THEY don’t travel like Mayo. Wrapped in such colourful history, Kerry people had seen no need for long journeys to insipid league encounters. The championship had been their benchmark. League merely a means to an end.
Necessity has forced a change in the old custom. League victory last year was not the championship stimulus they had hoped. Successive defeats to Mayo in both competitions have caused concern. The alarm bells are ringing. Time to take stock.
Saturday, fresh, scowling faces came to MacHale Park to settle a score and rescue reputation. With them came more than their normal retinue supporting a new Kerry rising.
And for a large portion of the second half of a bad-tempered scrap at MacHale Park their thirteen men held out against the odds, defending a lead of three points with fierce resistance.
Again and again Mayo stormed the barricade in those final turbulent minutes. Again and again they were beaten back, outflanked, outsmarted . . . and thoroughly frustrated.
From it, Kerry will take enough to suggest that they are far from a spent force. Their physical approach, their hard running, their spirited application, their cynicism had Mayo bossed and in retreat from the start. The dismissal of two of their players confirmed the lengths they were prepared to go for redress.
Playing on the edge they ran rings round Mayo. Those three points they had to spare did not reflect the hold they had on the game. At no stage did Mayo, still in the grip of winter staleness, shape up like winners.
They were struggling in most sectors, behind their men, waiting too often for Kerry to win possession before taking them on, too short of pace. Simply put, they were not good enough. Unlike Clones they just could not get it together.
And yet, strangely, Mayo had chances to snatch something from the game. In those final barren minutes they could have stolen it. Cillian O’Connor could. He had come into the second half for the injured Evan Regan.
But it was not the Cillian that normally pulls games out of the fire. His taste for dead-ball accuracy has begun to desert him. He got a couple, but frees he would normally swing over the bar missed the target. Fergal Boland, Jason Doherty and Andy wasted similar opportunities, but Cillian has been so dependable that you do not expect him to miss.
In the early minutes of the game, after Kerry roared into a two-point lead, Mayo showed signs of normal life when Evan Regan from a free and Barry Moran —added to the team in place of Colm Boyle — evened matters up.
But Kerry were winning most of the possession and linking cohesively and so freely that Mayo were keeping up only through an occasional flash of individual brilliance. Diarmuid O’Connor produced one of those in the 13th minute after Mayo had again fallen into arrears.
It came from a throw-up by referee Derek O’Mahony, won by Aidan O’Shea, and delivered astutely to O’Connor to his right. From a tight angle Diarmuid’s goal was a classic. Against the run of play, the sides were level.
But again Kerry strode ahead, their scores spread evenly throughout the forward line, Sean O’Shea, Barry John Keane and Paul Geaney the main providers. Five points in front and flying. Among those scores, a missed penalty smartly turned round the post by David Clarke from Sean O’Shea.
Injury time and Mayo were flattered to be trailing by only five points. Suddenly like a bat from hell, Paddy Durcan vaulted from the centre-back position he had just taken up. Right through the field the Castlebar Mitchels’ star careered, cutting swathes through the Kerry defence before offloading to Neil Douglas who was felled in the box.
Again Diarmuid O’Connor came to the rescue with a penalty shot, about the only lesson Kerry might take from the match. Having one of his best games for some time, the Ballintubber man was the biggest threat to the kingdom.
A point, astonishingly, behind at the interval and that point scrubbed out by Jason Doherty after the break. Yet to no great advantage as it turned out.
For when Aidan O’Shea, one of Mayo’s best workers, lost possession, his marker Gavin Crowley followed through and plundered a goal that set Kerry on the victory trail. Andy came on after that, and Cillian and Colm Boyle, showing no ill-effect from the injury that forced him off against Monaghan . . . none to any effect.
Having lost Ger Cafferkey through injury early in the game, Mayo’s back line limped nervously. Nor was their sufficient cut and thrust up front. Only Diarmuid, together with Aidan O’Shea and Jason Doherty, emitted the required degree of perseverance and self-possession. Together they emphasised the gap that exists between the hopefuls and the regulars.
Of the hopefuls, Eoin O’Donoghue, unlucky with a shot at goal, and sub Fergal Boland looked sharpest.