When Kieran Donaghy at last got a bit of joy out of the Tyrone defence, rising to claim a decently floated ball from the sky and creating enough space to swing a point, the match was 37 minutes old. The Kerry captain may have felt his match was just beginning: in fact, the raised-arm salute he offered the stadium was his last act of the day.
"I think to be fair to Kieran in the first half the service he got was poor," Eamonn Fitzmaurice said afterwards, reflecting on Kerry's decision to replace their totemic big man.
"He was getting the ball at his feet surrounded by four or five Tyrone men around him. So the supply into him wasn't great. He caught a great ball and kicked a great point just before half time but we just felt with Paul Geaney it would be a slight change in emphasis up front. And Paul did very well in the second half then. I just think the lads out the field; the accuracy improved in the second half. Paul won a bit of ball into his chest that Kieran wasn't being supplied with in the first half."
It takes considerable diplomacy to make substituting one's team captain seem like an act of sympathy. But making hard personnel calls with absolute empathy has been the calling card of Fitzmaurice's managerial reign and it was the story of their latest win. The black-card exit of Marc Ó Sé, the team fullback and defensive leader, opened a path for Fionn Fitzgerald, who had not seen a minute's play since saving Kerry's bacon in the drawn Munster final back on July 5th.
“It was a disappointment we lost Mark so early,” reasoned Fitzmaurice.
“But again, Fionn has been kicking his heels since he kicked a point in Killarney whenever that was. He has been chomping at the bit to have a go. He hasn’t had any football for the past couple of games. He was frustrated and disappointed and was mad for road. It was great that for the squad that he came in and did well.”
Barry John Keane is another player who drew handsome praise for his Munster performances but he has had to do with limited minutes since the show moved to Croke Park. Again, he made the most of those against Tyrone.
“He is incredible,” said Fitzmaurice.
“He has to be the unluckiest man in the squad, to be honest, because of the players he is competing against. His form line going back to last June when we went to Portugal has been incredible. He has been the ultimate pro. I couldn’t say enough about how good he has been. He will be trying to drive it on to get that start that he deserves, really.”
Johnny Buckley, a man recalled to the starting line up here, began as if intent on shooting 0-15 from play just to see if that might earn him his keep. He cooled after the exceptional three points he fired in an early six minute burst but his startling opening was a reminder of the options Kerry have- and how difficult it can be to break into the side.
“Yeah. It was great to see. We can see the form lines in training and they generally bring that to the pitch. Johnny had injuries early in the summer and had a complication with his knee and that was affecting his form. Thankfully he has been perfect for the past few weeks and has been playing well.”
There were times in the match with the Tyrone counter-attack in full flow, that the Kerry defence was stretched beyond breaking point. Goals were on. Connor McAlliskey went high with a brilliant chance in the first half, Brendan Kealy made an excellent save off Mark Bradley and Tiernan McCann sent a shot scuttling just wide off the post. On other days, those would have hurt Kerry badly.
“Look, they did create goal chances. And we gave away the penalty. It is something you have to look at. But sometimes you can put the emphasis too much on yourselves. We have to give Tyrone credit as well: we were playing a serious running team in an All-Ireland semi-final and that is their biggest strength.”
So Fitzmaurice becomes the first Kerry man to outwit a Mickey Harte team in Croke Park. Predictably, it was not a theme he was keen to elaborate on in the hours afterwards.
“I don’t think it is hugely significant. The significance is that we are into an All-Ireland final, which is where we want to be. If we can back it up and finish the job off in four weeks time, then of course in the winter time you might have a think and say it was good to beat Tyrone in Croke Park. But we will be thinking about four week’s time now straight away.”