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Inseparable rivals have reason to cheer as Dubs and Kerry give us Groundhog Night

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DRIVING ON: James McCarthy, who captained Dublin on Saturday night in Croke Park. Pic: Sportsfile

DRIVING ON: James McCarthy, who captained Dublin on Saturday night in Croke Park. Pic: Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

DRIVING ON: James McCarthy, who captained Dublin on Saturday night in Croke Park. Pic: Sportsfile

All square on the scoreboard, all satisfied in either camp if you're to believe the post-match pronouncements of Dessie Farrell and Peter Keane.

This time there won't be a replay; instead of a fortnight, we might have to wait six or even seven months for Croke Park battle to resume.

But, leaving aside the most striking statistical similarity with last year's drawn All-Ireland final, there were other uncanny echoes with 2019.

Some of which are sure to give Farrell, as he settles into his high-pressure role, plenty of cause for comfort.

Dublin's ability to establish control amid the chaos is not a birthright, it has been learned and hard-earned. But it has reached the point where it now appears natural. Not even managerial upheaval will knock them off kilter.

And so we arrive at that white-knuckle watershed: 73 minutes into Saturday's Allianz Football League Division 1 opener, watched by an unseasonally big attendance of 42,502.

Standout

Six minutes of injury-time had been signalled and David Clifford, one of the game's standout personalities, has just been fouled by Rory O'Carroll, affording Paul Geaney a routine equalising free.

Evan Comerford has only one thing on his mind: don't lose the kickout. He goes short - the first of 26 completed passes in a move that veers left, right, forward and back, all the time probing, until lively sub Aaron Byrne injects pace into the move, bursting up the right flank, shadowed by Paul Murphy.

Byrne cuts inside and passes to Ciarán Kilkenny. Shane Enright is tempted into the tackle; contact is relatively minimal but it still looks a free.

As Kilkenny hits the turf, the five-in-a-row All-Ireland champions have held possession for just over two minutes.

Trademark Dublin.

Another thing: through it all, Kerry have been playing with an extra man. Dublin had been down to 14 men since the 56th minute, when Eric Lowndes departed for the second time, yellow and an earlier black adding up to red.

Kerry were then reduced to 14 after Graham O'Sullivan's body-check on John Small led to a 61st minute black card. His infraction was possibly crucial in facilitating a grandstand finish: Dublin outscored Kerry 0-6 to 0-2 during O'Sullivan's ten minutes in the sin-bin, surging from three down to go one up.

But the Kerry sub was back for that two-minute possession master-class.

Before Dean Rock had completed the formalities of tapping over what many of us presumed would be the match-winner, Tyrone referee Seán Hurson precipitated another lengthy hold-up (1min 40secs between foul and free), seeking out Kerry's Seán O'Shea for dragging down Brian Fenton during the move. The already booked O'Shea saw black, then red, to complete his multi-coloured misery. Game over?

Not quite. Kerry's final play was twice ended by Dublin fouls - the second by Kilkenny on Micheál Burns. Niall Scully fly-kicked the ball away, Burns retaliated, John Small barged in. After this outbreak of handbags at dawn, Hurson booked Kilkenny and Small and brought the free into presentable range.

Step forward Clifford to prove that even 21-year-olds can be captains in more than name only: as the clock hit 79:30, he nailed the pressure free.

So it ended as it started: parity if not quite peace on earth, with another melee at the final bell. Clifford emerged from it all with his new Kerry jersey more resembling a rag, while the Hill bellowed one last verse of Campione.

Compared to the post-match brawl in Tralee last February, that final fracas carried the air of pantomime pyrotechnics ... yet it was no surprise either. Tempers and off-the-ball tackle counts had risen throughout the second half.

Hurson had brandished just one card before the break - an injury-time black for Lowndes - but he would flash two further blacks, ten yellows and two reds on the resumption.

The first half had been wonderfully free-flowing by comparison, even if the ease with which Fenton (with a sumptuous 0-4 from midfield), James O'Donoghue (with 0-3) and various other Dubs and Kerrymen clipped points made you question the intensity of both defences. Was this the real deal?

Clifford certainly is: that mazy run for his 18th minute equalising goal had the stamp of genius. It also ignited Kerry after a quivering start during which Dublin raced four clear.

The visitors were one up before Dean Rock converted his own penalty on the half-hour; Kerry riposted but then Fenton's fourth point, completing a salutary first half for O'Shea in his stop-gap midfield role, edged Dublin ahead, 1-10 to 1-9.

Then it all turned rather scrappy. Not that Kerry complained as they wrested control to go three clear. Dublin would only add three Rock frees in 30 minutes before McCarthy, an influential skipper on the night, ended the drought.

This was the signal for Dublin to turn up the heat on Shane Ryan's kickout, to play keep ball and then go for the kill. After last year's drawn decider, this was like Groundhog Night ... but it could have been worse for Kerry.

No permanent scars. Time to holster the pistols until high summer.