Down remain the only team in Ireland Kerry cannot beat
DOWN'S sensational record of never losing to Kerry in the championship was impeccably maintained at Croke Park yesterday when they inflicted the shock of the year by knocking out the reigning All-Ireland champions.
The counties have now met five times in championship history -- 1960, '61, '68, '91 and yesterday -- and on each occasion Down have emerged victorious. They remain the only team in Ireland Kerry cannot beat.
Yesterday we saw what that swagger can bring. This latest victory was surely the most unprecedented of them all but the Ulster men began and ended the game like Croke Park was their stage.
Some turnaround. After losing to Tyrone in the Ulster championship we wrote them off prematurely, but they responded with wins over Longford and Offaly. However, until last weekend's 19-point demolition of Sligo, they had scarcely featured on the radar. The form lines were there. We should have paid heed. The impact of their manager, James McCartan, should also have registered with us.
On the other side of the fence, Jack O'Connor spent the week complaining about a bias against his team in the media in the wake of his players' perceived trial by television. Perhaps if those suspended players he was referring to, Tomás ó Sé and Paul Galvin, were there yesterday Kerry would have been a different outfit. But along the way they stepped out of line. It wasn't the media's fault and ultimately it upset his team.
Indeed, Down should have won by more. They were on fire at the start but, almost afraid to believe, retreated into their shells and only led by six at half-time when it could have been more. Any time they threw off the shackles they had the edge on Kerry, who only had three scorers.
When Donnacha Walsh was sent off for a second yellow card in the 45th minute, their goose was cooked. Sure, it took two superb Brendan McVeigh saves to keep the Ulster men ahead, but only in the dying seconds did Kerry claw the lead back to six points, courtesy of a David Moran injury-time penalty.
And how they celebrated at the final whistle. Martin Clarke, Paul McComiskey, Mark Poland and Dan Gordon. But this was a squad effort; their subs, Peter Fitzpatrick, Ronan Murtagh and Conor Maginn, all made the scoresheet -- which is exactly what you want from the bench.
It will take Kerry a while to get over this. Apart from Colm Cooper, they were lifeless in attack. Their midfield failed. Full-forward Kieran Donaghy had to roam out to get any ball and their flanks were pierced effectively as Down set out to target the wings.
The favourites were aiming for the All-Ireland semi-finals for the 11th year in a row. But the importance of momentum cannot be understated in games like these. And Kerry hadn't featured in championship action since July 4, they were down two of their best players and their midfield has been struggling.
Down, on the other hand, were in a nice groove, having played five games since May. In that time, they had chalked up 6-71. Their engine was well oiled and ready to hit the road again. No surprise, then, that they kicked off in such splendid fashion to lead 1-3 to 0-0 in the opening minutes. Their first attack yielded a super goal for centre-forward Poland, who contested a high ball, nipped behind the Kerry defence and struck a super shot across goalkeeper Brendan Kealy.
With their tails up, they added two points from Benny Coulter and a '45 from midfielder Ambrose Rodgers in slippery conditions. They had Kerry pinned into their own half and were six points ahead, so what did they do? Retreat, of course.
It's a perennial habit for an underdog, this practice of getting your neck in front and then withdrawing. And for the next 15 minutes Kerry got back into the game. Their half-back line was left with oceans of space and time and again Aidan O'Mahony and Darran O'Sullivan surged forward. They had two lines of attack -- Kieran Donaghy and Colm Cooper, both of whom were being tightly marked by Dan Gordon and Damien Rafferty respectively.
Bryan Sheehan tried to lift the siege but hit four wides on the trot and Kerry had to wait until the 14th minute to open their account, when Sheehan finally pointed. Cooper then hit three on the trot, two from frees, to leave them just two behind. By now, the champions were all over the Ulster men, who lost 10 kick-outs in a row after such a brilliant start.
When Killian Young's shot hit the net in the 23rd minute, following great teamwork among the Kerry forwards, it looked like the Down resistance was over as quickly as it began. But referee Joe McQuillan disallowed it for an illegal handpass (remember those?) and, to Kerry's fury, Down got a free out.
They took advantage and tacked on two excellent points from Martin Clarke with his eye-catching pair of red boots. The impressive Poland scored to leave them six points up at the break. Down strutted into the dressing-rooms, buoyant and composed.
Kerry looked tired and out of ideas. They whipped off Micheál Quirke after 34 minutes and brought on David Moran. We waited eagerly to see if their championship odyssey was about to run its course.
Their first move was to bring Donaghy out to centre-field. Soon after, they took All Star Seamus Scanlon out of midfield. Five points down, they were further rocked when Walsh, having been booked earlier on, saw red for a high tackle on Poland. This was some steep hill to climb.
The finale was grand. Paul McComiskey had a goal disallowed after 50 minutes when Benny Coulter was judged to have handpassed illegally. Seconds later, with Kerry still within touching distance, McVeigh spread himself to make an excellent save from Donaghy, a feat he repeated brilliantly in the dying stages.
Clearly frustrated, Kerry lost the plot. Jack O'Connor took off his Nos 7, 8 and 9 and although they rammed home a late penalty, Down's job was completed by then.
Scorers -- Down: M Poland 1-2 (1f); M Clarke (2f), A Rodgers (2 '45), B Coulter 0-3 each; P McComiskey 0-2; R Murtagh, P Fitzpatrick, C Maginn 0-1 each. Kerry: C Cooper 0-7 (5f); B Sheehan 0-3 (1f, '45); D Moran 1-0 (pen).
Down: B McVeigh; D McCartan, D Gordon, D Rafferty; D Rooney, K McKernan, C Garvey; A Rodgers. K King; D Hughes, M Poland, P McComiskey; B Coulter, J Clarke, M Clarke. Subs: C Maginn for J Clarke (49), R Murtagh for P McComiskey (57), p Fitzpatrick for K King (67), R Sexton for M Poland (70).
Kerry: B Kealy; M ó Sé, T Griffin, T O'Sullivan; A O'Mahony, M McCarthy, K Young; S Scanlon, M Quirke; Darran O'Sullivan, Declan O'Sullivan, D Walsh; C Cooper, K Donaghy, B Sheehan. Subs: D Moran for M Quirke (34), BJ Keane for S Scanlon (44), K O'Leary for D O'Sullivan (49), D Bohane for K Young (58), A Maher for B Sheehan (62)
Referee: J McQuillan (Cavan)