Kerry 1-12 Mayo 0-14
It was mentioned in passing that in recent years Kerry beating Mayo in Tralee is a rare thing, Saturday night’s win sealing the gap on the 13 years since Jack O’Connor began his second coming as manager, en route to winning the 2009 league and All-Ireland that same year.
O’Connor’s stars are aligning nicely: whatever about the near certainty Kerry will contest another league final this year, the manner and spirit of this win – decided on a photo-finish, so to speak – brought considerable satisfaction.
“This was the kind of game we were hoping we’d win,” O’Connor mused, “a game in which our backs were to the wall, fellas are tested, as Kerry haven’t been winning these type of games.
“Look, a one-point win against a gale of wind, with the momentum all with Mayo in the last 10 minutes, you’d have to be very happy. This was a very different test to the games we have played against the Donegals and the Monaghans. There was fierce pace in this game, for the month of March, and Mayo gave us bagfuls there. It was great to be able to stand up to that.”
It certainly wasn’t done calmly or easily, made plenty jittery at times by the anticipated resistance. Still Kerry just about maintained their unbeaten league run, putting some daylight on the rest of the country.
Mayo manager James Horan declined to make any match comment afterwards, in solidarity with the Gaelic Players Association threat of action if players are not reimbursed for expenses for all collective training sessions. O'Connor wasn't taking that stance, not yet anyway, and liberally praised his players for their battling attitude, especially given the conditions, misty rain steaming down off Slieve Mish for most of the first half.
Not for the first time. or the last, David Clifford rescued them at the death, his free deep into the six minutes of injury-time putting them back in front after Mayo had made the most of a couple of self-inflicted Kerry errors to draw level. Clifford finished with 0-6, four from play.
Mayo might well have drawn level again, only for their last effort from Lee Keegan just drifting right and wide, their 10th of the contest. Match referee Brendan Cawley was set to restart, only by then the pitch invasion was underway, so that was that.
“No doubt the momentum was with Mayo, and when they kicked that last free over you’d think our tune was played,” O’Connor said of the endgame. “But these lads have great heart, came up the field with some great foot passing, manufactured a good free, David put it over, so overall delighted with the spirit, the togetherness of the team. And the tackling there was heart-warming at the end.
“I wouldn’t be at all critical, it was hard to play football in the conditions, it was about attitude and spirit, and they showed plenty of that.”
They may well meet again in the league final, although O’Connor is not thinking that far ahead: “We’re just putting emphasis on winning matches. We haven’t a huge amount of training done, just bits and pieces. So great that the lads have the resilience to stand up to that.”
Kerry had a goal advantage at half-time, and what ultimately brought Mayo back into contention for the win were two moments of regret from Kerry; Paudie Clifford missed a sitter of a free on 56 minutes, Ryan O'Donoghue immediately converting a free at the other end.
Then, a Rob Hennelly free was retaken after Dara Moynihan was called for interference; O'Donoghue put that over too. Then they were level on 63 minutes, another free from O'Donoghue making for a frantic finish.
Another David Clifford free briefly restored Kerry’s lead, before another free from O’Donoghue – this one hotly contested by Kerry – had the crowd in Austin Stack Park on their feet. When Kerry moved swiftly again, and replacement Stephen O’Brien was fouled, David Clifford made sure his free went clean between the posts.
Still the game only contained morsels of the unexpected, in between an unreasonable amount of turnovers. Kerry were missing the injured Seán O'Shea, and their attack clearly slackened as a result, a smashing first-half goal by Tony Brosnan, a late replacement for the ill Paul Geaney, the highlight of the night.
Aidan O'Shea made his first start at midfield, and after three minutes Mayo had the opening score thanks to Matthew Ruane, before sending their next two shots wide. The advantage didn't last long, Kerry promptly hitting top gear and scoring four points without reply, David Clifford getting the first with his opening touch of the ball. Brosnan was set up by David Clifford for his first, and even with the wind advantage Kerry were cutting straight through Mayo.
O’Donoghue and Fergal Boland brought Mayo back in touch, only for Kerry to kick again. On 21 minutes, Brosnan started a great move towards goal, the ball then passing from David Clifford to Graham O’Sullivan, then back to Brosnan, who’s smashing shot went top of the left and well out of Hennelly’s reach.
Kerry were killing Mayo with the turnover, minutes later Paudie Clifford stole possession from Jordan Flynn, before passing off to brother David who duly scored his second. Oisín Mullin could do little about it.
At times Kerry defended like demons, if demons played Gaelic football. Mayo did rally before half-time, Boland adding his second, and came close to a goal of their own on 35 minutes, Diarmuid O'Connor's shot pushed wide by Shane Murphy. Hennelly converted the 45, and they headed in for the dry jerseys 1-6 to 0-6, Kerry's goal advantage hardly reflecting their dominance up to that point.
KERRY: S Murphy; D Casey, J Foley, T O'Sullivan; G O'Sullivan,T Morley, B Ó Beaglaoich; D O'Connor, J Barry (0-1); D Moynihan (0-1), J Savage (0-2, two frees), A Spillane; P Clifford, D Clifford (capt) (0-6, two frees), T Brosnan (1-2)
Subs: S O'Brien for Spillane (45 mins), K Spillane for Savage (47), G Crowley for Casey (55), M Burns for P Clifford (66), P Warren for O'Sullivan (73).
MAYO: R Hennelly (0-1, a 45); P O'Hora, O Mullin, M Plunkett; P Durcan, S Coen (capt), L Keegan; A O'Shea, J Flynn; M Ruane (0-2), D O'Connor, J Carney; F Boland (0-3), A Orme (0-1), R O'Donoghue (0-7, six frees, one mark).
Subs: E Hession for Coen (half-time), K McLoughlin for Carney (42 mins), F Irwin for Orme (56), C Loftus for Boland (66), D McHugh for O'Connor (71 ).
Referee: Brendan Cawley (Kildare).