Dublin machine shows its human side as the greatest of all time win their respect
There's no-one on the southbound train from Drogheda who isn't going to the game. You'd nearly feel sorry for the Dublin fans at this stage - they've gone into some of the biggest matches in their county's history with almost boring inevitability. Few nerves have accompanied them along the way, just a hope that they'll get a good game, something to cheer about, maybe keep the articles and comment sections about them a little less angry. They don't need to hope for a win, but they can hope for what kind of win they have. You'd nearly feel sorry for them.
It's different this time though. Kerry might not have put manners on them the last day but they at least warned them that they won't be tolerating any of their shite. You know the type of shite - the one where they act up and rip teams and games and championships apart in 12 minutes. Dublin fans haven't had to get used to Con O'Callaghan scoring just one point in 77 minutes or Paul Mannion ever being marked effectively but it's a reality of this final that Kerry hit them with and it's one that's even calmed one of the best midfielders football has had the pleasure of hosting, Brian Fenton. The talk today is different. The talk is ifs and buts. The talk is hope. It's almost as if Dublin fans are just like any other GAA fan today. Almost.
At Clongriffin, a flag is planted. A reminder. Just beyond the spiked fencing at the station, in front of the flats, a banner is waving above for everyone on the train to take in and digest. It's not a threat, just a marking of territory in the heart of the capital. Green and gold. Kerry crest. Ideas of their own. The Kingdom are here.
Connolly station is like a cattle mart as blue jerseys join navy coats and hundreds upon hundreds are sheep-dogged out onto the streets one half-step at a time. "What do you think?" That's the start of every bit of small talk in these confines and you might think what of it but that's not a question that's asked often amongst the Dublin contingent. It never needs to be asked. Eyes are ahead, chests are still out. Dublin have the best team in the land but they also have a fight on their hands.
Stephen thinks McCaffrey will be man-marked. Eoin thinks Tommy Walsh will be there from the start and he's worried his county don't have the tools to deal with him. Tomo thinks everyone should head in for another Buckfast before heading up the road. I saw these boys swimming in the Skerries sea this morning and thought it was post-match recovery from a game last night. Tomo said it was preparation for today's game. I didn't know what he meant. I do now.
There are boys on Jones' Road you'd think are good enough to be in the Dublin 26 today. They've been in the panel before, they're still in the outer circle of Jim Gavin's plans but they're here in sky blue heading into the stands, up for it purely as supporters. Maybe the term Gaels is a romantic and overused sentiment nowadays but these men are the ideal. No bitching, no huffing - they're there to be used if they get the call and, if they don't, they'll be playing football anyway, they'll be watching football too and they'll be cheering on Dublin every step of the way. In the next couple of years, one of them will be starring for this same team and they'll do an interview before a big game telling the story of how it wasn't that long ago that they sat in the stands for a specific All-Ireland final.
Outside The Big Tree, a group of Kerry and Dublin fans are roaring abuse at each other that isn't fit for print - mostly because it's incomprehensible. Eventually, they find a common ground when both sets of supporters break out into a song that sees them huddle up and bounce around together. "Fuck Tyrone! Fuck Tyrone! Fuck Tyroooone!" It's something everyone can enjoy. So I join in.
Look, let's get real, everybody's up for Kerry. No-one will print that, you can't really admit it in the media but if you corner a few of them, you might be able to whisper about it at the watercooler. It won't affect anyone's reporting, their analysis will all be objective but it's human nature to root for the underdog - especially when the favourite is winning so much so easily and more especially when that same team are being told they're ruining the sport for everyone.
Jack McCaffrey is at it again. He's grinning ear to ear, looking into the stands deliberately as the sides parade around the perimeter of Croke Park behind the band. If you were cynical enough, you'd think he's putting it on now but then you see how infectious it is. His body language is relaxed, playful. He's turning around joking with boys, calling for water from three men back as it's chucked along the queue and you see the rest of their shoulders dropping. Kerry look a little more business-like, tight almost, but there won't be any points kicked at this stage and McCaffrey and Dublin are enjoying the occasion. He turns to Murchan and high fives the youngster. Murchan reacts by jumping into the air, knees to chest - one interaction with his team mate and he's loosened up. It spreads through the team, that positivity. There's an energy of everything will be okay coming off them as supporters rise to their feet all around them. Bomber Liston said Kerry felt the weight of it all when they were coming down the home stretch going for five in a row. Dublin look like they're going out to play any other game and they look like they can't wait to go and show off to this crowd.
