Joe Kernan: Dublin's All-Ireland pain finally over
During the build-up to last year’s Cork v Down All-Ireland football and again in the lead up to Sunday’s decider between Dublin and Kerry one word surfaced with almost monotonous regularity in any debate, assessment or speculation surroundings the ties. And that word was hurt.
This was understandable, if at times rather tedious as it gave rise to the impression that certain teams ‘deserved’ to win the title. But as we all know the All-Ireland crown has to be earned, it is not dispensed through sentiment.
Cork had waited 20 years since their last title, during which they endured seemingly endless heartbreak, before they came good against James McCartan’s side while Dublin’s championship agony since they last collected the Sam Maguire Cup in 1995 was well chronicled in advance of last weekend.
Certainly both Cork and Dublin suffered serious psychological hurt during their respective lengthy barren spells, that hurt becoming all the more pronounced as they watched teams who had beaten them such as Kerry and Tyrone go on to claim All-Ireland crowns.
It was perhaps the cumulative hurt they had endured which provided the spur for an admittedly limited Cork to stretch themselves fully against Down last year before crossing the line a solitary point ahead of their opponents (0-16 to 0-15) while Dublin, seldom a dominant force in the game, were pushed to the pin of their collar before outgunning Kerry by a similar margin last Sunday (1-12 to 1-11) in the most dramatic of finishes.
The very thin line which often divides sporting success and failure has been vividly underlined in the last two All-Ireland finals and it is no coincidence that rampant desire to experience no further hurt underpinned the mental strength that ultimately proved a passport to success for the respective winners.
There is of course no place more lonely or desolate in Irish sport than the losers’ dressing-room in Croke Park on All-Ireland final day.
When Kerry manager Jack O’Connor admitted that his side were “utterly devastated” after Cavan referee Joe McQuillan blew the final whistle on Sunday, this was a stark admission of failure by a man who had watched his side empty the tank and still fall short.
Savage wounds inflicted on a team’s psyche and morale, especially over a period of years, can either lead to the disintegration of that side or ultimately prove stepping stones to redemption.
Cork and Dublin were forced to look on enviously as ‘Sam’ made regular trips to the north — something that is certainly not relished by ‘southern’ teams — or, perhaps worse still from Cork’s perspective, took up residence (again!) in neighbouring Kerry.
But patience is a virtue.
Just as Cork ended their famine in a workman-like rather than spectacular fashion last year, Dublin came up trumps this time round through a fusion of earthy virtues rather than an injection of spectacular flair — although, to be fair, Kevin McManamon’s superb game-changing goal was right out of the top drawer.
And while strong emphasis continues to be placed on strength and conditioning, fitness and stamina, nerves of steel can be a more than useful ally when the heat is turned up to boiling point.
Just over 24 hours before we witnessed Dublin’s triumph, we all watched in admiration as Ronan O’Gara, having been parachuted in from the bench, potted the vital penalties that sent Ireland well clear of Australia and into the World Cup stratosphere.
This actually provided the aperitif for Stephen Cluxton’s golden strike with virtually the last kick of the game — a score that ensures he will now retain a position of eminence in the annals of All Ireland finals statistics. Like his colleagues, Cluxton had found himself battling against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in successive All-Ireland campaigns up until last Sunday before his personal fortunes and those of Dublin were suddenly, dramatically transformed.
Hurt, it seems, has been a constant bedfellow with Dublin in recent years. Frustration, disappointment, even sharp anger have it seems blighted their championship path.
Yet, as is the case with Cork and indeed other teams who feel they might have been worthy of a place in last Sunday’s final, there has to be space made for reasoned self-assessment.
Hurt can of course prove a motivational tool — but it should be viewed as nothing more than an appendage to a catalogue of other qualities which are much more essential in the pursuit of glory. A searing hurt which is not wed to pace, penetration, cohesion and accuracy counts for absolutely nothing.
Dublin manager Pat Gilroy, clearly emotional in the wake of the rivetting contest, asked afterwards: “How much more hurt could any team be prepared to take?”
Wisely, to my knowledge, he did not pose this query prior to the game. Otherwise, he would surely have been making Jack O’Connor’s pre-match job just that little bit easier in the other dressing-room just along the Croke Park corridor.