Thursday 22 February 2018

Kerry ideal mix of silk and steel

They talked about him afterwards as some kind of mad, impossible angel, just doing his thing in the quiet dark of a church. Yet, from the slew of images 'Gooch' Cooper left 50,643 dizzy customers with yesterday, one spoke maybe louder than the rest.

The last peninsula of hope had long since washed away from under Mayo's feet as Jason Doherty's run met a blue, unsmiling cavalry. Maybe four bodies intercepted him on the edge of the D.

Doherty jolted backwards, spilling possession and it was then you noticed Gooch, with that familiar sing-song movement, stepping away from the scene of the mugging.

The game was ebbing towards a close, Kerry already safely home. Yet their captain, pale as milk and no heavier than a window shrub, kept hunting. For all the shocks of beauty his game possesses, maybe it is this selflessness that makes him who he is.

Kerry don't just have access to genius in Cooper. They have call on a whetstone for the best of everything they represent.

And they needed it here, for Mayo didn't spare them.

James Horan has given them a candour in the tackle not traditionally associated with the county and they employ a system that creates traffic in the right places. For a long time yesterday, Mayo's pressure game thieved the lyricism from Kerry.

Jack O'Connor's boys became fretful and vexed, haranguing David Coldrick for what they viewed as unhelpfully loose policing. For long periods mind, they had only themselves to blame, lamping high ball towards Kieran Donaghy with all the precision of rioters lobbing molotovs.

So Ger Cafferkey held the edge of the Mayo 'square' with more comfort than anyone might have anticipated.

But Horan's pragmatism could take them only so far. A system may protect a team, but it cannot buy them scores. Eventually, Kerry make you chase a game. And, for Mayo, that was death.

As Jack O'Connor averred afterwards, "they played a sweeper back in front of our full-forward line and I suppose it caused us problems early on because we turned over a lot of ball coming in there. But mid-way through the first-half, I thought we wised up a bit to that and we minded the ball a bit better. Once we did that, we looked in control.

"Look, Mayo tackled ferociously. There were a lot of heavy hits in that game and that's great for us going into an All-Ireland final because Donegal and Dublin aren't exactly shrinking violets. They will tackle very hard, so today was a good simulator for that.

"We felt we needed a contest because, you know, we've got one game in the last seven or eight weeks. We needed a tough match. Questions needed to be asked of us. And I thought, for the most part, we answered them."

They had gone for an early lunge at the jugular and almost succeeded, Robert Hennelly deflecting Darran O'Sullivan's shot away for a '45' after just 22 seconds and -- seven minutes later -- standing up to the same player following a slick Donaghy offload.

And slowly Mayo tuned themselves to the occasion, running venomous angles towards the Canal end goal where Enda Varley and Cillian O'Connor looked in the mood to ease a venerable Kerry full-back line into retirement.

Yet, a typical necklace of five unanswered Kerry points between the 23rd and 35th minutes reminded the gathering of their pedigree. Likewise, a sequence of six between the 43rd and 51st.

By then, Paul Galvin's arrival had an assortment of Mayo men anxiously straining to welcome him on board.

He took a few hits and gave some. He scored two points. He smiled.

"I needed that," he would say later. "Because it's a long year when you feel you're not contributing a whole lot on the field. I had to make an impact. You're in there to do something.

"We really needed a contest and we got one. So we're delighted with how it's turned out because, up to this, we probably weren't put to the pin of our collars, which is very very dangerous. The other side of the draw has been very competitive and that really stands to you.

"I remember in '05 a similar scenario where we kind of really coasted to a final and got caught for intensity on the day against Tyrone. So we're delighted that Mayo really really tested us in lots of different ways, particularly physically.

"They hit us harder now than we've been hit in a while. But that's good for us."

O'Connor's brazen 52nd-minute Hill end goal offered Mayo a glimpse of the Pearly Gates and three times between the 61st and 65th minutes, Brendan Kealy's net did look vulnerable. The wonderful Donal Vaughan skimmed the crossbar; Aidan O'Shea's implausibly bullocking run drew a fine block from Eoin Brosnan; Andy Moran struck an upright.

Yet, O'Connor's goal had prefaced the perfect grace note. And who would you think delivered it?

As Darran O'Sullivan's delivery dropped towards the Mayo square, Gooch looked fourth favourite of the four beneath it. But Hennelly and Tom Cunniffe collided and suddenly there he was, arcing away from goal in possession, a quick shiver splitting through every Mayo man and woman in the building.

Genius locates space in the most claustrophobic of places and, sure enough, Gooch found his, banked to the left and, mercifully, killed no human with his thunderbolt. Breath-taking.

So, the world was a blaze of superlatives after, Cooper described by Pat Spillane as "the greatest footballer of all time", a view that triggered no challenge from Colm O'Rourke or Joe Brolly. In the press eyrie, a fresh audit of his greatness had lap-tops emitting smoke.

There are images that we return to, season after season. Kerry back in the All-Ireland final, Gooch playing football that is a lyric. It is as if he keeps these performances stored in a drawer at home.

"Yerrah, we might take a ramble up alright," said O'Connor of next week's second semi-final. "We'd feel we'll have to improve again because I don't think we'd live with either Dublin or Donegal on their last performances."

They might not have to if Gooch chooses the day as his.

Irish Independent

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