Stephen O’Leary looks back on a fantastic year of Gaelic football that saw Kerry rise above all.
Predictably unpredictable. Perhaps this is the best way to describe senior inter-county championship football these days. There are certain things you can count on to happen, but there will always be the odd joker in the pack. The 2014 season proved that.
A look first to some of the supporting players in this year’s championship. Cork, full of new faces after a winter full of retirements, looked to say goodbye to Páirc Uí Chaoimh with a Munster win. Instead, they were decimated by a rejuvenated Kerry in the Munster final, before just coming up short against Mayo in the All Ireland Quarter Final. More on those two later.
Armagh were a source of much interest before the business end of the summer, not entirely for footballing reasons. As if a pre-match brawl with Cavan wasn’t enough, a media blackout followed as the Orchard marched to the Quarter Finals, but no further. So too did Monaghan and Galway, having lost provincial deciders, but both graciously stepped aside to let the main stars take centre stage at Semi Final time.
According to most of the country, all Dublin had to do was show up, kick a few points, and Sam would be theirs to pick up in September. Let there be no doubt about it: in terms of pure footballing ability, Dublin are easily the best group of players in the country. But this season showed us that that is not enough to be successful. Some claimed that an era of Capital dominance was on the horizon and that it would be years until there would be a team to take down Dublin. Foolish thought, in hindsight, when there was one all along in Donegal.
Ah, Donegal. Surely the most written about football team in the country over the last few years, mostly for the wrong reasons. Who would have thought that the developers of “puke football” would be seen as heroes come September? But so it was, as they not only denied Dublin the freedom to score at will, but tore them apart in attack as well.
It was the perfect performance, easily the best of Jim McGuinness’ impressive reign. Perhaps it was too perfect, as matching it in the final proved a bridge too far.
If Donegal beating Dublin was the football summer’s biggest surprise, the other semi-final served up the biggest spectacle: Kerry vs. Mayo, parts one and two. Two more sides who many had written off; Mayo had the unwanted ‘bridesmaid’ tag, while Kerry were in transition. Yet what followed was 160 minutes of pure drama – not limited to red cards, scraps, penalties, and an epic duel between James O’Donoghue and Keith Higgins was worth the entrance fee alone.
In the end it was Kerry who won out, deep into extra time in the replay in Limerick (let’s not get into that). The circumstances of the victory seemed to galvanise the Kingdom, to make men out of the young players that formed most of their team. It certainly helped them give the mature performance they did in the final.
Given the drama and excitement produced by all three semi-final matches, it cannot be understated that the final was an anti-climax. Having previously demonstrated that the “foot” aspect of football was in fact not dead by displaying excellent kick passing and score taking, Kerry opted to outdo Donegal at their own game: dropping players back into defence, using lots of handpasses, and picking off the odd score. Pretty it was not, but it certainly was effective.
A tactical triumph for Eamonn Fitzmaurice, bitter defeat for Donegal and the purists who looked for a thrilling spectacle. Don’t worry, that will come in time. For now enjoy what, for this writer, was the highlight of the football year (below); Peter Crowley’s magnificent block in the final – now that’s a spectacle.
One more thing, watch out for this Cooper lad Kerry have coming back from injury next year, they say this boy can play.
Stephen O’Leary, Pundit Arena.