By Mark Jones
DUBLIN — During the build-up to Sunday’s All Ireland football final, neither set of players has been able to escape the shackles of history. Kildare’s last final was as far back as 1935, while Galway’s last Sam Maguire Cup was in 1966. When Croke Park eventually falls silent at the weekend, one team will have rewritten the record book — the other will still be trapped by the sands of time.
So which county from this unlikely pairing will be celebrating? Will it be Kildare, so often the Leinster bridesmaids but conquerors this season of Dublin, Meath and, most recently, the defending champions Kerry. Or will it be Galway, probably the most promising group of young players around.
Kildare will start as marginal favorites. Despite their failure to tame the big guns in Leinster for so many years, this summer’s achievements have at last won them the respect they deserve. Yet after the way they swatted off the challenge of Derry in the semifinal, Galway won’t fear anyone.
This is a game that is desperately hard to call. The players, as ever, will determine the outcome on the pitch, but this contest is very much a tale of two managers. One, is Mick O’Dwyer, who has been there, done that, and the other is John O’Mahony, who is still waiting for his moment in the sun.
When it looked as if O’Dwyer had quit management for good following the glory years with Kerry, Kildare stepped in and asked him to work some magic with a county that had been perennial underachievers. It didn’t begin too auspiciously, but a year after Micko arrived, Kildare made the Leinster final.
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Was this the resurrection, an end to the Lilywhites’ famine? Not a bit of it. Not even O’Dwyer’s alchemy could make the key difference and Dublin won again. There was more frustration in 1993 as Dublin proved too strong in another Leinster decider. Kildare were certainly more of a proposition, but they still weren’t good enough.
In 1994, O’Dwyer’s men fashioned a draw with the Dubs but then lost the replay. That appeared to be enough frustration for the Kerry legend and he stepped down from the post. But within a couple of years, he was tempted back. This time, Meath got in the way and Kildare agonizingly lost out at the end of a three-game epic.
It seemed to be O’Dwyer’s swan song, yet somehow he was in harness again for this season’s championship. It was the hardest road his players had ever faced, but with the experience of the likes of Glen Ryan, Sos Dowling, Martin Lynch and Niall Buckley, allied to the exuberance of Dermot Earley and Padraig Graven, Dublin and Meath were beaten and Kildare claimed an historic Leinster title.
And the bandwagon has rolled on with O’Dwyer pulling the strings in the background. The semifinal saw him paired against his beloved Kerry and with Brian Lacey man-marking Maurice Fitzgerald to perfection, Kildare edged home by a single point.
With O’Dwyer on the cusp of reconfirming a great reputation, Galway’s John O’Mahony is striving for national recognition. Connacht titles with his home County Mayo, Leitrim and now Galway have boosted his resume, but that All-Ireland crown has eluded him.
The nearest he came was in 1989 when Mayo lost to Cork in the final, and even though he is at a different point of the managerial spectrum, the widely respected O’Mahony has a point to prove.
He has taken charge of a panel of players who are trying as hard as Kildare to shed the history lessons peddled by the old-timers. None of the current Galway side were born when the county completed its glorious three-in-a-row in 1966. So when the good times began to roll again this summer after victories against Mayo and Leitrim, O’Mahony was worried that some complacency had set in.
But his players stuck at it. After hanging on for a draw in the first game against Roscommon, Galway went on to lift the Connacht title after extra time in the replay as Jarlath Fallon plundered five points. Now, as the big day approaches, O’Mahony is keen to play down the key sideline battle with O’Dwyer, but everyone knows it is likely to influence on the outcome.
As a player with Kerry, O’Dwyer often suffered at the hands of those brilliant Galway teams, so how ironic now if the men in maroon came back to haunt him on Sunday.
But somehow, Kildare should prevail and consign O’Mahony to another season of waiting. As a group, they have toiled longer and harder in the championship and they might just have the edge in the experience stakes. Galway, meanwhile, may have to put the champagne in cold storage. Despite the brilliance of Fallon, the resolve of captain Ray Silke and the skill of Niall Finnegan, this may be a starting point for Galway and not an end. So, Kildare to win and O’Dwyer to cap an extraordinary career.