It wasn’t a perfect game but the All-Ireland final was something football fans badly needed

JACK MCCAFFREY’S GOAL in the first half of the All-Ireland final had a bang of familiarity about it.

With 18 minutes on the clock, Kerry were leading Dublin by one point while also missing a penalty that would have stretched their advantage. 

But just as they were getting their tactics on point, Dublin pounced. A Stephen Cluxton kick-out fell into the hands of Brian Howard who then fed possession to Ciarán Kilkenny on the Hogan Stand side of the pitch.

Kerry tried to funnel players back into the pocket but the move ended with Jack McCaffrey charging through the middle and taking a pass from Niall Scully before drilling the ball past Shane Ryan to put Dublin in the ascendancy.

We’ve seen Jim Gavin’s team score crucial goals like this before. This is the time when they normally smell blood and start moving through the gears to overwhelm the opposition. 

Dublin had two goals before half-time in last year’s decider and it was generally accepted that there was no way back for Tyrone at that stage.

Dublin make it look so simple as Cluxton's free is caught by Howard and within seconds Jack McCaffrey put the ball in the net.

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But for all the familiarity that McCaffrey’s goal signalled, Kerry brought them down a different route this time. Mayo did something similar for one half in the semi-final but Peter Keane’s side expanded on that.

This time, there was no sense of inevitability about the outcome at any stage of the game.

For almost 80 minutes, Kerry competed with Dublin and gave Gaelic Football fans a spectacle they have been craving for since the 2017 All-Ireland final. This was Dublin’s first real championship test since that epic clash with Mayo.

It was a gripping encounter that couldn’t be summed up in one sentence. There was real drama to savour and pivotal talking points to reflect on. No-one had to face the hollow consolation of being fortunate enough to see a team make five-in-a-row history.

We even have a replay to look forward to, a scenario which few predicted was even on the cards before Sunday.

That’s not to suggest that this was a brilliant game of football. Both sides kicked poor wides and there were plenty of sloppy errors on display.

A combined 2-32 is a pretty low return for two teams who have a lethal spread of forwards.

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Kerry’s David Clifford needed three attempts at the posts before hitting his first point of the afternoon on the third try. He shook his head in frustration after one of his mis-hit efforts from a scoreable position.

Kerry fans applauding from the stands in Croke Park.

Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Coming into the final stretch, Peter Keane’s side went 11 minutes without registering a score or even getting a shot on target.

They could also be accused of prematurely playing the keep-ball game when they were one only point in front before the seven minutes of injury-time had even begun.

The champions Dublin had their faults too.

Jonny Cooper is a distinguished man-marker but his assignment to contain Clifford proved to be a major mis-match. He was clearly struggling with the much-taller Fossa man and a switch should have been called before he was sent off for persistent fouling.

Midfielder Brian Fenton had a quiet day by his own standards and Kerry’s midfield duo of David Moran and Jack Barry commanded the skies for much of the game.

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Dublin have often been lauded for the power that lurks in their matchday squad, but their subs didn’t really trouble the Kingdom. In fact, none of the players who were deployed from the Dublin bench managed to score on Sunday.

Kerry got more from their reinforcements, with Killian Spillane hitting 1-1 while Tommy Walsh came away with a point.

But football fans are happy to overlook those technical deficiencies. They’re barely a footnote on the occasion when you consider the contest that we were treated to.

It was a pulsating All-Ireland final that went the distance, and for now, that’s enough for everyone who has felt disillusioned by the sport in recent years.

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