It was worth the long day-trip – all 329 miles of it – and deferred coverage on TG4 definitely wouldn’t have been the same. I know it’s the third year in a row that we’ve beaten Kerry in the league but it’s the first time I’ve seen us down the Green and Gold since that glorious All-Ireland semi-final victory way back in 1996. So, mid-March or not, it was a win to savour: it was our first (apart from the FBD) in 2008 and, if today’s performance is anything to go by, it definitely won’t be our last.
There was plenty to be positive about today. The lads put in a very committed and solid day’s work, the backs gave their best display in almost a year, we got some great scores and, unlike the Donegal match a month ago, we closed out the game solidly to get the win our performance deserved. Johnno and the lads also showed plenty of smarts on the sideline, using the bench intelligently and showing real astuteness by deploying Trevor Mortimor in a very effective sweeping role at the back, one which completely nullified the threat posed by Kieran Donaghy. We may only have won by a single point but it was a win we thoroughly merited.
It was all the more noteworthy due to the fact that we gave the All-Ireland champions a goal’s headstart within 30 seconds of the throw-in. Kerry won the first ball, immediately launched a high one into the area where the loose ball was snaffled up by Darren O’Sullivan. Liam O’Malley put in a good challenge but with Tom Cunniffe closing in on him too, the Kerryman caught Liam’s trailing leg and went down, I thought, a tad too easy. The ref, Michael Hughes from Tyrone (who I felt had an atrocious game overall) awarded the soft penalty and although Brian Sheehan’s spot kick wasn’t particularly well-taken, Clarkie dived the wrong way and Kerry were a goal to the good with less than a minute played.
Within five minutes, however, we had made it abundantly clear that this early mishap wasn’t going to upset us. Conor Mortimor combined with Andy Moran to knock over the opener, James Gill thumped over this delicious bender and then Alan Dillon fed Mort whose second from play brought the sides level. Kerry responded with two frees, the first from Darren O’Sullivan, the second from Brian Sheehan. This latter one was awarded against Trevor Mortimor for barging out of defence with the ball and it was clear at this point that Trevor was not taking up his forward position but was instead operating in front of our full-back line to provide extra cover against the aerial threat posed most notably by Kieran Donaghy.
It was equally obvious that Kerry were happy to test our aerial frailties with gay abandon as every time they won the ball around the middle, they straight away hoofed it forward high and long, aided by the breeze at their backs. However, it soon became apparent that full-back Kieran Conroy – who had lined out in place of the injured Billy Joe from the start – was more than equal to this fun and games, as was his impressive backline partner Tom Cunniffe.
Austie then opened his account with an absolute screamer of a point from out on the right but Eoin Brosnan responded from play to restore Kerry’s two point advantage. Kerry then showed impressive economy of effort in notching their next point, with primary possession won in the middle where it was quickly channeled to Brosnan and he fed Darren O’Sullivan who pointed with ease. Austie got his second soon after, as he tidied up loose possession resulting from a 45 from Mort and banged it over the bar to cut the deficit to two.
The ref’s inconsistent approach was visibly highlighted minutes later when Trevor was penalised for not releasing the ball when pressurised by the opposition around the middle. Seconds later, Darren O’Sullivan found himself under the same pressure from the Mayo backs but got a free for his troubles, which Sheehan converted. Mort then knocked over this free and Austie notched over his third from play to reduce the gap to the minimum. Soon after, Austie’s marker pulled him back and Mort popped over the resultant free to bring us level again.
With five minutes to half-time, we were congratulating ourselves on a first half which looked to be ending all-square when Kerry suddenly opened up that three point gap again. The first came from a fine Darren O’Sullivan point, following an equally impressive passing movement from the Kerrymen (they really do make it all look terribly easy at times!) and soon after Seamus Scanlon took a dive with Sheehan (who else?) nailing the free. Tomas O Se then reminded us that there was a price to be paid for Mort leaving him in splendid isolation, when he sauntered upfield and whacked a glorious point over the bar.
Alan Dillon cut the deficit to two with this free but a strangely muted Kieran Donaghy then notched his only point of the game with a booming shot at the other end to complete the scoring in the opening 35 minutes. 1-9 to 0-9 down at the break and we were feeling a bit hard done by: Kerry were looking sluggish, our lads were working their socks off but Kerry still had that three point cushion. With the cold wind starting to bite at an emptyish McHale Park – the crowd was far smaller than at the Donegal match: I’d say there was about 3,000 or so there – you would need to have been fairly optimistic at that stage to predict a Mayo win.
But win we did and the win was achieved by a very strong performance in the second half, where we took a decisive hold around the middle, tightened up impressively at the back and worked hard to eke out a winning score at the other end. We started off with bad wides from Dillon and Heaney and when Kerry moved the ball menacingly down the field it looked like we were going to fall further behind. In came the Hail Mary ball into the square once more but once again it was rookie full-back Kieran Conroy who emerged with it.
