THERE we have it, the end of the inter-county season and the Dubs are the 2023 All-Ireland champions for the 31st time.
Not many would have envisaged this coming after a National League defeat in Celtic Park back at the start of March, 1-11 to 0-13, in a Division Two clash. When Dublin got relegated last season and found themselves beaten by Seanie O Shea’s last-minute wonder free in the All-Ireland semi-final, there was serious pressure being heaped onto Dessie Farrell’s shoulders and many expected him to go.
Then again, no one expected to see him reunited with Stephen Cluxton, Pat Gilroy, Jack McCaffery and the returning and super hungry Paul Mannion.
There were glimpses certainly starting to show after their demolition of Derry at Croke Park in the Division Two National League final where they ran in four goals in a powerful, athletic display, albeit that was a Derry team missing Chrissy McKaigue and Eoin McEvoy while Conor Glass went off injured early.
We hadn’t seen much of that blue wave on a kick-out press until we saw them absolutely obliterate a Louth team who really fancied themselves in a Leinster final.
It wasn’t until Mayo though in the All-Ireland quarter-final where we really saw a look at the Dubs of old. At this stage, the old timers were all back in full swing, Cluxton leading the orchestra joined by James McCarthy and Mick Fitzsimons, really proper warriors.
However, for me it was the tactical evolution that was starting to take shape with the return of the old Dublin destructive defensive shape and the hard, aggressive zonal press on opposition kick-outs.
On Sunday past, they operated with a sweeper to help support Fitzsimons. In the past that sweeper has been a permanent plus one with the likes of Cian O’Sullivan or a Johnny Cooper operating those roles in recent seasons, but on Sunday they went with a rotational sweeper.
For long periods it was Brian Howard, then it was Lee Gannon, at times it was even Ciaran Kilkenny – the flexibility in their defensive display was hugely impressive and was coupled with their physical conditioning, which still allowed them to put enough pressure on the ball out the field. That stopped Kerry getting good quality ball into their inside line but mostly into David Clifford.
Fenton went the first six seasons of his senior career unbeaten in championship matches, he was back to his old self with a hugely influential second-half display that evoked memories of his previously dominant displays at Headquarters.
Obviously all the talk pre-game was about Clifford and Con and Dublin’s other tremendous forwards, but for me the man who made it all happen on Sunday was Cluxton.
The man who made number one the new number 11 in Gaelic football many years ago gave an unbelievable display of kicking, control, patience and temperament.
The maturity of his performance was on a different scale, nothing phased him, disguising kick-outs early from his favoured side to an overloaded side on the opposite side of the field and when Kerry tried to decode that, he came up with another formula.
Kerry helped his cause in the second half when they dropped off so many kick-outs but this really was a performance for the ages.
The Dubs will enjoy this one, it’s a record-breaking number nine for Cluxton, McCarthy and Fitzsimmons. Will that be the end for those great warriors or will they want to go one better and get to the magical figure of 10? If they all stay on, there is no reason why they can’t.