Sunday, September 21
It may well be true that Kerry and Donegal are the best two teams in Ireland at present, but nobody was saying that a month ago. It's easy now to forget what a shock pairing this is. At the start of the season, hardly anyone predicted that either of these counties would reach the final.
All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Final
Kerry v Donegal, Croke Park, 3.30pm - Live on RTÉ, Sky Sports and GAAGo
Kerry have faced 16 different counties (including London) in the 58 All-Ireland senior football championship finals they have contested since 1892.
Aside from the obvious foes - Dublin, Galway and Mayo for example - most footballing counties worth their salt have faced the Kingdom on Gaelic football's grandest day. Louth, Wexford, Kildare, Meath, Roscommon - they have all been there.
Of the nine counties from Ulster, Kerry have met Armagh, Cavan, Down, Monaghan and Tyrone in All-Ireland finals. All that considered, it is something of an anomaly that Sunday's All-Ireland Final against Donegal is the first time the two counties have met in the decider.
Whatever about finals, this is only the second time the two counties have met in the championship at all, their previous meeting being the 2012 All-Ireland quarter-final, which Donegal won 1-12 to 1-10. So before Jim McGuinness came along, there was no Donegal as far as Kerry were concerned. That's changed.
The statistical novelty of the final is one thing and perhaps the reason why eyebrows might be raised at this being their first final meeting is the fact that, on the surface, Kerry and Donegal seem like very similar counties.
2013: Dublin 2-12 Mayo 1-14
2012: Donegal 2-11 Mayo 0-13
2011: Dublin 1-12 Kerry 1-11
2010: Cork 0-16 Down 0-15
2009: Kerry 0-16 Cork 1-9
2008: Tyrone 1-15 Kerry 0-14
With spectacular Atlantic coastlines, vast, rugged, lonesome terrains, local economies sustained by tourism, a history of emigration and legions of passionate exiles as a result, thriving Gaeltacht regions and an apparently shared penchant for individuality and singularity of identity, Kerry and Donegal would appear to have much in common.
Secured as they are at opposite ends of the island, the peculiarity of their binary is enhanced by the geographical distance between them - Malin Head to Valentia Island is a brave spin for example, about as long a drive as could be embarked upon in Ireland.
So in demographic terms, Sunday's is a dream final, not dissimilar to Donegal's last All-Ireland final against Mayo, a novel pairing which brought much of the same cultural forces to bear.
The big difference on Sunday of course, is that Kerry are the great juggernauts of Gaelic football. With 36 All-Ireland titles to their name and a reputation for glamour unequalled by any other county, their presence in the final adds an extra layer or two of stardust.
To the football then, and that is something to get pretty excited about as well. Once an All-Ireland final pairing is known, it doesn't take long for the notion that the best two teams have reached the final to implant itself into the national consciousness.
It may well be true that Kerry and Donegal are the best two teams in Ireland at present, but nobody was saying that a month ago. It's easy now to forget what a shock pairing this is. At the start of the season, hardly anyone predicted that either of these counties would reach the final. Even more interesting is that at the semi-final stage a few weeks ago, things hadn't changed that much in that regard, with Dublin and Mayo widely expected to set up a repeat of last year's final.
The semi-finals provided a much needed dose of electroshock treatment to the game; Kerry's two games with Mayo were thrilling, the semi-final replay in Limerick a spectacle to behold from which a powerful new force emerged, while Donegal's All-Ireland semi-final win over Dublin was arguably the biggest shock of the modern era - Dublin were 1/10 with bookmakers before that game, unbackable in other words.
So now we have a final that nearly everyone wants but which no-one expected. Another compelling force feeding into the build-up to Sunday's game are the managers. Éamonn Fitzmaurice (Kerry) and Jim McGuinness (Donegal) are the two brightest young managerial stars in the game, and there is as much anticipation around their own duel on Sunday as there is around anything else.
