That was fun, wasn’t it? We go from being a full eight points up on the Kingdom, and in their own backyard as well, to a position where, down to fourteen men for most of the second half, we end up hanging on by our fingertips over the metaphorical cliff with the Kerrymen stamping down hard on us. But hang on we did and for our troubles we get to play them again next weekend, only this time in Croke Park in the league semi-final.
This match was never on my radar as one to go to, seeing as we always spend a few days over Easter in Mayo so unless it was a home fixture I was never going to go to it. PJ’s entreaties about joining him on the 8.30am rocket from Ballinrobe this morning fell on deaf ears – the photos here are courtesy of him – and so, once more, I had to make do with following the action in Tralee via the Mike, Billy and John Show on Midwest.
The story that they had to tell for most of the first half was a very positive one. Despite having to line out without Colm Boyle – Danny Geraghty replaced him at wing-back after the warm-up – we took an immediate hold on proceedings. A point from play by Jason Doherty and a free from Cillian O’Connor, following a foul on Jason, got us going and after Bryan Sheehan thumped over a free from at least 60 yards out, Cillian got his second – also a free – after Kevin McLoughlin was fouled after he’d pounced onto a poor Kerry kickout.
Two misses followed – one from a Cillian free and a bad shot into the side netting by Andy Moran (who should simply have taken his point) – and this profligacy was quickly punished when Colm Cooper swung over two points at the other end in as many minutes.
Kerry then had a goal – scored for them by Cooper – disallowed for a pick-up off the ground and, after another another pointed free by Cillian, Jason palmed home a hotly contested goal for us from a cross by Cillian. This one was allowed to stand, despite Kerry’s claims (which Billy Fitz – who seems to concur with most calls against us these days – backed up) that the Burrishoole man was in the square before the ball arrived.
With the game now flowing firmly in our direction, we proceeded to make the most of it with further points from David Clarke (from a fifty), Kevin McLoughlin and two frees from Cillian to hoist us eight clear of the home side.
After that last score, Aidan O’Shea made a marvellous block to deny Kerry a certain score but the home fans soon had something to purr about as they tacked on four unanswered points to halve our lead to four at the break.
With the wind at our backs for the second period, however, we were still in good shape at that stage. The sight of the first of the cavalry arriving on the scene – with Darran O’Sullivan and Paul Galvin on for Kerry at the restart – let us know, though, that we weren’t exactly going to be handed the win on a plate.
We enjoyed a bright start to the second half, with Cillian’s sixth free and a wonderful long-range effort from Alan Dillon – it’s great to see Alan nailing a few from distance again, isn’t it? – stretching our lead to six points once more. In those early minutes of the second half, we were looking very comfortable but that quickly changed when Lee Keegan was red-carded ten minutes into the half.
The Westport man was already on a yellow and he ended up in a bit of a scuffle with Paul Galvin. The Finuge fashionista has a record of making the long walk after such incidents but this one led to a second yellow for Lee, which, at a stroke, altered the game’s trajectory.
Both managers didn’t need to be told twice that we now had a whole new ball game on our hands, with Jack O’Connor pitching Declan O’Sullivan into the fray while James withdrew Eoghan Reilly in favour of Kevin Keane.
Andy Moran fired over a real morale-boosting point, after a neat pass from Jason Gibbons, shortly after the sending-off to put us six clear again. But it also proved to be our final score of the afternoon as Kerry used the extra man – with Marc Ó Sé now on the pitch as well – to telling effect as they swarmed all over us from then until the final whistle.
The goal from the penalty – won when the Gooch went down in the square (wasn’t there, didn’t see it but the Midwest lads were happy it was kosher) and dispatched with ease by Sheehan – was obviously the score that put us under real pressure. Now only two ahead with plenty of time left, it seemed as if there was no way we were going to be able to staunch the flow sufficiently to hold out.
When Sheehan scored again, from a free, to cut the gap to the minimum, there was still more than ten minutes left on the clock. But Kerry had failed to add anything more to their tally as the game entered injury time, with our defending becoming increasingly dogged and determined. Captain for the day David Clarke epitomised our mindset by plucking down a ball that was narrowly heading over the bar, so denying Kerry the leveller.
They eventually got the equaliser – another Sheehan free – deep in stoppage time but by then there was barely enough time left for the kickout. Somehow we’d managed to hold out and, in doing so, claim fourth place in the Division One table and a place in the semi-finals.
As it turned out, even if Kerry had beaten us at the death, we’d still have made the play-offs by virtue of our superior points difference over Dublin and Donegal. It was obviously better, however, to have have taken something from today’s game, regardless of the qualification mathematics. Even with the draw, James Horan sounded well pissed off when interviewed after the game on Midwest as he bemoaned how we’d let victory over the Kingdom slip away.
Given the circumstances, though, I think we have to view it as a league point won rather than an opportunity to win that was spurned. True, if you go eight ahead in any match you should end up in the winner’s enclosure but holding Kerry to a draw when having to play against them with 14 men for most of the second half – during which time all of their top men were on the field – has to rank as a good achievement. It also demonstrates, perhaps, just how important a player Lee Keegan has now become for us.
And so we get to do it all again with Kerry in a week’s time, this time at Croke Park in the NFL semi-final where throw-in is set for 2pm. They’ll have their main men on the field right from the start this time and they’ll obviously feel very much at home when they take the field against us at HQ next Sunday. But the way we’ve performed over the last two weekends against both of last year’s All-Ireland finalists means that we’ve earned the right for this tilt with the aristocrats in their natural habitat.
Regardless of how this one goes, the fact that we’ve managed to make the play-offs at all represents a fairly dramatic change in fortune compared to where we seemed to be in the pecking order just prior to the Dublin game. But, then again, this has been a very strange league campaign all round and I guess we’ll now be looking to see another twist added to the story at HQ next weekend.
PS: Today’s match was, of course, tinged with sadness at the news beforehand of the untimely death of Kerry great, John Egan. Winner of six All-Ireland medals and five All-Star awards in a glittering career during Kerry’s golden era in the 1970s and 1980s, John didn’t hog the limelight but still carved out an enduring name for himself as one of the finest corner-forwards to grace Croke Park. May he rest in peace.
Mayo: David Clarke (0-1, a ’45); Eoghan Reilly, Ger Cafferkey, Keith Higgins; Lee Keegan, Donal Vaughan, Danny Geraghty; Jason Gibbons, Aidan O’Shea; Kevin McLoughlin (0-2), Andy Moran (0-1), Alan Dillon (0-1);Cillian O’Connor (0-6, frees), Jason Doherty (1-1), Michael Conroy. Subs: Kevin Keane for Reilly, Conor Mortimer for Conroy, Evan Regan for O’Connor, Shane McHale for Doherty.