A WIN against all odds for the Kerry Minor Hurlers in the quarter-final of the All-Ireland B Championship in the Austin Stack Park last Saturday afternoon.
Six points adrift at the start of the final quarter, Kerry still trailed by four with five minutes of normal time remaining, but a final flourish, which yielded four unanswered scores, including a vital Michael O'Leary goal edged Kerry home in what was a pulsating finale to a contest, which for long periods rarely scaled any real heights.
Kerry were largely struggling to remain in contention for most of the contest and but for the introduction of Keith Carmody as a defender for the final fifteen minutes, it's extremely unlikely that Kerry would have prevailed. Selected at full-forward he didn't start the game, due to Causeway's involvement in the County Senior Hurling Championship the following evening.
In fact due to the unavailability also of Causeway's Mike Lynch, Kerry were forced to reshuffle their starting fifteen with goalkeeper Brendan Dunne operating in defence as a corner-back and wing-back Daniel O'Carroll relocated at full-forward and Jason Wallace at wing-back.
Initially Kerry struggled to get to grips with the situation and a goal from Paul O'Brien in the seventh minute after Mark Lennon had created the opportunity for him meant that the visitors led by the bare minimum after ten minutes.
Kerry, however, with Michael O'Leary's industry being a feature, kept pace and a goal by lively wing-forward Aaron Murphy in the twelfth minute after he capitalised on a goalkeeping error, edged Kerry in front (1-3/1-1), but Wicklow responded with successive points to level matters at the end of the opening quarter.
However, a tendency to foul rather needlessly cost Kerry dearly and with Patrick Doran unerring from placed balls, Wicklow opened up a four point gap by the twenty first minute. However, a second Kerry goal brought them right back into contention.
Aaron Murphy left his marker trailing with a surging run and created the goal opportunity for his Dr Crokes, colleague Chris Donsel, who applied a quite emphatic finish to the Wicklow net.
Michael O'Leary with a superb effort off his left side levelled matters, but Wicklow restored a one point cushion with a Patrick Doran pointed '65 after Stephen Murphy who was impressive throughout had effected a fine save from the resourceful Mark Lennon.
Patrick Doran, who finished with a first half tally of 0-6, had the final say of the opening thirty minutes with a pointed free in added time to leave his side one point in front (1-9/2-5) at the half time break.
Michael O'Leary with another fine effort from long range levelled matters within two minutes of the restart, but one minute later Wicklow, were back in front when half-time substitute Drew Brennan provided a low finish which just crossed the goal line after Mark Lennon once again had opened up the last line of the Kerry defence.
They nearly added another two goals with gilt edged chances and really Kerry were largely struggling to stay afloat for most of the third quarter at the end of which they trailed by four points (2-11/2-7). They did pick up the pace for a period, but, didn't transfer their superiority into scores, with Philip Lucid rather untypically being off target on a few occasions.
A third Wicklow goal in the fifty third minute, with Mark Lennon again creating the chance for Paul O'Brien, who finished in style, looked like it had put paid to the Kerry challenge. However, a purple patch from Michael O'Leary with a tally of 1-3 in a five minute spell brought Kerry level with four minutes remaining.
It looked maybe as if extra time would, decide the issue as both sides searched frantically for the winning score and after substitute Fionan O'Sullivan had pointed Kerry in front in the final minute. Jordan Brick sealed the issue in added time.
On reflection a game in which Kerry can count themselves pretty fortunate to have survived, but if all of their players had been available and played in their best positions it would I think have resulted in a more balanced formation and possibly a more convincing win.
Kerry: Stephen Murphy (Causeway), Brendan Dunne (Ballyheigue), Cathal Kearney (Ballyduff), Jamie Barrett (Causeway), Jason Wallace (Lixnaw) (Capt), Pat O'Shea (Kilgarvan), Darragh Shanahan (Lixnaw), Philip Lucid (Ballyheigue) (0-2, 1f), Paudie O'Connor (Kilmoyley), Aaron Murphy (Dr. Crokes) (1-1), Jordan Brick (Kilmoyley) (0-3), Michael O'Leary (Abbeydorney) (1-6, 2f, 1'65), Chris Donsel (Dr. Crokes) (1-0), Daniel O'Carroll (Ballyduff) (0-1), Stephen O'Sullivan (Abbeydorney) Subs: Fionan O'Sullivan (Kenmare) (0-1) for D O'Carroll, Keith Carmody for B Dunne
Wicklow: Robert Fitzgerald, Matthew Gilbert, Anthony Byrne, Sean Walsh, Sean O'Callaghan, James Manley, Stephen Cruise, Danny Staunton (0-1), Wayne Kinsella (0-1), James Crawley, Matt Thompson, Ben McCormack, Paul O'Brien (2-1), Mark Lennon, Patrick Doran (0-9, 8f, 1 '65) Subs: Drew Brennan (1-0) for J Cranley, Ryan Tynan M Thompson
Referee: David Copps (Cork)
Michael O'Leary's goal was obviously crucial, because without it given the time remaining Kerry wouldn't have reeled in the deficit. However, with the game slipping from their grasp and Wicklow looking likely to consolidate their scoring advantage the introduction of Keith Carmody from the bench, in what was a quite unfamiliar role for him in defence helped to steady the ship and inspire that late flourish.
Wicklow had a few contenders with Mark Lennon and Patrick Doran, being particularly influential. Both Jordan Brick and Aaron Murphy provided moments of excellence at varying intervals, but in terms of leadership Michael O'Leary stood head and shoulders over every body else.
His physical presence was a constant feature but his ability to take the game by the scruff of the neck when it looked beyond everybody else singled him out as the inspiration of his sides success.