By Mark Jones
DUBLIN — You couldn’t and you wouldn’t call it the beautiful game. Gaelic football has still far too much “draggin and pullin” about it for anyone to get carried away. But in advance of next Sunday’s eagerly awaited All-Ireland final between Kerry and Galway, we are entitled to live in hope. The game features two stylish counties, two aristocrats of catch and kick. Indeed, it could be one of Croke Park’s great days.
Take Kerry, for starters: all the tradition, the silverware, the history; 25 years after Mick O’Dwyer’s magnificent team set the tone for a period of dominance. The line from Pat Spillane, Jack O’Shea and Mikey Sheehy runs through the current model, which boasts the varied talents of Seamus Moynihan, Mike Frank Russell and Dara O Cinneide, as well as Maurice Fitzgerald whether he starts the game or whether the Kingdom continue to use him as an impact substitute.
Then there’s Galway: champions two years ago, with forwards to die for. Michael Donnellan, Padraig Joyce and Derek Savage could burn their names forever in the GAA’s consciousness if they catch fire on Sunday. Even without the class of the injured Jarlath Fallon, Connacht’s finest have performed with impressive style and panache this summer.
Who will give first in the mouth-watering clash between Moynihan and Joyce? How will Kerry shackle the roamings of Donnellan and what contribution will Fitzgerald make? So many questions, and no answers yet. Certainly not from Kerry after Fitzgerald’s declaration that he was fully fit for the final.
Having coming on as a sub in all of Kerry’s championship games, the 1997 Footballer of the Year believes he is ready for the big occasion. “It was great for me to the extra half-hour’s football against Armagh in the semifinal replay,” Fitzgerald said. “I felt it brought me on a lot and I’m happy with the way things have gone since then.”
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However, manager Paidi O Se wasn’t giving anything away in advance of team selection. “Maurice has been injured and hasn’t been able to do himself justice. We’re very conscious of having fellas who are fit for the job.”
Whatever O Se decides, it is bound to provoke heated debate in Kerry. If Fitzgerald starts and fails to make any impact, it could have a detrimental effect on team morale, while his arrival as a sub could make a massive difference.
No such dilemmas for Galway boss John O’Mahony, who has made one change from the lineup that started against Kildare in the semifinal. John Divilly has been brought in at center-back in place of Jason Killeen, whom he replaced during the semifinal. Elsewhere, Sean O Domhnaill, who was taken off against Kildare, holds his place ahead of Kevin Walsh.
Divilly, who looked anything but match fit in that win over Kildare, is obviously preferred for his experience and greater physical presence. Eleven of the team, which won the All-Ireland in 1998, will now start on Sunday, with two more, Kevin Walsh and Shay Walsh, on the bench.
If Fitzgerald gets the vote for Kerry, then either Denis O’Dwyer or Aodan MacGearailt is likely to lose out. The pair are also under pressure from Liam Hassett, who was brought in as a sub during the replay victory over Armagh.
There really is very little to choose between the two teams. Galway have the firepower up front in Joyce and Savage, and they have a trump card in Donnellan. But there are still question marks over a defense that should be bolstered by the return of Divilly. Kerry, meanwhile, have the best defender in the country in Moynihan, and with Russell and Dara O Se, there is also plenty of scoring potential.
In the hope that the game will be a spectacle first and foremost to restore football’s tarnished image, the vote goes to Galway. But only just.