Kerry have launched in four high balls in seven minutes on top of the Dublin full back line. Every single one of them is swallowed up by the champions who stroll back out of defence and set up another attack with possession they've been gifted. You won't beat Dublin by buying a lottery ticket and Peter Keane is just the latest in a series of managers to see first-hand that Dublin are not suspect under high ball.
Conor Lane isn't having the best of games. He'll soon make a bad call and let Con O'Callaghan go unpunished for fouling Tadhg Morley when he was through on goal but the referee isn't siding with anyone. He's just getting decisions wrong and, if anything, it's Dublin who are coming off the worst of them. Jack McCaffrey was penalised for an amazing tackle around the middle of the pitch and Ciaran Kilkenny was about to slot over off his left a few minutes later until Paul Murphy dragged him away from connecting with the ball. Lane turns a blind eye and Kerry go up the other end and score. He's incredibly quick to blow Niall Scully up for too long at midfield too when he was being bottled up and, seconds later, David Clifford was up and running on the scoreboard
Michael Fitzsimons has a big job on his hands with Clifford but he's not selfish. He's the sort of defender who goes where the danger is, even if it means his man might kick one or two easier scores because of it, but his instincts serve him well as he bolts from seemingly nowhere to nail Stephen O'Brien and strip him of possession just as the Kerry wing forward looked like he had slithered in behind the defence.
Eoin Murchan owns the Colosseum. He's the one change Dublin made for today, he's nullifying Stephen O'Brien and, now, he has punished David Moran and Kerry in a move that will go down in history. From the throw-in, Moran opted to punch when he could've caught it, Murchan collected it and, within nine seconds, he had cut right through the Kerry defence, steaming straight down the middle of Croke Park and he produced a finish that belied the fact that he's a man marker, this is an All-Ireland final replay and Eoin Murchan has never scored for Dublin before. Kerry were preoccupied with Jack McCaffrey, Eoin Murchan made them pay for ever thinking they could ignore him.
Diarmuid Connolly will give the ball away three times in his 35-minute appearance but he needed just three seconds to show why he was brought back by Jim Gavin. With a monster turnover, he turns the tide and drops the ball onto his right foot, splits the same ocean, and picks out Con O'Callaghan over the top with one of his famous torpedos.
Sean O'Shea has beaten two Dublin players, he's bearing down on goal. Michael Fitzsimons meets him. The fun's over. Fitzsimons must be one of the most respected players in the game by his peers. He'd absolutely show you up in a one-on-one tackling drill.
Stephen O'Brien shoots. Stephen Cluxton saves. Not today.
Philly McMahon is up for it. Before he's even on the pitch, he's pushing Tommy Walsh. The two of them are waiting on the sideline to be brought on by the fourth official and McMahon is marking him already, getting physical. Eventually they're allowed on and McMahon follows him right into full forward, pushing him the whole way. Every Kerry idea is a threat to Dublin's existence and every one of the players seem genuinely pissed off that anyone would even think of trying to beat them.
Brian Howard is a fucking animal. He's chasing a kickout that he has odds of about 30/70 stacked against him. He jumps horizontally over the head of Stephen O'Brien, flies across the air, gets a shoulder before he hits the ground and hangs onto the ball.
The noise is deafening as the 70th minute is hit on the big screen. Every man, woman and child come to their feet and roar as immortality closes in. This one is different.
Connolly wanted the goal himself. 3 v 2, Dublin would've ran this play a thousand times in training and every time it would be goal - most of the time palmed into the net. But he's had a hell of a journey to get to this point and, for the first time in five years, there's a bit of selfishness that affects a Dublin move. They say only Connolly would've been brought back by Jim Gavin like this. A bit of humanity from a manager famed for his uncompromising dedication to the rules and the process. A bit of individual interest sees the chance goes begging as Connolly eyes the play that would cap off his comeback - maybe his career.
