SPORT at its most cruel.
There's no other way of putting it. It all happened so quickly. It all happened so late. There was, essentially, nothing Kerry could do after Gareth Johnson's second goal of the day.
Willie O'Dwyer did have a hit and hope effort from the placed ball with a few seconds remaining on the clock. It could have snuck over the line. Of course it could – Johnson's goal proved that anything is possible in a game of hurling – it just wasn't very likely. It was too far out, from too obtuse an angle. Nevertheless O'Dwyer forced a save from Down keeper Stephen Keith.
When Pádraig Boyle gave Kerry the lead at the beginning of injury time, the Kingdom would have felt they'd done it again. Again they'd come out the right side of a nip and tuck game. Then Down turned that assumption on its head. Paul Braniff hit a speculative ball into the square, Johnson rose highest, got the vital touch and sent the ball to the back of Bernard Rochford's net. Disaster and shellshock for Kerry, relief and glory for the Ardsmen.
This was a game that ended as it began. With Magic. Magic Johnson that is. There was a mirror for his goal right at the death with one just seconds into the game. Again he plucked a long ball from the air. This time he bustled past Tom Murnane and planted it low and hard. No chance for Rochford. Johnson followed that goal up with an expertly taken point. Kerry were certainly well warned about what Johnson brings to the table.
At this stage of the game, at least, Kerry had time to react. They reacted in style. Pádraig Boyle was alert and swept the ball to the back of the Down net in one stroke in the fourth minute. The Ballyduff's man sublime score brought Kerry firmly back into the game. Down's dream start went for nought as Kerry gradually worked their way back into the game and into the lead. Shane Nolan and Braniff swapped a couple of points and by the quarter hour mark Kerry trailed by just the minimum. Crisis over.
All that was but a precursor for the finest move of the game and possibly the finest move in any game in this year's Christy Ring. Pádraig Boyle won a great ball on the half-forward line from a Rochford puck-out. Boyle sought out his brother Aidan and Aidan, as he has done so often this year, hit Nolan with an exquisite pass. Turning his man and making straight for goal there was only going to be one outcome. Nolan had struck again.
Kerry had the lead for the first time. They would retain it until well into injury time and for the majority of the time in between they were the better team. Not by a huge margin, just enough. Brendan O'Leary and Pádraig Boyle were playing well on the half-forward line. The backs looked solid – Rory Horgan and Paud Costello, in particular, stood out – even if they did have a tendency to give a way one too many frees. With Paul Braniff on hand to slot them over, that's something Kerry could have done without.
Nolan and Willie O'Dwyer kept the Kingdom ticking over. Braniff and Daniel Toner did likewise for Down. Kerry led by one at the break. They were lucky to do so after the impressive Michael Ennis won a penalty for his side – Liam Boyle was adjudged to have fouled the Down wing-back. Luckily for Kerry Braniff hit it over the bar.
A serious injury to Paud Costello forced him off at half-time. Colm Harty, who played despite his injury worries coming into the final, joined him on the sideline. A worrying development for Kerry. Their resources were being severely tested. Happily for Tom Howard both of the men who came on in their stead, Gary O'Brien and John Egan, impressed.
O'Brien was particularly impressive. He got on ball. He hit a point on 41 minutes. Then he seemed to pick up a knock. On the injury front Kerry couldn't buy a break last week. O'Brien soldiered on, but he was nowhere near as effective from that point onwards.
After an impressive start to the half, where they stretched their lead to four points, Kerry coughed up yet another costly penalty (Darren Dineen judged to have fouled Johnson) and this time Braniff went for it. Rochford saved and sub Scott Nicholson finished the rebound to the net.
With fresher legs, with more options off the bench Down gradually fought their way back to level pegging as the game entered injury time.
Egan and Aidan Boyle battled hard up front, but the ball just wasn't sticking in there was much as you'd like. The backs were under pressure and, despite a brilliant second half from young Daniel Collins in the corner, Down got the scores they needed.
The Mourne men had momentum. The question was whether Kerry could hang on. When Boyle got his point it seemed, fleetingly, as though they could.
Johnson made certain they couldn't.
Kerry: Bernard Rochford, Rory Horgan, Tom Murnane, Paud Costello, Darragh O'Connell, Liam Boyle, Darren Dineen, John Griffin, Daniel Collins, Brendan O'Leary (0-1), Willie O'Dwyer (0-2), Pádraig Boyle (1-3), Colm Harty, Aidan Boyle (0-1), Shane Nolan (1-9, 5f) Subs: Gary O'Brien (0-1) for C Harty, John Egan for P Costello, Sean Maunsell for G O'Brien
Down: Stephen Keith, Matthew Conlon, Patrick Hughes, Ben Toner, Fintan Conway, Conor Woods (0-2, 1f, 1 '65), Michael Ennis, Donal Hughes (0-1), Ciaran Coulter, Daniel Toner (0-1), Paul Braniff (0-6, 4f, 0-1 from penalty spot), Paul Sheehan, Kevin McGarry, Gareth Johnson (2-1), James Coyle (0-2) Subs: Scott Nicholson (1-2) for F Conway, Johnny McCusker (0-1) for P Sheehan, Michael Turley for D Toner, Michael Hughes for B Toner
Referee: Christy Browne (Galway)