Armagh 0-13 Kerry 1-13
Armagh haven’t quite stood up to Kerry like this since they beat them in the All-Ireland final two decades ago. With a little more of that old ambition and consistency they might have beaten them here too, only this time Kerry held firm because they visibly wanted to.
At times it brought out some of the best things about Kerry football, namely David Clifford, and guess what, they wanted him too. Clifford wasn't originally named for the trip to the Athletic Grounds, still he appeared in the warm-up, then came on at half-time when Kerry realised they definitely had a proper game on their hands.
Within eight minutes of the restart, the Fossa man collected a magnificent foot pass from Stephen O'Brien, promptly turned and shot low under Ethan Rafferty. Clifford ended up on his backside and still it was a work of beauty, his goal also giving Kerry enough oxygen to survive until the end. Clifford scored 1-2 in the half, his brother Paudie equally influential throughout, scoring twice from play.
It finished with Armagh scrounging around for an equalising goal and it wouldn't have been underserved, replacement Jason Duffy also forcing a big save from Shane Ryan (in trouble again with his kick-outs) in the closing minutes, which could have turned things further.
It was plenty aggressive at times, too, particularly in the run up to half-time, during which Jack Savage was black-carded, getting himself involved with a few running arguments.
Kieran Donaghy clearly helped Armagh's homework on Kerry, including perhaps how to get under the skin of the Kerry players, because on occasion they obviously did. Savage recovered his cool, though, and finished with 0-5, three from play.
Kerry manager Jack O’Connor gave that slight shake of the head in the end that could be interpreted to mean a number of things, including his unease at how Armagh chased them down so close, or perhaps a quick reflection on the referee: Martin McNally was certainly contradictory at times, possibly costing Armagh another score or two.
Neither O’Connor nor Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney made themselves available for comment due to the enduring stand-off between the GAA and the GPA, though McGeeney can’t have many complaints given his team only played their best football in glimpses, increasingly towards the end, their poor accuracy in front of goal definitely more galling than anything for Kerry.
In continuing their unbeaten run through Division One, Kerry are now assured of their place in the final, before next Sunday’s last round against Tyrone, at the same time denting Armagh’s hopes, before they head to Donegal, although don’t rule them out.
In keeping another clean sheet here Kerry still haven't conceded a goal from open play (a penalty from Conor McManus the exception) and like they did against Mayo last Saturday, they defended like demons. Jason Foley and Tadhg Morley were relentless in ensuring neither Rian O'Neill (four frees and a mark) nor Rory Grugan (two frees) scored from play, Foley on occasion defending on the edge too.
Played in perfect sunny conditions in front of another eager crowd of 11,314 Kerry used the slight wind advantage to go six points up, 0-7 to 0-1. After scoring only a single point in those opening 28 minutes – Tiernan Kelly taking the honour after three minutes – Armagh added three more before the break, a second from Kelly, a poaching score from James Morgan, and a free from O'Neill. Still they were only beginning to really stand up to Kerry.
Players from both teams got in each other’s faces as they were summoned to half-time, Armagh also having a late goal disallowed at that point.
Kerry's advantage around midfield started to wilt once Armagh started to properly contest their kick-outs. Diarmuid O'Connor was still calling most of the shots alongside Jack Barry, taking an excellent point of his own, the Tralee man later taking a knock to the head; O'Connor is also gifted in the foot pass, setting up Brian Ó Beaglaioch for his first-half point.
Joe O’Connor also made his first appearance since being named as Kerry captain last month, the Austin Stacks player coming on for Barry for the last 10 minutes, his fitness and physical presence clearly another asset.
Clifford continued to dazzle, his second point from play coming with an exhibition in how to dummy a ball. Though double scores in front after his goal, 1-9 to Armagh’s 0-6, Kerry could never relax from there until the end, O’Neill and Grugan coming into the game if only with placed balls, six wides in the second half bringing a few groans from the home support.
After pressing on Kerry's kick-outs, winning three in succession, Armagh found fresh belief and repeatedly had the Kerry defence under pressure. They won and lost a few frees in front of goal, Jarly Óg Burns also scoring a sweet point from play matched earlier by replacement Stefan Campbell.
Had Armagh played with as much intent in the first half they might have had Kerry in bigger trouble, overall the goal chances throughout the league still thin on the ground.
Clifford’s goal seemed to remind them of something they haven’t got, as Armagh backed off briefly after that score, as if somehow knowing his intervention would be the critical score of the game. In the immediate aftermath hoards of young Armagh supporters headed to embrace Clifford as if knowing as much.
ARMAGH: E Rafferty; G McCabe (0-1), J Morgan (0-1), A Forker; A McKay, N Rowland, J Óg Burns (0-1); C Mackin, B Crealey; J Hall, C O'Hanlon, T Kelly (0-2); R O'Neill (0-5, four frees, one mark), A Murnin, R Grugan (0-2, two frees).
Subs: J Duffy for O'Hanlon (17 mins), S Campbell (0-1) for Hall, C Mackin for Hall (both h-t), N Grimley for C Mackin (49), C O'Neill for Murnin (56 ).
KERRY: S Ryan; D Casey, J Foley, T O'Sullivan; G O'Sullivan, T Morley, B Ó Beaglaioch (0-1); D O'Connor (0-1), J Barry; S O'Brien (0-1), P Clifford (0-2), A Spillane; J Savage (0-5, two frees), T Brosnan (0-1, a mark), K Spillane.
Subs: D Clifford (1-2) for K Spillane (h-t), P Geaney for Brosnan (56 mins), M Burns for A Spillane (60), J O'Connor for Barry (64), G Horan for O'Brien (70).
Referee: Martin McNally (Monaghan).