The All-Ireland Football final has a lot to live up to after the drama and quality of the hurling final. Both Kerry and Donegal upset the odds to qualify for the All-Ireland final and over the next few days Pundit Arena will build up to what should be a very interesting clash.
Very few people would have predicted that Kerry and Donegal would be preparing to face off on the third Sunday of September at any stage of this year. A lot of people saw Kerry as a team in transition following the retirements of Paul Galvin, Eoin Brosnan and Tomás Ó’Sé. Further to this the worst case scenario unfolded with the loss of Colm Copper for the year to a cruciate knee ligament injury. But look where they are now.
Donegal were also a bit of an unknown quantity heading into this season. They pretty much came from nowhere to win an All-Ireland title in 2012 and their defence of their title was very poor and there was much speculation of unrest in the camp when Jim McGuinness changed his backroom team along with many rumours of conflict with the Donegal county board over club fixtures. But much like Kerry, one must only look at where they are now.
Both sides have undoubtedly warranted their places in the final. There has been little or no luck involved on either side. They have deservedly beaten each opponent that has stood in their way and whichever team wins will definitely be a worthy winner. Both sides have stumbled over the line in some games, while looking like world beaters at times in other games. Now the test is there for both to deliver on the big day.
Kerry will always be Kerry, and that has been evident this year as much as any other year. A lot of loyal Kerry supporters even felt that the loss of Colm Cooper would be too significant. The best player of his generation had been instrumental for Kerry in 2013 when he moved to centre-forward and started pulling the strings in their attack. There was no way of replacing a player of his quality and instead Kerry seem to have changed their style of play to good effect.
A lot of people wrote them off or simply failed to take them as serious contenders to lift the Sam Maguire trophy come September. But this year Kerry have shown in style that they can never be written off and must always be taken seriously. A footballer nearly always grows or improves when he puts on the famous Kerry jersey and the names like Paul Murphy and Michael Geaney are testimony to this for 2014.
Their passage to the final has not always been plain sailing. Their first game of the championship saw them struggle to beat Clare in Ennis when they trailed at stages but managed to pull through in the end. Prior to the Munster final against Cork, they were almost completely written off. Terms like ‘the worst Kerry team of all time’ were being thrown around, but the Munster final proved a lot of people wrong.
They absolutely destroyed Cork, when most people thought the score was going to go the other way around. That day a lot players showed the country that they were a lot better than people thought they were. The obvious star was James O’Donoghue but players in defence and midfield were also on top form and their season has kicked on from then.
As expected, they accounted for Galway in the quarter-final. Their victory was relatively comfortable and they found themselves in the last four of the championship against Mayo. Seventy minutes failed to separate themselves and Mayo on two occasions as Kerry progressed after extra-time. The games were two classic encounters but those games showed one thing that Kerry have more than anything else.
That game really showed how Kerry will always be Kerry. There was a belief, a passion and most importantly a quality that all victorious Kerry teams show in abundance. Kerry will always be good in some way. They will always be difficult to beat. Their tradition will always count for something. Very few people saw them as realistic contenders and they have proved those people wrong.
Donegal’s tough run in Ulster added to people’s doubts about them. They opened with a game against Derry, who had been very impressive during the league. Derry reached the Division 1 league final in comparison to Donegal who lost the Division 2 final to Monaghan. Derry were tipped to beat Donegal, and this potential defeat would have led Donegal down a very different path.
They beat Derry by three points and then a comprehensive win over Antrim had them back in an Ulster final. They faced Monaghan, who had beaten them in the 2013 Ulster final and the 2014 National League Division 2 final. Monaghan also had the tougher run in Ulster and this meant that a lot of people favoured them to win. But Donegal and Jim McGuinness had other ideas as they claimed their third Ulster title in four years.
Their quarter-final win over Armagh was a very drab affair and they won the game by a single point. It was a very tight and dogged affair and they found themselves in a semi-final with everybody’s undisputed favourites for the All-Ireland title; Dublin. Bookmakers were offering odds of up to 6/1 for Donegal to prevail in what seemed to be a complete contrast of styles.
Dublin’s all-out attack was taking on Donegal’s defensive system. Dublin had simply blown every opponent away prior to the Donegal game, but Jim McGuinness proved again what a shrewd tactical manager he is, with a master class of counter attacking play that saw them beat Dublin and qualify for the final.
Dublin looked like they were going to comfortably win the game in the first twenty minutes but Donegal trusted and believed in their system. They showed that they are very much a good team when they play to their best and the ‘one trick ponies’ tag that people attached to them after 2013 was unjust. They are now back in the All-Ireland final and as the song goes – Jimmy’s Winning Matches.
So it is a novel pairing in certain ways. Kerry and Donegal have been up there with the best in Ireland in recent year’s but this would not have been seen as a potential All-Ireland pairing at the beginning of the season. It very much appears to be a 50/50 game that could go either way.
Sean Cremin, Pundit Arena.