SELDOM has a Kerry win over Tyrone been greeted with such muted excitement and anxiety. Kerry upheld their own part of the deal - by beating Tyrone on the league's final day - but no sooner had Marty Duffy whistled the end of a game that was uncomfortably much closer than it should have been - but thoughts and Twitter and transistors turned to Ballybofey, where Donegal were holding out against Dublin.
Word had already filtered through that Mayo had saved their own division one skins by beating Cork by a point in Pairc Ui Chaoimh. Only Dublin could intervene now to save Kerry from the drop. A bizarre injury that forced referee Padraig Hughes off midway through the second half meant the action in Ballybofey dragged on after the final whistle in Omagh. Interminably so, it seemed. Donegal were leading by a point and a little prematurely - as it turned out - some were telling of Kerry's demise. The rumours were greatly exaggerated. Paul Mannion conjured an equaliser for the Dubs and that was enough to send the All-Ireland champions to division two football next year. Kerry survived.
It was a remarkable turn of events on an afternoon of high drama, much of which was contained within Healy Park where Kerry, at turns, were spectacularly brilliant and worryingly self-destructive. Heading to Omagh for their must win game against a Tyrone team already qualified for the League semi-finals few would have predicted Kerry winning a half of football against their old nemesis by 11 points. And as poor as Kerry have been for a lot of this league campaign, few would have forecast an almost full strength side losing a half of football to Tyrone by 10 points. Yet, that's exactly how events played out as Kerry looked to have Tyrone all but incinerated by half time after a red-hot opening 35 minutes of football, only to be almost burned at the death as Tyrone chipped away at Kerry's 1-13 to 0-5 half time lead until time ran out with just a point between them.
In time the management and players will analyse just why another comprehensive lead was allowed to be eroded away until Kerry were desperately hanging on, but for now all involved will, rightfully, take great comfort that the League campaign has ended with a third consecutive win, and that much of the old verve and sharpness was in evidence, at least in that powerful first half display. That their division one status was retained, albeit on the back of that fortuitous result in Ballybofey, was a bonus.
A strong wind blew straight down Healy Park last Sunday and it was to Kerry's great advantage that Eoin Brosnan won the toss and chose to play with the advantage. (It was pretty much Brosnan's only meaningful contribution to the game as he was forced off in the opening minutes after straining a quad muscle in his first involvement.)
Sensing they needed a strong start to subdue any notion Tyrone might have had of drawing Kerry into a street brawl of a game, the visitors set about their work. With Colm Cooper orchestrating matters from his centre-forward posting Kerry were focussed, slick, sharp and direct from the outset. Points from Declan O'Sullivan, Cooper and two from Kieran Donaghy saw Kerry race into a 0-4 to 0-1 lead after nine minutes, and when Darran O'Sullivan fired over Kerry's fifth point the entire full forward line had scored from play before 10 minutes had elapsed.
With Kerry running intelligent and hard lines, and with Tyrone all at sea defensively, Jonathan Lyne (pictured below) took a Donaghy pass, cut past two defenders and cracked a shot that cannoned back off Niall Morgan's post, before Declan O'Sullivan pointed from the rebound. Kerry were rampant. Darran pointed, Tomas hit a post, Declan pointed. Johnny Buckley threatened Morgan's goal again, and suddenly the weary, meek and unimaginative afternoons against Dublin and Donegal and Down seemed lightyears away.
Where only a few weeks ago there was hestitation now there was intent. Where once there was submission now there was obduracy. Hitherto predictability was now replaced with creativity. Kerry were purring. Cooper pulling the strings. Galvin sweeping up the breaks. The O Se brothers piling forward with pace and power. Johnny Buckley thriving on the responsibility. Jonathan Lyne revelling his role as a defender-cum-forward-cum-defender. Donaghy glorying in receiving some ball with a postage stamp on it. Declan and Darran skinning defenders.
By the time all this glorious execution reached its zenith Kerry were 0-12 to 0-4 to the good. Then Kerry worked the ball from the corner back around the channels before Tomas O Se started and finished off a drive, which involved Donaghy and Darran O'Sullivan, which culminated in O Se palming O'Sullivan's weighted pass to the Tyrone net.
Tyrone, as expected, weren't entirely acquiescent and but for near misses by Darren McCurry and then Peter Harte on Brendan Kealy's goal, the half time margin could have been considerably closer than the 1-13 to 0-5 Kerry held and deserved.
Buckley's point two minutes after the re-start - with a goal beckoning - put Kerry 12 points ahead, but for the next 37 minutes they would manage only two more points. Tyrone began to show their hand. When Stephen O'Neill slid home a quintessential Stephen O'Neill goal in the 40th minutes the majority of the 6,370-strong crowd sat up a little. Buckley raked over a super score but then Tyrone replied with four points in three minutes, and with the lead down to just six it all began to look a little more uncomfortable for Kerry.
Sean Cavanagh almost stole a goal but for a Kealy intervention and Anthony Maher's interception, but the momentum was clearly with Tyrone. Two more scores had the margin down to four points by the 58th minute, and it needed a Cooper free to steady matters for Kerry and put five between the teams as the game entered injury-time. Sean Cavanagh pointed and on the third attempt Tyrone got their second goal when Mark Donnelly slapped Cavanagh cross to the net.
It was too little too late as far as Tyrone were concerned, the goal only serving to put a better look on the final score. For Kerry the small satisfaction of beating Tyrone in Omagh, and the bigger satisfaction of an improved collective performance, was quickly replaced by the anxious wait of word from Ballybofey. Moments later it was confirmed that Paul Mannion had scored the most important point for Kerry last Sunday.
TYRONE: N Morgan (0-1f); A McCrory, Justin McMahon, C McCarron; R McKenna, Joe McMahon (0-1f), R McNamee; C Cavanagh, S Cavanagh (0-2, 1f); P McNiece, P Harte (0-1), Mark Donnelly (1-0); D McCurry (0-2, 1f), S O'Neill (1-1), R O'Neill (0-1f). Subs: M Penrose for R O'Neill (inj 24); C Clarke (0-2) for McKenna, C Gormley (0-1) for McNamee (both 35+1); C McGinley for McNiece (58), C McAliskey for McCurry (69).
KERRY: B Kealy; M Ó Sé; M Griffin, S Enright; K Young, E Brosnan, T Ó Sé (1-1); A Maher, J Buckley (0-3, 1f); J Lyne (0-1), C Cooper (0-3, 2f), P Galvin, Declan O'Sullivan (0-3), K Donaghy (0-3), Darran O'Sullivan (0-2). Subs: B McGuire for Brosnan (inj, 4); D Walsh for Galvin, K O'Leary for Darran O'Sullivan (both 59); B Sheehan for Buckley (67); Crowley for T Ó Sé (70).
REFEREE: Marty Duffy (Sligo)