David Clifford and Michael Fitzsimons. Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

How Dublin's Fitzsimons did old-fashioned stopper job on Kerry star Clifford

The duel between the Kerry attacker and Dublin defender commanded the attention in Croke Park.

ALL WEEK LONG, the conversations were humming.

Dublin and Kerry. Kerry and Dublin. Who would win?

And round and round they would go until they landed on the very nub of the conversation; who could stop David Clifford.

The cheers the Kerry captain’s name got before the game shows the adoration in which he is afforded by his county. But in the heart of every Dublin supporter too, they would have been a tiny bit excited to see what he might produce too. Hopefully nothing, but they aren’t beyond applauding outrageous displays of skill.

Throughout the season, Clifford was coming in at just under eight points a match in his seven games. Odds-on for Footballer of the Year.

His statistics were naturally inflated by what he could do from the dead ball, but he had to share that duty with Sean O’Shea. Still and all, he was on four points per game from play.

Teams tried different approaches. Tyrone were very cautious and had Padraig Hampsey and someone nearby at all times and held him to 0-1 from play. However, that just freed up others to carry the scoring load that day.

Derry went about it differently in the semi-final and sent Chrissy McKaigue onto him, with no protection. The feeling was they could limit the service sent in, but he emerged with 0-9 in that game.

From a long way out, Michael Fitzsimons was earmarked as the Dub to do an old-fashioned stopper job on Clifford in the final. Others felt differently. The notion of James McCarthy dropping back to the inside line was put out there into the ether by Jim McGuinness and was popping up around the place.

david-clifford-and-james-mccarthy-with-referee-david-gough Captains David Clifford and James McCarthy before the game with referee David Gough. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

In the end, Dublin didn’t do anything particularly strategic. But they were capable all the same of having players arrive on the scene instantly when Clifford would get possession.

Last week, my own personal homespun wisdom/expert analysis held it that if Dublin could limit Clifford to a dozen possessions in the game, they would have been halfway to victory.

Instead, he had 18 possessions here. For an inside forward, that’s running above average.

The first didn’t arrive until the sixth minute. Dara Moynihan floated a ball down the left central channel and Clifford collected, took a solo and then a bounce on the turn before converting. A nice score, but a mere routine for him.

Then, time passed. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes. Twenty minutes, and that was the only time Clifford had his hands on the ball. In the All-Ireland final.

He must have felt it because then he dropped deeper and began linking play with Gavin White on 24 minutes. A minute later he received a pass from Sean O’Shea and slung it to Jack Barry who was penalised for steps.

Three minutes after that he took a pass from Stephen O’Brien, but Fitzsimons was in his face and he played a pass backwards. Though he was getting into his groove as a minute later he made himself available for Tadhg Morley and set up O’Shea for a point.

Then, drama. Moynihan had fed him again and as Fitzsimons retreated, he lost his footing and landed in an undignified mess. Just as Clifford was getting a gallop up, James McCarthy and Eoin Murchan had sensed the danger and closed him up, turning the ball over.

With half time coming, White again fed him the ball and he kicked his first wide of the day.

What happened then was just sensational as injury time ticked on. He received a pass this time from Moynihan and when it bounced, the Kerry crowd groaned as it left him hemmed in to the endline of Hill 16 and the Cusack Stand sideline, with Michael Fitzsimmons flapping his arms.

There looked to be no way out but he had his head up. Nobody else spotted the corridor of space but he got a pass off to Paul Geaney, over Brian Howard’s head. Geaney got past Davy Byrne and sold the dummy to Stephen Cluxton with a hop. His next play was almost close to a double bounce before he clipped it back up to himself to finish to the net.

Kerry in the lead at the break.

paul-geaney-on-his-way-to-scoring-a-goal Stephen Cluxton and Paul Geaney. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

In keeping with Kerry’s dominance in the third quarter, Clifford pointed the free awarded to Tom O’Sullivan after an off the ball incident with Cormac Costello. As well as knitting together a move that brought a point for brother Paudie, he struck over a right-footed point out around the ‘D’ on 45 minutes.

Just as he looked to be up and running, his day turned completely.

david-clifford-watches-a-point-go-over David Clifford watches his shot for Kerry against Dublin. Evan Treacy / INPHO Evan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

A shot dropped short started the unfortunate sequence on 53 minutes. Two minutes later it appeared he was getting a free after a collision with Fitzsimons but after consulting with his umpires, referee Gough chose to reverse the decision and book both players for wrestling.

On 57 minutes he took a pass from brother Paudie and took out James McCarthy and Fitzsimons with a swivel of the hips, only to send his shot wide. Six minutes later another chance arrived after Graham O’Sullivan worked the ball to him but again, it went wide.

It would have restored the Kerry lead, but instead in the next play, Brian Fenton strode forward and kicked one of his regal pot shots that almost cleared the ball stop.

But playing on Clifford is a roller coaster. He was pinged for a free out when it looked like he might get inside the cover on 69 minutes. A minute later, Killian Spillane sent him through and while he held off Fitzsimons he unleashed a hard drive that flew wide as the crowd looked on disbelieving. Surely there was some mistake?

Another wide followed on 74 minutes. The stats were left as four wides and one dropped short. One close-in free and one from play converted. If even half his shots sent wide had cleared the crossbar, Kerry were in business.

In a year when he lit up the game, David Clifford just appeared human. For once.

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