And finally there's the fact that Kerry and Donegal will also contest the minor final on Sunday. Only once before in the history of Gaelic football have the same two counties contested both finals on All-Ireland Final Sunday. That's special in itself, and should ensure a spectacular atmosphere in Croke Park from very early in the day, with hopefully few late entrants to the arena.
So how have Kerry and Donegal got here? Neither promised much in the spring. Donegal achieved promotion from Division II in a business-like fashion, but they didn't really hit the heights. Kerry laboured through Division I, securing their status and little else.
Lengthy periods of calm followed. Donegal got their show on the road with a gritty win over Derry in the Ulster quarter-final in late May, while Kerry qualified for the Munster final with an uninspiring yet solid victory over Clare.
Donegal brushed aside Antrim in the Ulster semi-final before a repeat of the 2013 final against Monaghan. Somehow, that was a game they just weren't going to lose. They had hurt badly in 2013, their Ulster and All-Ireland defences going down in flames after a campaign beset by injuries and problems with preparation. They didn't hammer Monaghan - but there was something brilliant and brutal about they way they ground them down to win their third Ulster title in four years.
Kerry's breakthrough moment was their Munster final win over Cork. In the second year of Fitzmaurice's tenure, the Kingdom were widely seen to be in a period of slow transition until they dismantled the Rebels 0-24 to 0-12 in Páirc Uí Chaoimh in July. Without almost all the big names from the multi All-Ireland winning era of the 2000s - including the injured Colm Cooper - a new Kerry team taught Cork a lesson, and the rest of the country sat up and took notice.
James O'Donoghue hit 0-10 that day, 0-8 from play, and his performances this summer have made him an almost unassailable contender for Footballer of the Year. He hit another 1-5 from play in Kerry's comfortable quarter-final win against Galway, and despite being marked to within an inch of his life by Keith Higgins in the two semi-finals against Mayo, he still had a devastating impact - he hit 1-3 the first day, 2-6 the second.
Donegal's campaign almost came to an end at the quarter-final stage against a superbly organised Armagh side. Trailing by a point with time running out, Donegal, inspired by Michael Murphy, kicked two late points through Murphy and Patrick McBrearty to return to the All-Ireland semi-finals. It was not spectacular - in hindsight it was a progression so underwhelming it put Donegal into the shadows ahead of the semi-final - but it was that very stealth that made their semi-final victory over Dublin so spectacular.
That 3-14 to 0-17 victory has few equals in the modern game. Dublin were colossal favourites, and deservedly so. For the previous 18 months, they had looked like an unstoppable force under Jim Gavin, but in the space of 15 minutes either side of half-time, Donegal rewrote the entire narrative of the season. Dublin were torn down, and we had a green and gold final.
Given that no-one predicted this final, it seems somewhat trite and disingenuous to start applying some sort of expertise or foresight as to what will happen on Sunday. The basic outline is clear enough, but it gets blurred pretty quickly by the inevitable complexity and variety of it all.
Both McGuinness and Fitzmaurice are seen as tactical masters. In his four seasons as Donegal manager, McGuinness has presided over some of the most dramatic tactical shifts the game has ever seen. His much vaunted "The System" - namely a highly sophisticated defensive structure - is his most acclaimed work, and that "System" reached ungodly levels of excellence in the semi-final win over Dublin.
RTÉ pundit Joe Brolly explains it as follows: "Donegal are always in position," he said, in reviewing the Dublin game. "There is just no room once you get in to that scoring position. Dublin are the most fearsome goal-scoring machine – but they only had two half-chances in the game. As the game wore on you could clearly see Dublin panicking.
"Donegal’s defensive system remains the same. It doesn’t change. It’s entirely robotic. What it does psychologically is that it wears you out and breaks you down. Eventually the likes of Bernard Brogan, who is used to scoring and being on the ball, don’t see the ball."
