Mistakes prove fatal as Kerry let opportunity slip
National Hurling League Division 2A Round 2: Kerry 2-17 Westmeath 4-13
It was there for them. Westmeath were on the rack. They'd them practically beaten, twice, and twice they let they back into the game. Worse of all they have nobody to blame but themselves for it.
Two big mistakes at two critical moments of the match - and both unfortunately by the man between the sticks - cost the Kingdom victory in a game they were more than good enough to win.
Make no mistake last Sunday afternoon was a glorious opportunity to all but ensure themselves a place in the league final. It was a glorious opportunity to get a win over a side who've proven themselves to be Kerry's bête noire over the past couple of seasons.
Instead of finally scratching that itch, Fintan O'Connor's men will be left scratching their heads this week. Wondering how they managed the lose the game, how they hadn't managed to take advantage of the opportunity which presented itself so teasingly.
It's worth stressing at this point that Kerry's fate is still very much in their own hands, but their margin for error has very much been reduced. Hardly ideal, not the end of the world either.
Just as long as the players and the management take the right lessons from it. That they embrace the positives - Kerry were the better team playing the better (if far from flawless) hurling - while not allowing the negatives to metastasise into fears and doubts and paralyse them.
Really it shouldn't. All Kerry have to do is look back upon a first half when they had Westmeath in all sorts of bother, even if it didn't always manifest itself on the scoreboard.
Kerry's accuracy needed to be a little better than what it was. Despite starting the game really well, it wasn't until the second quarter that the Kingdom began to open out any sort of a reasonable gap over the visitors to Austin Stack Park.
To be fair to Kerry they were most unlucky not to have bagged a goal early in the match after Mikey Boyle - always looking dangerous and well on top of Westmeath full-back Tommy Doyle - was fouled for a penalty.
His brother Pádraig's strike, however, struck the butt of the post to the goalkeeper's left (possibly after a slight touch from Paddy Carroll's hurl) giving Westmeath a little breathing room, breathing room they scarcely deserved.
Not with Pádraig Boyle moving as well as he was. Not with Michael O'Leary on top of his brief. Not with Shane Conway jinking and pulling strings and directing matters from the forty. Westmeath weren't bad (they weren't great either), it was just that Kerry were better.
Eventually that was going to tell on the scoreboard and in the lead up to the half-time break Kerry started to stretch their legs. Going from four points to three clear after fifteen minutes, to ten points to six clear fifteen minutes later.
Westmeath were reeling a little by now. On thirty three minutes Kerry had a chance for a second goal, this time through Jordan Conway after an assist by both Boyle brothers. Conway's effort was out for a '65, which Kerry worked to deliver a point for Michael O'Leary and a five point lead for the hosts.
Coming up to the break everything was going swimmingly for Kerry... until a shot for a point by Westmeath midfielder Shane Clavin dipped short and caught Kerry goalkeeper Martin Stackpoole off guard. A goal at the worst time possible for Kerry, undoing so much of their good work in the first half - 0-11 to 1-6.
With Westmeath changing things up at half-time - three subs in - the momentum of the game appeared to have swung against Kerry. By forty three minutes the Leinster side had closed the gap to a single point.
Kerry were looking nervous but a brilliantly worked and executed goal by Mikey Boyle (assist Pádraig) seemed to put Kerry back in control of the game -1-12 to 1-8. Within ten minutes of that goal Kerry had extended their lead to six - 1-14 to 1-8.
This was as good as it got for Kerry. A pair of well-worked Westmeath goals - one for Derek McNicholas and one for Cormac Boyle (both half-time subs) - levelled the match with ten minutes to go.
A serious set-back for Kerry, but the game, even then, was still there for them. Or at least it was until another terrible mistake by the goalkeeper. Stackpoole took a short puck out to Fionán MacKessey. Straightforward enough you'd think, the sort of thing you see in every game up and down the country, except that MacKessey was being doubled marked.
MacKessey was turned over and for some reason Stackpoole had made a dash from his goal in MacKessey's direction. Westmeath weren't going to miss with the keeper off his line - Robbie Greville chipping him.
It's to Kerry's credit that even after this they battled back. Into time added on Kerry scrambled for a chance at goal. First Michael Slattery forced a save from Carroll and with the rebound Shane Conway dinked one towards the back post, while following up himself with a surging run.
His persistence was repaid when the ball bounced in his direction and the Lixnaw wizard batted it to the back of the net. Hope restored for at least a draw. Alas that hope didn't last long.
Westmeath finished with a flourish - points from Killian Doyle and Cormac Boyle - to steal a victory they scarcely deserved. For Kerry it was utterly heartbreaking. A defeat they could take, a defeat that they themselves were the authors of... that's a different matter entirely.
Kerry: Martin Stackpoole, John Buckley, Bryan Murphy, Eric Leen, Jason Diggins, Tomás O'Connor, Fionán MacKessy, Dáithí Griffin (0-1), Paud Costello, Michael O'Leary (0-1), Shane Conway (1-10, 10f), Pádraig Boyle (0-3), Jordan Conway, Mikey Boyle (1-0), Jack Goulding (0-2) Subs: Brandon Barrett for D Griffin, 43, Michael Leane for B Barrett (inj), 50, Michael Slattery for J Conway, 55, Seán Weir for T O'Connor, 66, Niall O'Mahoney for M Slattery (inj), 71
Westmeath: Paddy Carroll, Darragh Egerton, Tommy Doyle, Gary Greville, John Bermingham, Aonghus Clarke, Conor Shaw, Robbie Greville (1-1), Shane Clavin (1-0), John Gilligan, Allan Devine (0-2), Niall Mitchell (0-5f), Killian Doyle (0-2), Darragh Clinton (0-1), Jack Galvin Subs: Aaron Craig for C Shaw, half-time, Paul Greville (0-1) for J Bermingham, half-time, Cormac Doyle (1-1) for S Clavin, half-time, Derek McNicholas (1-0) for J Galvin, 45, Shane Power for J Gilligan, 61
Referee: Rory McGann (Clare)
The Game in 60 seconds
Mikey Boyle did a lot with very little. Shane Conway was again central to a most of what Kerry did positively - and showed a real desire to create and force home the Kingdom's second goal - but we're going to give the nod to Jason Diggins on this occasion. He did a lot of very good work throughout the match.
It has to be the mistake Martin Stackpoole made for Westmeath's fourth goal. It was just a killer at a stage in the match when Kerry were still well in it. Kerry rallied well from it, but it put them in a really invidious position.
The mistakes were a big talking point. There wasn't that much of a crowd in Austin Stack Park, but the new shed end - despite having only about three or four patrons in it at most - looked really well. It'll probably be packed out with Dubs for the footballers' game next Saturday evening.