A bit of niggle seemed to come into the game then, with Ronan picking up a yellow card and then Padraig Reidy, already on yellow, was fortunate to stay on when he landed Trevor on his arse in full view of the ref. If Ronan’s infringement was yellow then so was that one from Reidy but, as is so often the case, the ref was simply unwilling to apply the rules in any kind of consistent manner.
We then made our first change when Liam O’Malley, who had spent most of his time out around the half-back line and was looking increasingly like a lost soul, was replaced by Colm Boyle. The Davitts man made an immediate impression around the same area and contributed to a sound performance in the backs over the course of the second half, one that restricted Kerry to three points in this period, only one of which was from play.
A free from Dillon and this close in one from Mort cut the gap to a point and, with Kerry losing their grip around the middle, Darragh O Se was sprung from the bench. But it was Mayo who continued to pour forward and a fine interchange between Austie and Andy Moran put the Ballagh man through for the levelling score. Suddenly, this game was looking winnable, a point emphasised by Mort minutes later when he pointed a free to give us the lead for the first time.
Tomas O Se responded in style, haring forward to score his second from play but another good block at the back from Kieran Conroy averted further danger. We were midway through the half at this stage – with Tom Parsons now on for Gill – and we needed to press home our advantage but Mort missed two frees (the first to the right, the second to the left of the posts) before Austie landed his fourth from a long-range placed ball to edge us ahead once again.
Two unnecessary fouls by Peadar Gardiner, the first on Donaghy and the second on Darren O’Sullivan, then cost us the lead with Sheehan pointing both, the second a huge 60 yarder. With ten minutes to go, it looked as if Kerry were preparing to bolt for home but, although we didn’t know it at that stage, they had already completed their day’s tally by then.
Back we came at them, with Mort winning a free out on the right, which he pointed himself to draw us level once more. Harte then came on for the generally ineffective Dillon but his first contribution was to wallop the ball out over the sideline to hand the initiative back to the visitors. Kerry came forward once more and Darren O’Sullivan contrived to fall theatrically to win a free for Kerry barely twenty yards out. Having only a few minutes before knocked one over from three times that range, we were all resigned to seeing Sheehan claim the lead again for Kerry as the game entered injury time but instead he blazed it wide.
Mort then did likewise from play at the other end and the ball pinballed around as both sets of players scrambled frantically to gain what they knew could be the decisive scoring chance. Eventually we got it and Austie capped a fine performance by landing a truly delicious winner from well out on the left.
There was still time for Kerry to launch one more attack but Donaghy’s attempted leveller flew across the face of the goal and wide. With the memories still vivid, perhaps, of what the same gent had done to us in the 2006 All-Ireland, the crowd gave Donaghy a good old cheer for that miss and the former Footballer of the Year responded with a petulant v-sign.
This time, three minutes of injury time meant three minutes of injury time and when Clarkie kicked the ball out, the ref signalled full-time which was, of course, followed by the now obligatory pitch invasion. And sure, why not? We had just beaten Kerry after all.
Overall, it was a fine day’s work, one which answered a number of recent criticisms about the team (including, I must admit, a number I’d levelled myself, not least the one I had the other day about the supposed reticence in introducing new talent) and it was self-evidently the case that we got the result our performance deserved. The backs were far tighter and more confident that they’ve been for ages (the match against Dublin last April was probably the last time we looked in any sense secure at the back) and Kieran Conroy did more than enough to warrant holding onto the no. 3 jersey for the trip to Newbridge in two week’s time. Beside him, Tom Cunniffe was also immense and gave further proof that the roasting he endured in the Donegal game was just a one-off. Put BJ in the other corner and I think we could well have us a full-back line.
Howley had another fine match at centre-back, while Heaney and Higgins did little wrong (though how much longer can Keith continue to line out with the hurlers one day and the footballers the day after?). Trevor’s deployment as an extra defender may have cost us two point from Tomas O Se but it did negate fairly comprehensively Kerry’s Route One tactics and rendered Donaghy into a bystander for most of the game. Two points was a price well worth paying for such an outcome.
Ronan’s return brought some much-needed authority back to our midfield efforts and his influence will undoubtedly grow as he regains full fitness. While Gill has bags of talent, I don’t think he has the necessary aggression or workrate to hold down that second midfield spot and so it’s got to be a straight fight between Parsons and O’Shea for that role.
Playing with only five forwards and with Dillon having one of his off-days (when he’s good, he’s very, very good but when he’s bad …) and Gardiner not contributing all that much, the heavy lifting was done by Moran, Mort and Austie. Andy won truckloads of ball but he still only managed one point, although he did lay off scores for both Mort and Austie. Mort mixed the good with the bad, scoring two delightful points from play early on, then missing two important frees in the second half before winning and scoring a crucial one near the end.
But MOTM for us had to be Austie, whose performance in this year’s NFL continues to be real eye-opener. All of his five points today were crackers – including the long-range free – and his winner made the long drive back to Dublin afterwards seem like a breeze. As Nephin disappeared slowly in my rearview mirror on my journey eastwards along the N5 after the game, it was good to reflect on a fine performance by the lads, one which carries with it the hope of seeing them perform a bit closer to home here on Dublin’s Northside later in the year.