Against Dublin, Donegal's defending reached levels close to perfection against one of the greatest forward lines ever seen in the game. Donegal's organisation and discipline - they gave away hardly any scoreable frees - was a marvel. But to talk about their defence alone is just unfair. Like it was throughout 2012, Donegal's attacking was superb. Their two second half goals came from lightning counter-attacks, and of their final tally of 3-14, 3-10 was from play.
Meanwhile, Fitzmaurice has been winning acclaim for his understated management style, and his cool in-game management skills. Tactically, he has won many followers this summer for the way in which he appears to pick a team and pick a plan to suit each individual scenario. Pragmatic and not bound to any one philosophy, as his former teammate Dara Ó Cinnéide told us this week.
The renaissance of Kieran Donaghy at full-forward has been one of several masterstrokes. Practically a forgotten man in mid-August, Donaghy's target-man prowess rescued Kerry in the drawn semi-final and then wreaked havoc in the replay, the Austin Stacks man proving himself as the ultimate partner to O'Donoghue.
GAA.ie columnist Oisín McConville is tipping Kerry to win the final, and it's largely because of Fitzmaurice. "What Fitzmaurice has done tactically this season and what he has achieved deserves the highest measure of praise," wrote McConville this week.
"He is just so shrewd. Kieran Donaghy hadn't kicked a ball all year, comes on in the semi-final and turns the game. Then he plays 90 minutes in the replay and just gives an absolute masterclass at full-forward. That was probably the tactical coup of the year. The big thing that strikes me about Fitzmaurice, aside from his tactical prowess, is his coolness and calm demeanour."
Kerry named their team for the game on Thursday night. Marc Ó Sé returns, having not started the semi-final replay, and the An Ghaeltacht defender will start his ninth All-Ireland senior football final on Sunday. Aidan O'Mahony, who starts alongside Ó Sé in the full-back line, is starting his seventh final, having also come on as a substitute in the 2009 final. That's by far the most experienced line in what is largely a new Kerry team.
Declan O'Sullivan is not named to start in attack and he will most likely come off the bench in the second half, with the intention being to guarantee his presence for the vital final quarter of the game. Stephen O'Brien is named in the half-forward line and unsurprisingly, Donaghy starts at full-forward.
Colm Cooper is named at number 28 as one of the additional panel players, but any prospect of him actually playing a role in the final, however romantic, seems unrealistic and unlikely. Donegal have not yet named their team but no changes are expected from the win over Dublin, with Patrick McBrearty likely to continue in his role as the ace on the Donegal bench.
And so then, almost five months on from Mayo's win over New York in the first championship game of 2014 in early May, we have the final. Given that many saw this year's championship as a prolonged victory march for Dublin, we are guaranteed an outcome on Sunday that will defy nearly all the pre-season expectations.
If Donegal win, it will be the apotheosis of Jim McGuinness, if that has not already happened. There has been speculation that this could be his last game in charge of Donegal. If it is, there is only one way he'll want to bow out. Like the most enduring stars in the universe, his final flourish could be the brightest of all.
A Kerry win would re-establish the most solid truth of all in Gaelic football - that in the Kingdom, the sun rises, and rises again. Kerry were not expected to challenge for top honours this season at all and yet here they are for their 59th final, chasing their 37th title, with what practically is a new team.
Less than a month ago, the 2014 championship was shaping up to be the most predictable in recent memory. On Sunday evening, we'll have champions that no-one saw coming.
Click here to read our profile of Donegal manager Jim McGuinness
Click here to read our profile of Kerry manager Éamonn Fitzmaurice
KERRY: Brian Kelly; Marc Ó Sé, Aidan O’Mahony, Fionn Fitzgerald; Paul Murphy, Peter Crowley, Killian Young; Anthony Maher, David Moran; Stephen O’Brien, Johnny Buckley, Donnchadh Walsh; Paul Geaney, Kieran Donaghy, James O’Donoghue.
Preview: Arthur Sullivan