Allianz National Football League, Division One: Galway 1-13 Kerry 0-14
As a rule of thumb, at this time of the year, you tend to know the team that’s more interested in winning these league finales because they’re the team that wins.
That’s not to disparage what was an interesting and well contested Division One encounter in Salthill but Galway had most of the answers on an afternoon when Kerry never hit the front or even drew level, once Shane Walsh pushed the home side in front in the second minute.
The All-Ireland champions had essentially disavowed any likelihood of retaining the trophy and Jack O’Connor said as much although he also acknowledged that there wasn’t much of a gap between mid-table obscurity and something worse, as Armagh discovered.
“I felt it was going to be a push for us to reach a league final this year. We had to start behind other teams. I don’t want to keep harping on about that and not using it as a massive excuse.
“We are starting to get them (missing players) back and our panel is getting stronger. Happy enough to go away now – four weeks until championship will give us an opportunity to do some solid, uninterrupted training.”
His counterpart Pádraig Joyce was correspondingly very satisfied. Galway’s narrow defeat by Kerry in last year’s All-Ireland had in the manager’s view set a challenge.
“When a team lose an All-Ireland final it’s interesting to see how their league goes. We could have just stuck in mid-division and stayed up but the lads pushed it on and we had a target to get to a league final and now we’re in the final and we’ve to go now and pick it up next week.”
He was all the more gratified as the campaign had got off to a difficult start with injuries to Damien Comer and Rob Finnerty, two of last year’s full forward line, and the extended absence of their top player, Shane Walsh.
Given Comer’s injury looked so serious it was beyond uplifting for him to come on for the final quarter here and score a characteristic point having wrestled down a dropping ball from Walsh and kicked a point.
On a sunny, spring afternoon in Salthill, Galway nearly had an early goal. Shane Murphy was called on to make a save from Johnny Heaney within seconds of the throw-in after a determined run by Paul Conroy – a portent of things to come for the Galway centrefielder, who with partner John Maher had an edge in the sector.
The home defence was attentive and gave the All-Ireland champions little space but Kerry didn’t exactly play like their lives depended on it. Little things went wrong. David Clifford missed a free that opponents would normally just concede and brother Paudie, with a clear run had his shot deftly saved by Bernard Power.
Clifford – overall, Kerry’s best player – had another goal chance in the 47th minute but a brave and precise block by Dylan McHugh reduced the tariff to a pointed 45.
In the first half Kerry eventually began to pick off scores from farther back: Tom O’Sullivan and Barry Dan O’Sullivan had a couple each but the big score of the half came at the very end when Conroy’s shot for a point appeared to be falling short but its descent deceived Murphy, who could only watch as it ricocheted off the woodwork into the net.
Kerry responded with a couple of injury-time points to trail by three, 0-7 to 1-7 at the break. Joyce felt it should have been more.
O’Connor didn’t take the bait when invited to blame his goalkeeper for the loss. “Obviously you could pinpoint incidents from every game that cost you the game. I think the overall thing that cost us today’s game is we didn’t convert enough chances. We had plenty of the play. Our finishing wasn’t good enough.”
That contrasted with Galway’s three wides all afternoon plus one dropped short. Walsh missed nothing from placed balls and of the team’s scorers, only Cathal McSweeney balanced the books with a wide.
In the second half, Kerry initially attacked with greater fervour and Gavin White’s pacy interventions from wing back became more prominent but the margin only dropped to one on three occasions.
“In the second half, defensively we were excellent,” said Joyce, “got our couple of scores and it was great to get time into Damien and Rob, get them back on the pitch. It was great that they made a contribution when they came off the bench.”
Galway’s defence played very well. John Daly produced his customary seamless transitions from the back, combining with Walsh for an early score and captain Seán Kelly was top-class, marking an admittedly quiet David Clifford and orchestrating counter-attacks with the usual aplomb.
It was easy to see why Joyce is encouraged with a first league final since 2018. He reminded everyone that he had lost three himself as a player, including in 2001 when they lost to this year’s final opponents, Mayo.
He has developed a few new players, has some to return from injury – although he reckoned All Star Cillian McDaid is unlikely to make the final – and negotiated a tough campaign despite a plethora of injuries.
“Yeah, it’s great for us,” he summarised. “We have four weeks today when we play the winners of Roscommon-Mayo so, as I said before, the finish to the league for us has been great.”
And could get better.
GALWAY: Bernard Power; Johnny McGrath, Seán Kelly (capt), Seán Fitzgerald; Dylan McHugh, John Daly (0-1), Cian Hernon; Paul Conroy (1-0), John Maher (0-2); Matthew Tierney (0-1), Johnny Heaney, Peter Cooke; Tomo Culhane (0-1), Shane Walsh (0-5f), Cathal Sweeney (0-1). Sub: Jack Glynn for Hernon (half-time), Damien Comer (0-1) for Culhane (42 mins), Robert Finnerty (0-1) for Maher (54 mins), Daniel O’Flaherty for Heaney (72 mins).
KERRY: Shane Murphy; Dylan Casey, Jason Foley, Tom O’Sullivan (0-2); Paul Murphy, Tadhg Morley, Gavin White (0-1); Jack Barry, Barry Dan O’Sullivan (0-2); Ruairí Murphy, Seán O’Shea (0-5, 0-2f, 0-2 45s), Paudie Clifford (0-2); Tony Brosnan, David Clifford (capt; 0-2f), Donal O’Sullivan. Subs: Dara Moynihan for R Murphy (half-time), Diarmuid O’Connor for BD O’Sullivan (41 mins), Killian Spillane for D O’Sullivan (46 mins), Graham O’Sullivan for Casey (52 mins), Paul Geaney for P Murphy (67 mins),
Referee: Niall Cullen (Fermanagh).