Kerry cruise across the line - but improvement needed to down Dubs
All-Ireland SFC quarter-final: Kerry 1-18 Mayo 0-13
IN the end, Kerry cantered into another All-Ireland semi-final - but serious improvement will be required if they are to down the Dubs in a fortnight’s time.
A beautifully-taken goal from David Clifford gave the Kingdom a one-point lead at half-time, despite a sloppy performance in the first 35, before they eventually emerged from the fog of a rudderless third quarter to put a toothless Mayo to the sword.
But, having sauntered through Munster, last night’s game left more questions than answers about Kerry’s prospects of ending an eight-year wait for Sam.
Held in cold storage for four weeks since letting loose on Limerick, and then a further hour when the Armagh-Galway epic went to extra-time then penalties, the Kingdom were there for the taking – Mayo just weren’t good enough to inflict maximum damage, their latest shot at glory fizzling out in a volley of blanks.
In 2014, after All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Kerry in Limerick, James Horan called time on his first spell in charge. The Ballintubber man was circumspect about his intentions this time around, or about the futures of long-serving figures like Lee Keegan and Kevin McLoughlin.
“We just had a chat in there, it’s never a time to make rash promises or decisions or statements after the end of a season like that,” he said.
“Everyone will take time to reflect, for sure.”
Yet the 15 minute period after half-time will give Horan nightmares for days, possibly weeks, to come. With Aidan O’Shea back on the field after picking up a soft black card half an hour in, Mayo rocked Kerry to the core, directing them down blind alleyways and forcing turnovers for fun.
Their reward? Minimal. Far too minimal. From 15 second half shots, Mayo picked up a paltry four scores – and it wasn’t even panicked shooting from silly angles.
Several of those efforts that either sailed wide or dropped into Shane Ryan’s hands were inexcusable, with experienced campaigners like Matthew Ruane and even Cillian O’Connor among those who failed to find the target.
It wasn’t just in these crucial moments, however, that pre-game prophesies about the lack of Mayo firepower came to bear. In the absence of cruciate victim Tommy Conroy, Ryan O’Donoghue and Darren McHale - and with O’Connor not firing on all cylinders after last year’s injury lay-off - they were badly lacking punch all evening.
Even when decent ball was delivered into the forward line, too often it was slipping through fingers and back into Kerry hands. O’Donoghue, so dynamic across the line, was badly missed in that regard.
And yet Mayo were well in it after a first half that felt pedestrian at best, particular as those who remained inside Croke Park were still attempting to make sense of the chaos coughed up in the afternoon curtain-raiser.
With the rain that greeted extra-time in that game leaving the sod slippy for the next, there were gasps from the Kingdom support as David Clifford trod awkwardly on the wet ball four minutes in, immediately pulling up.
Jack O’Connor confirmed after that the Fossa ace had “jarred his ankle”, but Clifford’s discomfort was not deemed severe enough to remove him from the fray until victory was well and truly assured.
And it’s as well they didn’t because, with Mayo having just got their noses in front, 0-7 to 0-6, it was he who conjured the game’s decisive moment six minutes before half-time.
It came from a McLoughlin mistake, his loose pass intercepted by Jason Foley and, as Kerry broke at pace, Stephen O’Brien waited before off-loading to Clifford who bombed away from Paddy Durcan before caressing the ball into the back of the net.
The finish was a thing of beauty, and should have provided the platform for the Kingdom to grab the game by the scruff, especially once O’Shea had been sent to the sin-bin.
Instead, they appeared to pull up the handbrake until substitute James Carr’s 49th minute point ultimately signalled Mayo’s last stand. Having closed the gap to 1-10 to 0-12, they failed to score again for 19 minutes, by which stage Kerry were home and hosed.
The brilliant Tom O’Sullivan dragged Cillian O’Connor up and down the field on the way to three points from play, while Paul Geaney and Sean O’Shea finally found their mojo as Kerry threatened to run riot on the way across the line.
Still, notice has been served. Each time Tyrone have been reigning All-Ireland champions, a Kingdom side managed by Jack O’Connor has followed them up the steps of the Hogan the following year.
The dream to do so again is still alive, but there must be better to come against Dublin.
“The bottom line here is these Kerry players have been yearning to get a cut at the Dubs from as far back as three years ago,” said O’Connor.
“They lost an All-Ireland out there that they would feel they could have won. We certainly won’t be lacking motivation - but neither will Dublin.”
Kerry: S Ryan; G O'Sullivan (0-1), J Foley, T O'Sullivan (0-3); B Ó Beaglaioch, T Morley, G White (0-1); D Moran (0-2), D O'Connor; D Moynihan, S O'Shea (0-3, 0-1 free), S O'Brien; P Clifford, D Clifford (1-3, 0-1 mark, 0-2 frees), P Geaney (0-4, 0-1 mark). Subs: K Spillane (0-1) for Moynihan (48), P Murphy for O'Beaglaoich (57), M Burns for O'Brien (59), J O'Connor for D O'Connor (65), T Brosnan for D Clifford (67), G Crowley for Foley (70+3)
Yellow cards: D O’Connor (37), T Brosnan (70+5)
Mayo: R Hennelly (0-1, free); L Keegan, O Mullin, E Hession; P Durcan, S Coen (0-1), E McLaughlin; A O'Shea (0-1), M Ruane (0-1); Jordan Flynn (0-2), D O'Connor, C Loftus (0-1); K McLoughlin (0-1), J Carney (0-1), C O'Connor (0-3, 0-2 frees). Subs: J Carr (0-1) for Carney (HT), F Boland for Loftus (51), A Orme for McLoughlin (57), P O'Hora for O'Shea (64), J Doherty for O'Connor (70), P Towey for Orme (70+3)
Black card: A O’Shea (30-40)
Yellow card: D O’Connor (64)
Ref: D Gough (Meath)