Kerry 2-13 Donegal 2-11
Somewhere along the 430km of road between Tralee and Letterkenny the Donegal players must have realised this was far from a worthless trip. Kerry may have taken the league points, but Donegal never lost sight of them, and that might just be good enough for now.
For those who billed it as an All-Ireland rematch it was even better than the real thing – the same result, six months on, only this time played with feeling throughout. Indeed Donegal were still in it at the death, chasing what could have been a match winning goal, only for who-else-but Kieran Donaghy to clear out that last threat.
So Kerry, again, were deserving winners, and fitting for the Ides of March, a turning point in their quest to make the league semi-finals, especially after the low against Cork last weekend: for Donegal it wasn’t the result they wanted yet perhaps a turning point too, again after their miserable showing against Monaghan.
“We were desperate to get those two points on the board, and delighted it worked out that way,” said Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice. “I’ve said all along the quality of this division is very high, all the teams very evening matched. And maybe teams aren’t used to getting games thick and fast, so performances do fluctuate.
“We’d certainly be disappointed with some of the shooting in the second half. But we’re moving on from a position a power, still in the mix for the semi-finals, and moving further away from relegation. So that’s all positive.”
There's a list of Kerry positives here: Bryan Sheehan sweeping over 0-6 in the first half, including two from play, before retiring at half time with a rib injury; Johnny Buckley fielding an exceptional amount of ball and earning himself the man-of-the-match award; Barry John Keanee neatly finishing the early second half goal which set up Kerry's victory; and David Moran burying the 64th minute penalty that sealed it.
No wonder Fitzmaurice looked considerably more at ease compared to a week ago, not that this completely amended the lapse against Cork: “Of course it still matters, when we don’t perform, like it did last week. But I did feel we were more focused this weekend, and that showed. We’ve Monaghan and Tyrone to come, after the two-week break, but I’d much prefer to be in this position, with another two points on the board, unlike last week, when we were digging after losing so poorly to Cork.”
Donegal made two late changes (Frank McGlynn crying off with a bug, and Odhran MacNiallais with a strained ankle), but they too come away with a list of positives: Ryan McHugh ran tirelessly and claimed their first half goal; Paddy McBrearty kept his cool to score 0-4, despite some lapses; Neil and Eamonn McGee were typically steely in defence; and Michael Murphy was always to the fore, scoring 1-3 that included a late, late penalty which still didn't flatter them on the final scoreboard.
“I’d be pleased enough with the performance, though obviously disappointed with the result,” said Rory Gallagher, the Donegal manager. “At times we were hanging on, in the first half, but then went ahead in the second half, looked in a good position, only to be careless with our passing. We came down to win, but it was a good test, a good game, good pace, both teams expressing themselves..
“We’ve Tyrone in two week’s time, and that’s the focus. It was always going to be tight. It doesn’t look like six points will be enough, to stay up. Look, we’re not thinking about relegation yet. It’s a thin line. But we’ll certainly be focused on staying up in the short term.”
Played out in front of an eager crowd of 6,250 (and towards half-time some of the All-Ireland tension from last September threatened spill over), it was as taut a contest as they come – late scores on from Barry John Keane, Paul Geaney and Buckley, then that penalty conversion David Moran, proving the difference. Kerry also missed several scoring chances in the second half, hitting nine wides in that period alone.
Kerry did start the better – Sheehan’s boot showing them the way – but Donegal drew level early in the second half, briefly surging ahead, before Keane shook their net – latching on to a crossed ball from Geaney.
Considering Donegal’s last league victory in Tralee was 27 years ago, in 1988, there wasn’t any great expectation, and yet at times Donegal looked perfectly capable of the win. They did, however, repeatedly cough up possession, at crucial times, particularly when getting Kerry back a point, 1-11 to 1-10, just before the hour mark.
It was then that Buckley showed up for his excellent point, so that even before Moran’s penalty, Kerry had opening some breathing space – enough to see them last the short journey home from there.
KERRY: B Kealy; P Kilkenny, M Griffin, P Murphy (0-1); J Lyne, P Crowley, K Young; A Maher, D Moran (1-1, a penalty); S O'Brien (0-1), B Sheehan (0-6, three frees, one 45), J Buckley (0-1); P Geaney (0-1), K Donaghy, BJ Keane (1-1).
Subs: A Fitzgerald (0-1) for Sheehan (half time, inj), S Enright for Kilkenny (48 mins), T Walsh for Geaney (55 mins), P O'Donoghue for Keane (63 mins), F Fitzgerald for Crowley (67 mins), K O'Leary for Buckley (68 mins).
DONEGAL: P Durcan; P McGrath, E McGee, N McGee; M McHugh, K Lacey, E Doherty; N Gallagher (0-1), C Toye; M O'Reilly, M McElhinney (0-1), R McHugh (1-0); P McBrearty (0-4), M Murphy (1-3, one penalty two frees, one 45), H McFadden (0-1).
Subs: C McFadden (0-1) for McElhinney (half time), A Thompson for Doherty (51 mins), McElhinney for H McFadden (64 mins), E McHugh for O'Reilly (67 mins), G McFadden for Toye, D McLoughlin for M McHugh (70 mins).
Referee: Rory Hickey (Clare)