6 Things We Learnt From Dublin Vs Kerry in the 2020 National League Opener
1. Jim Gavin may be gone but his legacy remains
Teams don’t turn from good to bad overnight, and neither will this Dublin team. The steely determination, calm reassurance, panic-resistant processes and carefully timed possession plays were all still very much in evidence last Saturday night. The hallmark of Gavin’s management culture was to inspire his players to lead; to figure it out on the field themselves even in the most excruciating of high pressure circumstances.
From three points down in the second half with Kerry looking to close out the game, Dublin unlocked the Kerry defence to go one ahead. How many times have we seen this against Kerry or Mayo? This Dublin team served their apprenticeship under the Master; the lessons have not been forgotten.
2. Kerry are learning fast but still show tactical naiveté
With Fenton’s dogged, man-marking Kerry nemesis, Jack Barry, in abstentia, Fenton had the freedom of Croke Park to express himself. The big Raheny man was imperious in the first half, displaying a peerless array of talents. Intelligence, power, pace, poise; four sumptuous points on the run taken from left foot and right; it was a showcase for Gaelic football fans.
To underestimate a talent like Fenton showed once again that Kerry Manager, Peter Keane, still has a little bit to learn about this Dublin team. Gifted though Kerry’s Seánie O’Shea may be, he’s no midfielder and was never going to make a dent on Dublin’s 6’5”powerhouse. Tactically, it was naïve and almost cost Kerry the game.
3. Kerry have not yet found an answer for Ciarán Kilkenny
Few players in Ireland can match the game intelligence of Ciarán Kilkenny and he proved yet again what a leader he is in the Dublin forward line. Co-commentator, Oisín McConville, didn’t hide his admiration for Kilkenny’s leadership, awarding him RTE’s Man of the Match, as he pulled down a mark in front of Hill 16 and almost led his team to victory. Like Brian Fenton at midfield, Kilkenny seems immune to the pressure of a clock ticking down to zero.
Dublin know that John Small can man-mark Kerry playmaker, Seán O’Shea, to the periphery of the game, but Kerry have no equivalent in their backline for Kilkenny. That’s a BIG problem for the Kingdom.
4. Dublin’s gravy-train of talent is still coming through
The sight of Na Fianna’s red hot hitman, Conor McHugh, taking two fabulous scores in the first half, including one from a well taken mark, may have surprised some Dublin fans but McHugh’s prodigious talent will be nothing new to fellow clubman, Dessie Farrell. Indeed, McHugh was Man of the Match in Dessie’s 2014 U-21 All-Ireland Football Final victory, scoring an eye watering 1-6 against Roscommon. He was subsequently named Cadbury’s Hero of the Future.
McHugh has been pushing hard to break into Dublin’s lethal, all-conquering forward line - his first half performance will have done his chances no harm.
And if you’re wondering where the next Ciarán Kilkenny is going to come from, then you need look no further than Aaron Byrne, another former U-21 Player of the Year, this time from Dessie Farrell’s All -Ireland winning 2017 team. Want to know who else was on that team? Brian Howard, Eoin Murchan, Con O’Callaghan and Evan Comerford. Take a minute. Let that sink in…
Like Kilkenny, Byrne is a natural leader, who orchestrates the attack and operates with ice-cube cool under pressure. Sporting a ginger beard on his senior debut gave him an uncanny resemblance to Prince Harry Windsor, much to the good-humoured amusement of Dublin fans on social media. But make no mistake: this guy will be a massive talent for Dublin and is one of the players most likely to break through into the match day Championship squad.
Add to the mix Ciarán Archer, 2019’s Eirgrid U-20 Footballer of the Year, who scored an astonishing 9 goals and 35 points in just 5 games (5 games!!) and his 6’6” midfield teammate, Peadar Ó Cofaigh Byrne, and you begin to understand the plethora of talent available to Dessie Farrell coming through from underage.
Fans from other counties who thought that Dublin’s star would diminish with the end of the decade better think again. Dublin are not done yet. Not by a long shot.
5. Kerry’s reliance on Clifford For Kerry’s part, so much of what they do well up front comes through David Clifford. He’s not the kind of player you can shut out for a whole game - he’ll still score 3 or 4 no matter who is marking him - but Mick Fitzsimmons and David Byrne have both done well on him. Byrne was desperately unlucky to slip for Clifford’s brilliantly taken goal. Otherwise, you’d have said Byrne wasn’t far off break-even in general play.
Clifford had a great game last Saturday but what happens if Clifford gets injured? Or simply has a bad day? Would Kerry have enough in their front 6 to beat Dublin? In this sense, their greatest threat also becomes their weakness. By contrast, Dublin have a far greater spread of risk in the attack.
That said, the biggest worry for Dublin is the re-emergence of James O’Donoghue. After years of poor form, struggling with injury, the 2014 Player of the Year was very sharp last Saturday. He’s a far bigger threat than Tommy Walsh, whose injury-ravaged body is a year older now and just doesn’t seem to have the pace or stamina for 70 minutes at this level of the game. Tommy still has the potential to wreak havoc in the air, especially with the introduction of the mark, but outfield, the Dublin defence should keep him well marshalled.
6. The advantage still lies with Dublin As far as this year’s Championship goes, both of these teams are highly likely to meet again in the 2020 All Ireland Final – and maybe before then in the National League decider. Kerry fielded 11 players from last Septembers All Ireland Final, but still could not seal the deal from a winning position. That’s the kind of thing that won’t sit easy with Peter Keane. This was a missed opportunity to lay down a psychological marker against Dublin in Croke Park. Too many defeats can start to instil doubt. Just ask Mayo.
Meanwhile, Dublin were nowhere near full strength. Cooper, Fitzsimmons, O’Sullivan, McCaffrey, MDMA, Connolly, O’Callaghan and Cluxton were all missing. That’s a lot of All Ireland gold.
As it stands, Kerry have enough fire power up front and in midfield to equal Dublin on a bad day – we know that from last September. There’s little between the two teams but if they are to beat Dublin on a Championship summer’s day, they will need to find one or two new players in the backline.
The odds remain in Dublin’s favour.