Donegal and Kerry bring the thunder in electric Super 8 draw at Croke Park
All-Ireland SFC quarter-final group one: Donegal 1-20 Kerry 1-20
A BLAST of thunder echoed around an empty Croke Park as the dark skies above finally delivered on their promise. With that noise - the rolling, rumbling threat that sent seagulls ducking for cover - it felt as though the stadium was finally allowing itself a breath following the exhilarating Super 8 showdown that had played out on its slippery sod just hours earlier.
After the previous evening’s procession for the Dubs left punters of a non-blue hue feeling cold, Donegal and Kerry served up the kind of fare that leaves heads spinning and stomachs swirling for the rest of the day.
It is games like these that continue to bring people back for more – the only shame that it was played in the relatively atmosphereless surrounds of a neutral Croke Park. Imagine that game at O’Moore Park in Portlaoise, even Tullamore’s O’Connor Park. It would have been absolutely electric.
Still, it didn’t seem to bother either set of players as 16 times they were level across over 80 minutes of breathless, at times brilliant, football.
Some of the score-taking, particularly with a wet ball and a greasy surface, was sublime. Some of the individual performances - from Ryan McHugh, Michael Murphy in particular for Donegal, Paul Geaney and Stephen O’Brien for Kerry – were an absolute pleasure to witness first hand.
And even for those men who didn’t quite reach the heights of weeks gone by, there were vital critical contributions. David Clifford shone like the star he is against Mayo in Killarney seven days previous and although he never got near those heady heights, there were times during the second half when his vision and awareness lit up Jones’s Road.
Jamie Brennan, one of this summer’s top performers for Donegal, was a peripheral figure for most of the game, expertly handled by Tom O’Sullivan. When he skewed an effort wide off his left foot late on, you wondered might Declan Bonner consider bringing him off.
He didn’t of course, as a man with his pace offers a unique kind of threat from first minute until last. And, with Donegal trailing by a point in the final seconds of the six minutes added on, it was the Bundoran speedster who picked up a break and sped to Geaney’s right, drawing a tired flailing arm from the Kerry forward.
Up stepped Murphy, imperious at times, to slot over the free that finally - finally - signalled an end to an afternoon of tit-for-tat action.
Despite getting off to winning starts the weekend previous, both Donegal and Kerry came into yesterday’s game with questions to answer after losing key men.
In the absence of Eoghan Ban Gallagher, Ryan McHugh delivered his best performance of the year, bursting forward at will and giving the equally pacy Gavin White kittens. White was eventually black carded just before half-time and his replacement, Jonathan Lyne, also struggled to get a handle on the Kilcar man.
Without the gargantuan presence of David Moran, so influential the week previous, Shane Enright and Diarmuid O’Connor came in alongside Adrian Spillane in the middle sector. Kerry held their own, but Murphy was the standout performer in this sector.
The Donegal captain barely wasted possession all day, switching between beautifully caressed passes around Kerry corners and into space and raking exocets from deep, seemingly always knowing the right moment to arrive on to the end of a move. Even Colm O’Rourke must have been impressed.
And while Brennan struggled to find space and McBrearty took time to grow into the game after a strong start from Tadhg Morley, it was the Glenswilly man and McHugh who sprinkled the magic dust.
Yet in the first half, it was Donegal who were having to work harder for their scores, while Kerry who carried the greater goal threat.
In the ninth minute they passed up the first of two massive opportunities, Shaun Patton just getting enough on Clifford’s close-range shot after the Fossa wonderkid had been found by a delicious Sean O’Shea pass.
Consecutive and uncharacteristic wides from McBrearty and then Murphy suggested Donegal were wobbling, but this was a day when defiance would win out any time either looked like getting a gallop up.
That mood was summed up when Murphy arced a lovely 30 metre pass into McBrearty before eating up the ground, taking the return and slotting over to make it 0-6 apiece.
