Saturday won’t define ‘the greatest’ — there’s plenty of room for all of GAA’s finest

Saturday won’t define ‘the greatest’ — there’s plenty of room for all of GAA’s finest
Saturday won’t define ‘the greatest’ — there’s plenty of room for all of GAA’s finest

Beyond the mere fact that no (male) GAA team has ever pulled it off before, would Dublin completing the five in a row carry a greater significance?

Has part of our fascination in watching them close in on history been an inherent assumption that should they go where no team has gone before it would confirm Jim Gavin’s side as the finest to ever kick or fist an O’Neill’s, even greater than Micko’s?

Or even more, that it would separate and even elevate them from Brian Cody’s army as the most formidable machine to ever march behind an Artane Band?

In posing and teasing out such questions, it raises a few more.

For instance, had Kerry seen it out against Offaly in ’82, would the legacy and greatness of that core group of players been all the more enhanced than that now accredited to them?

Or would it have been less?

Ponder this: had they won the five in a row, would most of those players have gone on to win a further three in a row from ’84 to ’86?

In conversations with numerous of them for his classic book Kings of September: The Day Offaly Denied Kerry,Michael Foley concluded that it’s doubtful that they would.

“Some players reckon it would have finished their careers early,” he’d write in the book’s final page.

Mick O’Dwyer would come to a similar summation in his 1990 autobiography. “It was best for the Kerry players who were drinking too much that they did not break any more records. In the end, I suppose everything evens itself out.”

As Brendan Kennelly once put it in a quote featured in another book chronicling that team, Eoghan Corry’s Kingdom Come, “Football talk is about eternal things: style, courage, speed, cunning, defeat, renewal.” And so it has been whenever football talk turns to that team O’Dwyer built and returned.

From the ashes of their last-minute defeats in ’82 and ‘83 came the renewal of ’84 to ’86. Just as Gavin’s Dublin became all the better and smarter and thus greater for losing to Donegal in 2014, the greatness of Micko’s team only increased for losing in ’82.

They were never quite as magnificent as they were from ’78 to ’82 – a tad like Cody’s teams of 2014 and 2015 were more “functional” than the devastating teams of 2008-2009 — their added longevity more than atoned for it. By losing in ’82, the Golden Years were extended, not reduced or even diminished.

Had Mikey Sheehy put that penalty past Martin Furlong in ’82, chances are he’d never have fired that ball past Adrian Skelton in ’86 and inspired and created a mental representation for Mike Frank Russell to replicate against Cavan in a semi-final in ’97, the old videotape of the Golden Years being an hour shorter for climaxing in ’82.

Like his pal and clubmate Ger Power, he would have retired on six All-Ireland medals, his one from ’75 to go with the five won on the trot from ’78 to ’82.

Instead they finished with eight apiece. One more, as it happens, than any Dub will have even if they do pull off the five in a row on Saturday.

There is one thing that this Dublin team have over Micko’s team of all talents. To cite a line of another football-loving Kerry poet, JJ Barrett, back in Micko’s days the “national league was only for fun”.

You’d to play games up in Armagh in late October and November when you were still out celebrating the last All-Ireland won and fundraising just as hard for the next team holiday. During O’Dwyer’s tenure, his team would ‘only’ win three leagues, and only with one of those would they go on to win the All-Ireland the same year (1984).

Under Jim Gavin, the national league hasn’t been just a bit of fun to Dublin. It’s been all business. This season was the first year in his seven years in charge where they failed to reach the league final. Five times Stephen Cluxton has gone up the steps to lift that trophy.

As this column wrote on the opening of the 2018 league campaign, which typically ended with Cluxton lifting that cup, such a tally of league titles could prove to be the tiebreaker, the equivalent of goal difference, in any declaration or debate about the identity of the greatest football team ever.

By the same token though, there is something that Dwyer’s Kerry for nowhave had over Gavin-Gilroy’s Dublin.

Ever since Paddy Cullen returned to his fire station to find Mikey Sheehy had it put ablaze, prompting Bomber & Co to run amok in the subsequent second half, Kerry had no worthy peer or rival until Offaly showed up again for that ’82 showdown.

Dublin ’79, Roscommon ’80, even Offaly ’80 and ’81 — none were as formidable or as competitive or as challenging as the Mayo team of this decade or even Fitzmaurice’s Kerry.

Pat Spillane used to wryly remark that every classic from the ‘70s and ‘80s seemed to be a Kerry defeat, that no Kerry win seemed to ever qualify, but that’s because all Kerry’s victories after the 1976 Munster final replay were too comprehensive to be afforded such status; even their 4-15 to 4-10 1980 semi-final shootout with Offaly was long decided before the end, two of Offaly’s goals coming in garbage time.

In contrast, Gavin’s, and Gilroy’s, Dublin have won multiple classics: the 2011 All Ireland final against Kerry, the 2013 and 2016 semi-finals against the same opposition, the 2015, 2016 and 2017 clashes with Mayo.

You can present that as evidence as to the superiority of Micko’s side, or, conversely, you can argue that continuously ending on the right side of such tight games only highlights the mental toughness and composure of Gavin’s charges.

Foley got one thing wrong in his otherwise immaculate book.

“Kerry’s blessed generation will be remembered as the last great dominant force,” he’d write on its final page, published in 2007 at a time when Kerry had another fantastic team but one having to contend with an equally-terrific Tyrone side snapping at its heels, ready to steal in for another All Ireland.

“No team will ever rule and shape football as they did.”

At the time Foley or no one could have envisaged a blue wave like Dublin’s coming along within a decade, that a James McCarthy at 29 could be on the verge of a seventh All-Ireland, just as no one in the pre-Cody era could have anticipated anyone from Kilkenny or anywhere else surpassing Christy Ring’s and John Doyle’s All Ireland medal count of eight.

But the last line of his book still rings true. “In the end,” Foley say of both Micko’s Kerry and McGee’s Offaly, “history found room for them all.”

So it will be of both Gavin’s Dublin and Micko’s Kerry, regardless of what happens this Saturday. Should Dublin do what Micko’s or Cody’s side couldn’t and pull off the five in a row, it doesn’t make a Brian Fenton better than a Jack O’Shea, or even Fenton’s team better than Jacko’s.

Even if Bernard Brogan or Diarmuid Connolly come off the bench and do a Seamus Darby, chances are they’ll still value the one-in-a-row All-Irelands of 2011 and 2013 more than the one they’d have collected in 2019.

And should Dublin come up short this weekend, it doesn’t diminish a Brogan’s greatness, or rule out a McCarthy coming back to win his seventh and eighth All Ireland medals in the coming years, just like another legendary half back by the name of Páidí would after the disappointment of ’82.

So, to answer the questions we asked at the top, the answer is no – Saturday is not about verifying who is the greatest football or even GAA team of all time, merely who had the greatest consecutive streak of winning All Irelands.

We’re intrigued to see if Dublin can survive at an altitude that was even beyond Kerry in ’82 and Kilkenny in 2010 and are ready to applaud them if they do, without acclaiming them as necessarily better than either.

Beating Kerry in 2019 doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll have beaten Kerry ‘75-‘86.

No one will get squeezed out of history. History will have a great big room for them all.

Source: Sports