Bryan Sheehan came to the Kingdom's rescue yesterday as his last-gasp free salvaged a draw in a feisty Division 1 encounter in Tralee.
With Mayo, in confident form following their impressive victory over Dublin the previous weekend, surging into an eight-point lead (1-8 to 0-3) at one stage of the first half, Kerry needed to call on all their experience, and big names off the bench, to snatch a hard-fought draw. But while Paul Galvin, Darran O'Sullivan, Marc O Se and Declan O'Sullivan were all drafted in to rescue Kerry, it was midfielder Sheehan who broke 14-man Mayo's hearts, scoring a second-half penalty after Colm Cooper was fouled, as well as that injury-time leveller.
"We started off poorly and gave them an eight-point lead but we were determined to keep the run that we are on at the moment going for as long as we can so it was good to come back and get the draw," Kerry manager Jack O'Connor said.
"Our fellas fought tooth and nail. We had a lot of new players in there. It's hard for that many new players to knit together. In the overall scheme of things, we are happy enough. We got out of there with a draw. It didn't look like we would at one stage of the game."
The game hinged on two second-half moments, first when Mayo wing-back Lee Keegan was sent off (two yellow cards) after 46 minutes and then Sheehan's penalty six minutes later that dragged Kerry back into the game at 1-12 to 1-10.
With Mayo only mustering one point -- an Andy Moran effort after 48 minutes -- in the final 25 minutes, Kerry fought hard to draw level, thanks to two Sheehan frees. But Mayo manager James Horan couldn't help feeling like his side had let the victory slip from their grasp.
"That (red card) affected us as we ran out of juice and Kerry came on strong. We held out, though, and got in some good turnovers and had chances near the end but the lads did not take the right shot options," he said.
"We could have hung on for the win if we had made better decisions near the end. We had a couple frees in the scoring zone that we missed."
In the first half, Mayo were well on top, thanks to Aidan O'Shea at midfield, the half-forward line of Kevin McLoughlin, Andy Moran and Alan Dillon, while Cillian O'Connor was also heavily involved.
After the sides swapped three scores apiece, Mayo made their dominance pay by rattling off 1-5 without reply, with Jason Doherty fisting O'Connor's centre to the Kerry net on 21 minutes.
In control, and leading 1-8 to 0-3, Mayo were then hit by a strong Kerry finish to the half that saw four unanswered points -- Sheehan (2), Cooper and Patrick Curtin -- throw this game wide open, with the gap down to four by half-time (1-8 to 0-7).
While Mayo stretched their lead to six points at one stage in the second half, a combination of Mayo losing a man, Kerry scoring a penalty and the experience of the Kingdom big guns was enough to see the home side salvage a draw.
And the two counties must do it all again next weekend in a league semi-final, with Horan adding: "It's great to be playing the form team in the country. Kerry are top of the league and playing very well. We are delighted to be getting games against good teams and will prepare well."
Man of the Match: Bryan Sheehan (Kerry)
Scorers -- Kerry: B Sheehan 1-6 (1-0 pen, 6f), P Curtin 0-3, C Cooper 0-2, P Galvin 0-1. Mayo: C O'Connor 0-6f, J Doherty 1-1, K McLoughlin 0-2, A Dillon, A Moran, D Clarke ('45') 0-1 each.
Kerry -- B Kelly 6; S Enright 6, K Young 6, B McGuire 6; P Crowley 8, E Brosnan 6, J Lyne 6; B Sheehan 8, K Donaghy 6; D O'Callaghan 5, BJ Keane 6, J Buckley 6; C Cooper 6, P Curtin 7, K O'Leary 6. Subs: P Galvin 7 for D O'Callaghan (h-t), Darran O'Sullivan 6 for BJ Keane (h-t), M O Se 7 for E Brosnan (45), Declan O'Sullivan 6 for K O'Leary (47), J O'Donoghue 6 for J Buckley (58).
Mayo -- D Clarke 6; E Reilly 6, G Cafferkey 6, K Higgins 7; L Keegan 5, D Vaughan 6, D Geraghty 6; J Gibbons 7, A O'Shea 8; K McLoughlin 7, A Moran 7, A Dillon 7; C O'Connor 7, J Doherty 6, M Conroy 6. Subs: K Keane 6 for E Reilly (47), C Mortimer 6 for M Conroy (48), E Regan 6 for C O'Connor (55), S McHale 6 for J Doherty (68).
Ref -- M Condon (Waterford).