Ciaran Kilkenny has been unmarkable. He plucks one out of the skies and hears a whistle for a mark. He jumps into the air, ball aloft, thinking it's full time. He quickly sobers up. Snaps out of it. Gets back into duty.
The real whistle blows and it's met with celebrations like no other. All-Ireland finals have started to feel like an office Christmas party for Dublin, one piss-up at the end of a long, tedious year. One night of celebration before getting back to the grind. Not this one. This is the culmination of what looks like their goal all along - to do something no-one else has ever managed. To make their marks on this world forever. Players are rolling on the ground together, they're screaming at one another, Jim Gavin is running, smiling even.
Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh is disappointed but a GAA man to the core, Dublin have his respect. He comes to his feet, watches on at what might have been. Eventually, his hands come together in appreciation for what is.
McCaffrey and Kilkenny are roaring into each other's faces. Pushing each other and then hugging. Punching and then pulling. It might've been predictable for others but it's like they can't believe it. Cooper and Murchan seem to be embracing for the last six minutes. From Na Fianna to Dublin, from there to heights never before reached.
Hill 16 is bouncing. The Kerry folk did well to stay on and applaud their team but the sprints of Dublin towards that end clears the last of them out. This celebration has been replayed over and over but with Sam for a fifth time in succession, there's nothing automatic or underwhelming about it. They're jumping into the air, legs widening, mouths yelling, eyes wide open. This is different than normal and it's not just for those ones lucky enough to be on the grass, it's for every GAA person in Dublin.
Eoin Murchan is dancing. Most of the players have dispersed down the tunnel but Murchan's hips are at one with the music now. He sprinted back into position when he rattled the net earlier in the evening. Now, he's let himself go. Hands in the air, singing along, pure happiness.
Bernard Brogan is the last Dublin player left on the pitch. He's been there for all seven of their All-Irelands this decade - he's delivered like no-one else - but this could be the last time he graces those plains as a Dublin footballer. He's taking selfies, lifted grass, playing with his children. He's savouring it. He deserves to. Summer in Dublin plays out in the night sky, a fitting tribute for a man who's created so many summers that will be remembered forever.
Okay, Jack McCaffrey is the last person on the pitch today. He reappears, smile as big as it was pre-match, arms stretched taking it all in. Content.
Lights out in Croke Park. Lights out on the 2019 campaign. Time up for anyone intent on stopping the juggernaut roll into history. A text comes through from a soccer fan, impressed at what he saw. "Dublin are basically Spain in their pomp," he says. "Pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, kill."
Gaelic football has taken over the capital though. The community is engaged like it has never been and class players followed by quality coaches are just being shat out in what is now an unstoppable conveyor belt. If there was no inter-county competition, everyone would be marvelling at this work, celebrating the club colours you see swarming the streets and fields all over the county every day of the week. Hundreds of thousands of boys and girls are totally bought into this GAA way of life and the idea that playing for their county is the coolest thing they can do with those lives. It's a machine now and, yet, at the very heart of it, it's just men sweating and worrying, hoping and dreaming like everyone else.
Sooner or later, people turn on serial winners and they do it a lot quicker when it looks easy for them - when it looks like they haven't earned it. Kerry won't take much comfort from it but they made Dublin human again. They made them panic, they changed the supporters' narratives and they made them celebrate like they haven't celebrated before because, suddenly, all the real work and sacrifice they put in to achieve immortality was now on the line.
True champions do it when they're on the ropes and someone just as hungry is in their face. Dublin? They did it every possible way they could have.
And, at the end of it all, it was clear they weren't just some product of a logical conclusion. They were a group of men, some of them selfish, some of them fearful, some of them old, young, tired, fun. They were a bunch with different stories to tell, a spectrum of personality and emotions, united only by one goal to be the very best.
On the third weekend of September in 2019, all those masks peeled away and every piece of joy and satisfaction was let out without inhibition. Dublin are human like the rest of them and, now, not like any of them. Better. They deserve to be called the greatest of all time whatever has gone on around them. And this group will go down in never-ending folklore, whatever comes next.