Kerry 3-19 Mayo 0-13
Capable of more varied motivations than a Stanislavski studio, the Allianz football league final eventually went the way of the tried and tested – appetite for a trophy. Kerry manager Jack O’Connor has prefaced all three of his All-Irelands with a spring title and he remains on course for a fourth double.
The crushing victory confirmed the county, who since losing the 2019 final to Mayo have won or shared (last year’s with Dublin) all three titles in the meantime, as the competition’s leading team.
There was also the statistical battering the county has taken over the last decade in Croke Park where they hadn’t beaten Mayo since the All-Ireland semi-final of 2011.
The win was underpinned by another sizeable, big-day haul for captain David Clifford, who spent a productive afternoon, gathering 1-6, all but a point from play. His marker Pádraig O'Hora, a survivor of the 'Hell Week' reality TV programme, found that gruelling experience of limited use when facing football's most feared marksman.
For all that he trailed around after Clifford and yapped at him, the outcome was no more successful than more conventional defensive strategies. O’Hora did win a couple of contests and both players were yellow-carded but the matter was put to bed in the 66th minute when the Kerry full forward rounded his man and zeroed in on goal to fire in his team’s second.
O'Connor might be reluctant to take that sort of ordnance for granted but the consistency with which it is delivered is the team's main asset. Nonetheless, all starting forwards scored from play and Paul Geaney had as good a match in Croke Park as we've seen for a while, amassing 0-5, four from play.
Despite that, management will be particularly happy with the defence and the manager mentioned the modest 13-point concession approvingly.
Shoring up the rearguard was the number one priority when O’Connor returned for a third stint. On Sunday they kept another clean sheet – the sixth in eight matches – and if their resilience wasn’t exactly pushed to breaking point, the backs were tidy and tackled superbly well.
They did give up goal chances, but for instance Conor Loftus couldn't quite make his 17th-minute chance tell after Jack Carney's shot came back off the post. Sometimes they look a bit open to counterattack but Jason Foley coped well with space and Tadhg Morley's sweeping role was efficiently executed.
They are fit and fast and in injury-time at the end, ran the ball out of defence with Foley’s impressive run covering nearly the entire ground being rewarded when Tony Brosnan’s shot was deflected off a defender and avoided the third goal being chalked off for square-ball infringement.
For all the speculation that Mayo were reluctant finalists, haunted by the aftermath of winning the title three years ago, they hardly intended to take a 15-point mauling into the championship that starts in three weeks. If there was any consolation it was that opponents Galway didn’t emerge unscathed from their day out at Croke Park, either.
Overall though, it was a hugely disappointing performance from the Connacht champions and perhaps unsurprisingly, James Horan was the only manager of the four in the stadium on Sunday to decline to attend the post-match press conference.
Having taken the lead within 30 seconds through Michael Plunkett, Mayo looked lively but Clifford equalised in the second minute and they never led again. Incrementally, Kerry took their points and if there was a conspicuous 'work-on' for them, it was finishing goal chances.
That might appear harsh on a team that banged in three but as early as the fifth minute, Paudie Clifford cut a swathe through the Mayo defence only for Rory Byrne to block and a defender cut out the rebound. The same scenario unfolded in the 32nd minute and Byrne again intervened.
It was the peak of a frustrating phase for Kerry who had conceded three points on the bounce to cut their lead to four. But after the missed goal opportunity they rattled off three of their own, culminating in a free from the Cusack sideline just inside the 45 being curled over by goalkeeper Shane Ryan for a 1-10 to 0-7 half-time lead.
There was never much prospect of Mayo overhauling a six-point deficit. James Carr, a star of the final three years ago, had an encouraging first half but the forwards managed only one point from play after the break despite a 10-minute one-man advantage when Diarmuid O'Connor flattened Aidan O'Shea as he attacked.
Jordan Flynn had to be stretchered off in the 47th minute after falling awkwardly under a yellow-card challenge from Jack Barry.
The biggest cheer of the afternoon came in the 56th minute when Cillian O’Connor, the all-time top championship scorer, returned after long-term injury and kicked a free to mark his comeback.
Kerry simply pulled away, full of running and on course for their undemanding provincial championship, whereas Mayo have a couple of weeks to get ready for a far more competitive stage and apply the lessons of a league that was encouraging for a long time but ended badly.
KERRY: 1 S Ryan (0-1, free); 2 G O'Sullivan, 3 J Foley (1-0), 4 T O'Sullivan; 7 B Ó Beaglaoich, 6 T Morley, 5 G White (1-0); 8 D O'Connor, 9 J Barry (0-1); 10 D Moynihan (0-1), 11 P Clifford (0-2, one 45), 12 A Spillane (0-2); 13 S O'Brien (0-1), 14 D Clifford (capt; 1-6, one point free), 15 P Geaney (0-5, one free).
Subs: 17 T Brosnan for O'Brien (49 mins), 23 G Crowley for White (52), 21 M Burns for Spillane (63), 19 for Moynihan (66), 20 J O'Connor for Barry (66).
MAYO: 1 R Byrne; 3 S Coen (capt), 4 P O'Hora, 2 L Keegan; 5 M Plunkett (0-2), 18 R Brickenden, 7 E Hession; 8 J Flynn (0-1), 9 M Ruane (0-1); 10 C Loftus (0-1), A O'Shea, 12 J Carney; 15 R O'Donoghue (0-5, three frees), 14 J Doherty, 13 J Carr (0-2).
Subs: 20 K McLaughlin for Carney (h-t), 21 C O'Shea for Flynn (47 mins), 25 A Orme for Doherty (50), 26 C O'Connor (0-1, free) for Carr (56), 23 D McHale for Ruane (66).
Referee: Noel Mooney (Cavan).