‘We kept at it’: How 2011 signalled a different kind of Kerry v Mayo rivalry

The acquiescence has vanished with both counties on a mission to get over the line

It has never ranked as a classic and on the day in question, nobody thought that the All-Ireland semi-final they had just witnessed held portents of any significance. The date was August 20th, 2011 and Kerry had just beaten Mayo in an All-Ireland semi-final: nothing to see here and all of that.

The 1-20 to 1-11 score line was slightly rough on the Connacht champions but it was also a true reflection of where they were at. In his first season, James Horan had watched his team narrowly avoid what would have been a humiliating championship loss to London in Ruislip before getting their act together and winning a provincial title.

Bouncing the reigning All-Ireland champions Cork out of the competition was an eye-opening sign that Horan, a wildcard selection after guiding his local side Ballintubber to the senior county title, was fast constructing something of substance. Coming up against Kerry gave them a more accurate view of the mountain to be climbed.

Colm Cooper finished the day with 1-7- and no wides. It was enough to leave the Kingdom football followers offering a feline purr of satisfaction. So it's instructive to consider Jack O'Connor's reflections immediately after the game.

"I know we pulled away in the end but it certainly doesn't feel like nine points. It feels a good bit closer than that. I thought that was the most physical game by far. Even more physical than the Cork game. That might have had more pace in it but this was very, very physical, I have to say. But that's fine. The two teams on the other side of the draw, Dublin and Donegal, are no shrinking violets.

“They’re going to hit and hit hard so it was good our fellas got that experience out there and we have to build on it because I didn’t think coming into this game we had been tested and we needed to be tested.

“There was serious pressure on the ball there today and in fairness to Mayo they were very intense, kept it going for 50 to 60 minutes. And thankfully we pulled away in the last five minutes. I think James Horan has brought a tougher edge to Mayo, certainly. I never saw a Mayo team tackling like that before . . . in my time anyway.

“That’s where the game is at and we have been practicing tackling a lot ourselves this year. So hopefully we can withstand whatever pressure is on us in the final now.”

You don’t have to be a clairvoyant in order to be Kerry football manager but it definitely helps. O’Connor inherited from Páidí Ó Sé the seaman’s sharp eye and ear for sudden storms and weather changes. He learned to ignore football’s equivalent of Met Eireann - the Sunday Game pundits lavishing praise on his teams. That afternoon, he inadvertently gave a synopsis of the way that football was about to shape up for the decade ahead.

Ruthless peak

And O’Connor had good reason to be warmly disposed to playing Mayo. The two All-Ireland titles he won in his first term as Kerry manager had been stories of sweeping, steely September displays in 2004 and 2006. If it’s true that Mayo arguably overachieved by making it to those finals, then it was equally true that they met Kerry at their ruthless peak in both years.

Mayo's transformation since 2011 has been startling. And Jack O'Connor sensed the beginning of it that afternoon

In 2006, after ransacking Mayo’s All-Ireland ambitions for the second time in three years, O’Connor visited the loser’s dressing room and explained that Kerry’s need and hurt, fuelled to a nuclear level by the previous year’s defeat to Tyrone, had been greater. On the surface, it was a strange and even insolent claim to make to a team from a county waiting for its first All-Ireland since 1951. But it held an uncomfortable and useful truth for Mayo.

In Kerry, the requirement to win was constant and savage. In Mayo, it was more of a spiritual aspiration. And when the counties met in championship games, Mayo were supposed to acquiesce.

In 1996, Kerry felt slighted after losing to Mayo in that year's semi-final. Both counties were in the process of restoring their equilibrium. Mayo got a jump on the rest thanks to the maniacal training regimen designed by John Maughan. Kerry used that as their template the following winter and rebounded to win a first All-Ireland title since 1986.

"It kind of steeled us in a way," Dara O'Cinnéide remembered in an interview with Malachy Clerkin on these pages. "There was no winter ban back then so we trained like savages through October. And there were little things being thrown out at us the whole time. In the run up to the All-Ireland final, you'd hear things being said about John Maughan and the hell he'd put Mayo through.

“Every interview with a Mayo player made reference to the training they’d been doing way back the previous winter. That seeped into our psyche in October and November 96 kind of, well if ye do a hundred sit-ups we’ll do a thousand. It had really sickened us.”

It worked. That ‘97 win restored Kerry’s position as a perpetual contender. They won another in 2000 and featured in the All-Ireland finals of 2002, 2004, 2005,2006,2007,2008, 2009 and were equally consistent in the 2010s, appearing in four deciders. Also, they beat Mayo in their next seven championship replays (including the 2014 semi-final replay). So Kerry behaved much as Kerry are obliged to by their public.