Then came Kerry’s second goal chance, which came from a soft Patton punch clear that fell to White. He laid it off to Geaney, who ran across the square craving an inch of space to blast the ball into the net.
Ryan McHugh matched him stride for stride, though, and the best the Dingle man could muster was a shot that sailed high and handsome between the posts.
It was another let off for Donegal, but one that seemed to energise them as half-time neared, with McBrearty landing points either side of that 34th minute black for White. Niall O’Donnell followed the Kerry man off the field shortly after when Paddy Neilan showed a soft black card for an innocuous challenge on Geaney.
On came Oisin Gallen in his place, and where the skies would bring the thunder, it was the Ballybofey teenager who delivered the lightning – twice indeed, with superb scores off either foot during the second half.
The grappling continued and when Kerry bagged the first goal of the day 10 minutes into the second half, it felt like a major breakthrough. Geaney’s own miscontrol not only bamboozled himself but also two Donegal players, and the Kingdom sharpshooter was on his heels to gather possession before firing beyond Patton.
Yet the Tir Chonaill had their noses in front within seven minutes, a brilliant pass from Ciaran Thompson finding Gallen, who saw Ryan McHugh on his shoulder. The Kilcar man fed Daire O Baoill and before he could even turn to size up his options, he was met with a brick wall in the shape of O’Brien.
The penalty was duly dispatched by Murphy, low and hard to Shane Ryan’s right. Advantage Donegal, and two minutes later Eoin McHugh saw a potentially game-changing goal rightly disallowed when he caught the ball rather than palming straight to the net from substitute Frank McGlynn’s fisted pass across goal.
Kerry levelled through O’Shea, and the final 10 minutes swung back and forward, with both edging ahead but neither able to stay there. Kerry thought they had it won when Jason Foley fisted over in the 69th minute, Donegal looked like good things after another Murphy point in the first minute of added time.
Two minutes later, and with the clock ticking down, it was the Kingdom who looked to have sealed their semi-final spot once and for all, Paul Murphy profiting from a piercing O’Brien burst.
But when Brennan was felled at the death, you knew Murphy wasn’t missing. Anything other than a draw would have been cruel on whichever group of exhausted players had come out the wrong side on the most dramatic of afternoons.
Kerry may have been pegged back, but they left the field the happier. They will be expected to beat Meath in Navan in two weeks’ time to move into the last four.
For Donegal, it is not quite so simple. They will head for the Castlebar cauldron knowing defeat is simply not an option. With former Mayo boss Stephen Rochford making his return out west, it promises to be another thunderous occasion.
Donegal: S Patton; O McFadden-Ferry, S McMenamin, C Ward; R McHugh (0-2), E McHugh, E Doherty; H McFadden, J McGee (0-1), M Murphy (1-7, 1-0 pen, 0-4 frees); C Thompson, N O’Donnell (0-1), M Langan (0-2); J Brennan, P McBrearty (0-5, 0-3 frees). Subs: D O’Baoill for McGee (23), F McGlynn for McFadden (38), P Brennan for Doherty (46), B McCole for McFadden-Ferry (62), L McLoone for Thompson (69)
Black cards: O Gallen (0-2) replaced O’Donnell (35+1)
Yellow cards: O McFadden-Ferry (22), P Brennan (55)
Kerry: S Ryan; J Foley (0-1), T Morley, T O’Sullivan (0-1); P Murphy (0-1), G Crowley, G White; A Spillane, D O’Connor; S Enright, S O’Shea (0-4, 0-3 frees), K Spillane (0-3); D Clifford (0-3, 0-1 frees), P Geaney (1-4), S O’Brien (0-3). Subs: J Sherwood for O’Connor (43), M Griffin for Enright (55), G O’Sullivan for Crowley (62), M Burns for A Spillane (68), T O Se for K Spillane (70+3)
Black card: J Lyne replaced G White (34)
Yellow cards: S O’Shea (55), S O’Brien (65), P Geaney (70+5)
Red card: T O Se (70+4)
Ref: P Neilan (Roscommon).