In all my years playing and watching Kerry football it’s hard to recall a game of such nervous excitement as witnessed at the Gaelic Grounds on Saturday evening. The pride and passion and effort shown by the Kerry players was certainly up there with anything in their long tradition, and the manner of the replay victory will leave them in the perfect frame of mind going into the All-Ireland final.
What ultimately won it for Kerry in the end was their ability to stay focused on the game right through to the very end. Mayo, I feel, just lost that focus a little bit towards the end, and ran out a legs a little bit, too.
As a game it also dispels any myth that Gaelic football is no longer the spectacle it once was. The way the two teams went relentlessly at each other, as if their lives depended on it, last weekend and again on Saturday, demonstrates just how wonderful a game it can be.
It certainly restored all the great pride in Kerry football, and some of that great Kerry tradition probably helped get them over the line here.
We saw that in lots of players, such as Aidan O'Mahony, one of the elder statesmen, still diving in head first to win possession; also the younger players introduced like Jonathan Lyne, Kieran O'Leary, Barry John Keane and Pa Kilkenny, who all really stood up as Kerry footballers on the night. In some ways the team rose above their normal ability, in part because of that tradition.
Kerry were deserving winners, too.
lorded midfield and created all sorts of problems for Mayo. Their ability to win long kick-outs was crucial.
The other clear advantage in Kerry favours was the Kieran Donaghy factor. From the start it was obvious Ger Cafferkey was struggling to contain him, and with Donaghy winning so much possession in front of goal, the likes of James O'Donoghue and company all benefitted.
So, with Moran the most influential player on the field – the best he’s ever been for Kerry – they were able to control a lot of the play.
Kerry also had a stronger bench, which really came into play in extra-time. Being able to bring on players like O’Leary and Lyne and Kilkenny made a crucial difference , and eventually Mayo started to wilt, their marking becoming slack, while they also missed some easy scoring chances. On top of all that their spirit was finally broken by the end of extra time.
It was tough defeat to a take as Mayo showed tremendous willpower over over the two games. However, losing Aidan O'Shea to that collision with Cillian O'Connor was very costly, and even though he did come back on, he clearly wasn't himself. At that stage Mayo were also too reliant on O'Connor and Andy Moran, and although Jason Doherty chipped in with some important points, overall Kerry had the greater scoring threat.
As the game wore on Cafferkey struggling on Donaghy became even more apparent but why was he kept on Donaghy too long? Obviously it was a brilliant move by Eamonn Fitzmaurice to start Donaghy. He also made some other brilliant tactical moves, too.
That includes not starting Marc Ó Sé, who was dropped for the first time in his career. But when he was introduced, he put in an extra special performance. Fitzmaurice knew he must have had more to offer. He certainly drew it out of him here.
It does feel a bit like the end of an era for Mayo, although really were within a kick of a ball of winning this, both the first day and on Saturday.
James Horan looks to have made his mind up too on stepping down, although I feel he might well have given it another year, as long as he makes some bigger calls in terms of introducing younger players.
Mayo will definitely be a force for the next few years, although it probably is the end of the line for players for Moran and Alan Dillon. For Horan, there may have been a little too much loyalty for some of his older players, especially the likes of Cafferkey. Sometimes decision- making on the sideline can be clouded by loyalty. Either way, Mayo lacked that constant scoring pressure up front, and again that means bringing in younger players.
Considering the number of players Kerry that have lost to retirement in the last couple of years, and of course the injury to Colm Cooper, it is a phenomenal achievement to get to an All-Ireland final. Training will be every exciting now for the next three weeks, and there'll be lots of discussion about what will be their best starting 15. That's the position any manager would like to be in going into an All-Ireland final.
They were also stretched to the maximum in both games, and with so many players putting their hands up for selection for a place in the final team, they are in an ideal place, buoyant on every level. They have to be considered real contenders for the title now as they face Donegal in another intriguing All-Ireland final.