Transformation

But Mayo’s transformation since 2011 has been startling. And Jack O’Connor sensed the beginning of it that afternoon. There was something different about Mayo even if it was hard to define. The harder hitting, confrontational attitude was the obvious change. But beneath it lay the stubbornness that became their calling card over the next decade: it was a cavalier indifference to what the world thought. Here is what Horan had to say that afternoon.

“We’re making good progress in cutting out mistakes and definitely improving as a team. There’s been significant improvement in certain areas but you saw some of the gaps today and Kerry exploited some of those, which we need to target for our next adventure. We need to take it on the chin, go away and improve.

“I suppose Kerry started very well in the second half, showed great hunger and desire and that’s why they’re here so often. We kept at it. That’s crucial. If you want to try and build a team or win anything with a team you have to have that. That’s one of the big positives we can take from this campaign.”

If it sounds familiar, that’s because it is in keeping with what Horan has said every time Mayo have been eliminated from the All-Ireland championship.

‘We kept at it’ would be a good epitaph for the Horan era. When the teams met again three years later, it was for a truly majestic All-Ireland semi-final draw and extra-time replay which Kerry edged. By then, Éamonn Fitzmaurice was on the line for Kerry, taking over after Jack O’Connor stepped down in 2012. That evening, it was Horan’s turn to bow out.

It was clear afterwards that Kerry-Mayo had become a different kind of rivalry. The acquiescence had vanished. And sure enough, Mayo edged Kerry out in the 2017 All-Ireland semi-final and in the league final two years later.

That weekend in 2014 marked a paradigm shift for Gaelic football. Less than 12 hours after Mayo-Kerry served up that thriller in Limerick, Donegal executed the perfect coup against rampant favourites Dublin in Croke Park. Kerry were the summer's ultimate profiteers, claiming an All-Ireland on the bounce under Éamonn Fitzmaurice.

Learning from that weekend, Dublin recalibrated under Jim Gavin and went on a berserk tear of six unbeaten years. Mayo went on an equally berserk pursuit and claimed the role of great adversaries. Kerry just tried to make sense of the changing landscape.

So as the season gathers pace, both counties are among the front runners to win this year's title, which is wide open. Since that meeting in 2011, either Kerry or Mayo have appeared in every All-Ireland final apart from the 2018 version. But the cold fact is that they have landed just one Sam Maguire out of those 10 appearances. Rectifying that is Jack O'Connor's sole mission in his third iteration as Kerry manager. And it is Horan's abiding mission.

Among the current Mayo players who appeared as a starter or substitute that afternoon are Rob Hennelly, Aidan O'Shea, Kevin McLoughlin, Cillian O'Connor, Lee Keegan and Jason Doherty. None of the Kerry men from that game are still on the squad. But as the counties warm each other in Saturday night's top-of-the-table clash in Tralee, the relevance of O'Connor's observations from 12 summers ago will hold true when Horan and he shake hands on the sideline.

Still at it.

Kerry v Mayo: A modern rivalry

2017 All Ireland semi-final.

Kerry 2-14 Mayo 2-14

Replay: Mayo 2-16 Kerry 0-17

A riveting tussle was sent hurtling into the unexpected when Stephen Rochford pitted Aidan O'Shea at fullback against Kieran Donaghy. The individual battle was a game within the game. Paddy Durcan rescued the first day with a late score for Mayo. The replay was hot-tempered, with three red cards issued but Mayo had become masterful at navigating their way to All-Ireland finals.

2014 All Ireland semi-final

Kerry 1-16 Mayo 1-16

This one is too often lost in the heat and dust of the replay a week later. Any rational person would have argued that losing Lee Keegan to a harsh red card after 33 minutes left Mayo in an impossible place. Mayo ignored the rationality to surge five points clear with six minutes of normal time remaining. Kieran Donaghy rescued the day and season after climbing to fetch a spectacular long ball by David Moran and supplying James O'Donoghue for the finish.

2014 All-Ireland semi-final replay

Kerry 3-16 Mayo 3-13

Both counties groused about being dragged to Limerick for the replay in order to facilitate an American football game scheduled for Croke Park. It was one of those moments which proved that even when the GAA gets it wrong, they can still get it right. The sun beat down. The 5pm Saturday throw-in ensured everyone was in the mood. The game had everything: spellbinding scores, a one-man pitch invasion, three penalties, six goals, a chance for Mayo to win it at the end of normal time with a long, long Rob Hennelly free and a late burst by Kerry.