Unfinished business for the Kingdom
Kerry on right track to make amends for last year's championship let-down
Allianz Football League Div 1
Mid-term reports were signed off in Killarney where two of the game's central protagonists stopped to draw breath and measure the distance that they have travelled.
It ebbed and flowed like a good final league Sunday should. At one stage of the afternoon, Kerry were temporarily in a league final with Dublin as Cork briefly trailed to Armagh 55 miles away.
In the end, the head-to-head result between the great Munster rivals on the opening day of the league decided it, Cork's victory in Tralee nine weeks earlier proved their passport to Croke Park in two weeks' time.
For Kerry, there is repair and re-evaluation in Portugal next week, a warm-weather training camp that has been causing a fair degree of comment in the Kingdom but one that hasn't served them too badly in the past either.
Kerry may have been squeezed out of a league final, but it has been a satisfying league otherwise.
Five wins from seven -- both defeats by one point at the death -- represents a decent streak of form to take into the championship.
Jack O'Connor can feel energy radiating from his players that maybe wasn't always there last year, he suggested.
"The thing that has given me heart is that there is a lot of energy in the team, a lot of hunger and that always helps," he said.
"I think the lads will be looking forward to this championship because they felt we didn't do ourselves justice last year. There is great togetherness in the camp. I'm very happy with where we are," he admitted.
Down's visit to Killarney wasn't about revenge or setting the record straight from last year. It was to stoke something in themselves.
"We just wanted, more than anything, to show that we were a different team to the team that played in the quarter-final -- a more energetic team maybe; more coherent, more together than we were last year," O'Connor said.
"A few things came against us coming up to the quarter-final that didn't help us.
"I thought we were better prepared for this game, even though it was a league game, than we were for a quarter-final."
One of those "things" that disrupted them last year was indiscipline and it surfaced again 55 minutes in when Tom O'Sullivan struck out at Eoin McCartan who had just won a free off him.
Perhaps O'Sulivan felt McCartan, only on the field for Paul McComiskey eight minutes earlier, had made more of it than he should have.
But it was a needless act, "disappointing" in O'Connor's view and one that will rule him out of the Munster championship match with Tipperary on May 22.
The pity was that O'Sullivan looked back to his imperious best for much of the game, McComiskey's early withdrawal a legacy of that.
For Down manager James McCartan, the campaign has been something of a sobering experience.
They may have been just two points from being All-Ireland champions last September, but their travels has left him in no doubt as to who the top three in Gaelic football are now.
"It tells us where we are," figured McCartan. "Coming to the likes of Kerry, Dublin and Cork has been an experience for us. We haven't got any points out of them, but it leaves us under no illusions that those teams are probably a step ahead at the minute."
With numerical advantage and just a one-point deficit to chase after O'Sullivan's dismissal, Down looked poised for a first away victory.
But Kerry's control and retention of possession in those last 18 minutes or so was the measure of an experienced team that refused to panic.
At one stage they executed a move that must have featured close to 20 passes, but the finish from Tomas O Se didn't do the level of control justice.
Kerry led by 0-4 to 0-0 after only nine minutes with Darran O'Sullivan once again underlining how he is fast becoming indispensable at centre forward.
That may compromise the effectiveness of his namesake Declan down the line, but the injection of pace Darran O'Sullivan is giving Kerry right now is too hard to dismiss.
Colm Cooper was also to the fore early on but gradually Down settled and were level, 0-5 each, on 25 minutes when Brendan Kealy couldn't hold a James Colgan shot.
But by the break Kerry had surged again with Bryan Sheehan, on the field for the injured Paul Galvin (hamstring) after only 16 minutes, converting a massive 45-metre free that hugged the terrace sideline with the last play of the half.
Sheehan went on to make a massive second-half impact, landing two more long range frees and getting involved in all levels of play. Can Kerry really afford to be without a man who can deliver such precision and length from his frees off the ground?
Sheehan had an involvement in the Kerry goal that gave them further daylight on 38 minutes, providing the final pass after clever work from Colm Cooper to tee up Darran O'Sullivan, whose delicate flick beat Declan Alder.
Through Mark Poland and, chiefly, Martin Clarke, Down hung in and their persistence was rewarded on 54 minutes when Benny Coulter, subdued by the impressive Marc O Se for much of the game, batted a Conor Laverty pass by Brendan Kealy.
With Tom O'Sullivan's red card coming soon after, it set up a grandstand finish but also showed Kerry at their best as they held their nerve. They should also be happy with the progress of Shane Enright at corner-back, who wasn't lost in his pursuit of Clarke.
Man of the Match -- D O'Sullivan (Kerry)
Scorers -- Kerry: Darran O'Sullivan 1-2, B Sheehan 0-4 (3f), C Cooper 0-3 (1f), Declan O'Sullivan 0-2, A Maher, K Donaghy 0-1 each. Down: M Poland 0-5 (4f) B Coulter 1-0, M Clarke 0-3 (1f), J Colgan, C Maginn, C Garvey 0-1 each.
Kerry -- B Kealy 6; S Enright 7, M O Se 8, T O'Sullivan 7; T O Se 6, K Young 6, A O'Mahony 7; E Brosnan 7, A Maher 7; D Walsh 8, Darran O'Sullivan 8, P Galvin; C Cooper 7, K Donaghy 6, Declan O'Sullivan 7. Subs: B Sheehan 8 for Galvin (16), S Scanlon for Maher (61), A O'Connell for O'Mahony (62), K O'Leary for Galvin (64).
Down -- D Alder 6; G McCartan 6, D Gordon 7, B McArdle 5; C Garvey 7, K McKernan 7, D Rooney 7; J Colgan 6, K King 4; D Hughes 6, M Poland 8, C Maginn 6; P McComiskey 5, B Coulter 6, M Clarke 8. Subs: A Carr 6 for King (28), D Rafferty 6 for McArdle (42), E McCartan 7 for McComiskey (46), C Laverty 7 for Maginn (52).
Ref -- R Hickey (Clare).