount of goal chances coughed up against Limerick and Mayo, and the vulnerability of his thirtysomething half-back line when you run at them.
In summary, while this year's league collapse raised some familiar doubts about Dublin's mentality, such happenings have been very rare these past two years.
They have become a more consistent, pragmatic outfit -- less swashbuckling, perhaps, but less likely to buckle too.
They have improved beyond recognition since '09, whereas Kerry have lost a host of stellar individuals since then.
Physically, with the obvious caveat concerning fears over Paul Flynn's hamstring, Dublin couldn't be in better nick. They are built to last.
To beat the odds, though, they must hit the ground running because Kerry are masters at going for the early jugular, sapping all life and hope from the opposition.
Survive that potential onslaught and then -- whisper it -- Dublin's dream can become reality.
ODDS: Dublin 13/8, Draw 8/1, Kerry 8/11