Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly – ‘The game was epic’

WHEN Kerry were going for the five-in-a-row in 1982, Noel McFeely from the Foreglen bet on Offaly and won 117 Mars bars. In Long Kesh prison camp outside Belfast, the only currency was Mars bars and Coca Cola from the tuck shop. Noel didn’t like Coca Cola. And he doesn’t like hot favourites, so he stuck his chest out and opened a book.

In all, he took 117 bets, every single one of them on Kerry. Each bet was carefully noted in a jotter. They had a black and white TV in Cage 10 and when Darby scored the winning goal for Offaly, McFeely jumped up, punched the corrugated iron sheeting in delight and put a hole in the roof. “I walked around the yard for a month eating Mars Bars. It took me the full month. My jaws were aching.”  

Before the drawn game, the common view was that Kerry had nothing to lose but this was not true. Every sportsman’s greatest fear is to be humiliated on a national scale. Every player going out to face this Dublin team must feel fear in his stomach. He must wonder if it is going to be an apocalypse, a disaster, an event that will force them indoors until the spring comes.

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The great boxing writer George Plimpton said once that he always felt a great sadness for the vanquished fighter. “They enter the ring like a colossus, they leave the size of a pea.” No one notices Dublin’s victims as they dart out of the stadium, whisked away to some late-night bar to drown their sorrows.

After the drawn game, Kerry will have felt a little like the Marine on the Normandy beach who gets shot in the helmet. His life flashes before his eyes. He takes off his helmet, feels around his head, and is thrilled that he is still alive.

Kerry started with a highly adventurous zonal press on the Dublin kick-out, pushing 12 outfielders up into a 4-4-4 formation, leaving just two defenders at the back, outnumbered by four Dublin forwards.

From the 13th minute onwards, they intercepted three Cluxton kick-outs in a row, something that I cannot remember happening before. After that spell, the score was 0-4 to 0-3 in Kerry’s favour and excitement was mounting.

Then, Dublin, as they do, adapted. Cluxton’s next kick-out was over the top of the press and Dublin were away for a Mannion point. Kerry stuck with the high press. The next kick-out went over the top and with frightening efficiency, the move finished with the ball in the Kerry net. Dublin intercepted the Kerry kick-out that followed and Con O’Callaghan rampaged through, shot for goal and for once, it was saved. That would have left the score 2-5 to 0-5 and the game would have been over.

When Cluxton kicked over the press again in the 31st minute, the Dubs again ruthlessly punished Kerry’s cheek, O’Callaghan finishing the attack with a point to leave the score 1-8 to 0-6. Michael Murphy turned to me in the RTE box and said “another score and this is over.”  

The game was then turned on its head. I am an admirer of David Gough, but there was something in the air, starting with the penalty, which even Pat Spillane said was not a penalty. Hands on briefly is, after all, part and parcel of the game.

Cooper is no doubt a persistent fouler and a very handsy defender. His first yellow was fully merited. But for me, Clifford played him for the second yellow. I have done the same thing many times. Clifford shifted his weight to his right leg, stretched out his right arm to block the defender’s run to contest the ball and body/arm checked him. This is a foul. For me, it was a free out. Cooper tries to get around Clifford, grabs his arm and clearly commits a foul. David went for the nuclear option.

I believe he was played. I suggested in the heat of the moment that David may have been influenced by the propaganda emanating from Kerry in the lead up to the game. Afterwards, I contacted David to apologise for this. It was wrong of me and unfair on David, who is a man of integrity and honour.

Regardless of that debate (and those on social media would do well to remember we are discussing a game of football not some heinous crime or shocking world event) Jim Gavin should never have left Cooper on Clifford after the first yellow. It was obvious to everyone in the stadium this was a disaster waiting to happen.

When this happens to a Tyrone defender, Mickey Harte immediately either replaces him or switches him off the player in question. Jim must bear the responsibility for what followed.

That sending off spared Kerry’s life. By the 40th minute the margin was down to two and the game had taken on a life of its own. I turned to Joanne Cantwell and said “There is a Kerry goal in the air.” But instead, the Dubs went back to into that intimidating zone where they appear totally indifferent to pressure or the opposition and by the 54th minute they were again five up, at 1-14 to 0-12.

Then, another Spillane came along to haunt them. When his goal went in, his uncle nearly jumped out over the edge of the RTE box, and why wouldn’t he? What a goal it was.

Now came Kerry’s big moment. They were on a roll. They were a man up (not a significant advantage to be fair). Their defence was holding up very well. The Dubs suddenly looked human. When young Spillane scored a brilliant point at 65:47 to be precise, they were a point up and it was all on the line.

Having played in a curiously un-Dublin like way, the finale was curiously Dublin. As though a switch had been flicked, Dublin went into that place they go to come the championship moments.

Suddenly, they were swarming all over Kerry, blitzing them in the tackle and driving them back. For the last 13 minutes, Kerry didn’t get a single shot off. In that period, Dublin turned them over in the tackle five times, as the great champions looked to their last protection.

The equalizer duly came and the winning score seemed inevitable. Dublin would surely hold possession, move Kerry around, draw them out, then penetrate for the killer score. But instead, Dublin did something we haven’t seen for years. They started taking potshots. First Howard, then Connolly, then Paddy Small (for the second time, his first potshot having ended with the Kerry goal).

Jim Gavin got some important things wrong. Leaving Cooper on Clifford when it was obvious every ball was going to be an event. Bringing on Paddy Small when Dublin were five up, instead of Diarmuid Connolly who could have controlled the pace of the game and taken up his quarter back role around the middle.

The game was epic, with a hundred things happening. Sean O’Shea came of age with a performance of the greatest artistry under vast pressure. His free-taking is a thing of the purest beauty, as is his general play.

David Moran was imperious, giving a masterclass in Gaelic football. McCaffrey was at his breathtaking best, his speed causing us to gasp. Afterwards in the studio, there was a sort of euphoria that only comes from the greatest contests. My great friend Pat shed a tear, as he had every right to do after his nephew had performed with such distinction.   

But when it comes right down to it, 14 Dubs prevented Kerry from mounting a single attack in that last 13 minutes, ground out the draw and could have won it at the death. As Mayo have shown, it is all well and good competing with the Dubs for 65 or even 70 minutes. It is those last five that are all-important.

I spoke to Noel McFeely afterwards. Notwithstanding how much he loves Mars bars, he is not taking any bets on Dublin.