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Dublin give football much to celebrate

By Joe Kernan

It would certainly seem that the good wine has been left to last in the All-Ireland hurling and football championships.

We have just been treated to two riveting hurling semi-finals and two sharply contrasting football semis that unveiled the outstanding characteristics of both sports — passion, skill, commitment and pride.

Now as we anticipate Sunday’s eagerly-awaited hurling decider between Clare and Cork, we could be in for the ultimate treat in terms of technical expertise and exquisite finishing skills.

The hurling championship has far outweighed the football series in terms of competitiveness, vibrancy and sheer entertainment value with even caustic critics of the small ball game forced to bow the knee to what has been a superior code over the past three months.

It was never thought at the outset that hurling would stride so majestically onto the national stage and now with the curtain about to come down in considerable style, the sport itself has been given the kind of makeover that would have been deemed impossible just a short while ago.

The Dublin v Cork and Limerick v Clare semi-finals embodied all that is virtuous within the sport — its manliness, pace, silken touch, strength and controlled aggression.

Perhaps it was the absence of Kilkenny from the last four that helped add a whole new dimension to the race for the Liam McCarthy Cup and then again maybe it was just that some sides felt they had over-indulged in their slumber and awoke with a jolt.

Whatever the reason, hurling is suddenly cool, no longer the poor relation to football.

And yet while the magnetism of hurling has captivated us all, football has not been left entirely in the shade.

Sure, there were nondescript matches in the earlier rounds of the championship with a number of counties huffing and puffing but ultimately delivering little.

Donegal were a massive disappointment, Monaghan to some extent shot themselves in the foot when the chips were down against Tyrone and Cavan were handed a reality check when they discovered that even in second gear Kerry still tend to operate on another planet.

But if Mayo’s win over Tyrone was honed out after a first-half brush with danger, then Dublin’s victory over Kerry last Sunday was the end-product of a display that reeked of class, confidence and poise.

Yet a Kingdom side now largely populated by gnarled warriors still remained on their opponents’ shoulder until injury-time kicked in.

And it is to the credit of the much-decorated Tomas Ó Sé, playmaker supreme Colm Cooper (pictured), Marc Ó Sé and Declan O’Sullivan that they were continuing to put their bodies on the line at that stage when lesser men would surely have wilted altogether.

But then personal pride can prove a massive spur when the chips are down.

There was never the slightest hint that Eamon Fitzmaurice’s side were going to lob in the towel but then Kevin McManamon’s ‘scuffed’ goal and another almost immediately from Eoghan O’Gara crushed even Kerry’s iron will.

Fitzmaurice’s post-match observation that it did not matter if his team had lost by one point or seven points was perhaps pertinent in one context yet his side were in no way inferior by seven points after such a truly heroic effort in a mesmeric contest.

I have no doubt that Mayo manager James Horan was the most interested spectator in a packed Croke Park.

On a day when caution was thrown to the wind, Dublin underlined that they have the fluency and team ethic to go the distance on September 22.

They look the real deal having confounded the doubters by the manner in which they roared through the final phase of the game at breakneck speed.

Manager Jim Gavin looked more relieved than elated at the finish — strange that, given that his side had just played their part in one of the truly great games.

It was a match right up there alongside the tremendous Dublin v Kerry semi-final in 1977, the epic Derry v Down clash in the early 90’s and the mind-blowing Dublin v Meath saga from the same era.

This was truly a bonanza — a full-blown battle between two super-fit teams unfettered by inhibitions, consumed by defence or dogged by baggage of any description.

The last chapter in what has been a compelling if not altogether spectacular championship — unlike its sister competition — is about to be scripted and my fervent plea is: “Bring it on!”

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