Sunday 21 January 2018

Light at end of the tunnel for improved Kingdom

Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Rarely can a routine home league win have been greeted with such relief in Kerry.

To lose a fifth consecutive league game would have been unprecedented and would potentially have elevated a crisis into something more serious that would have tested everyone's patience. For now, though, there is respite.

But if it was a turning point in respect of results after four successive defeats, the performance fell something short of what they were looking for. Kerry still don't have full vision of what's around the corner they are trying to turn.

They enjoyed a little familiar rhythm and welcomed back some important and influential figures.

But after bolting 0-8 to 0-1 clear in the first half with some of the old attacking telepathy they are renowned for, the Kingdom became more reserved and nervy as they edged towards the finish line.

It took the steady hand of substitute Paul Galvin, back for his first Kerry appearance in 2013, to bring some control and direction to their play again after the concession of a goal just after half-time had prodded the lingering doubts once more.

In truth, Kerry should have been much more comfortable. They dominated possession and missed a second-half penalty that Darran O'Sullivan, left-footed in the execution of every other kicking duty, struck wide with his right boot.

"That's to be discussed later on," said his manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice on his kicker's choice of foot with just enough mirth to suggest that he wouldn't be that hard on him.

Had he converted, Fitzmaurice was convinced afterwards that Kerry would have driven on and won well.

"There was probably just a desperation to get the two points and we seemed to retreat into our shell a bit. Missing the penalty was a big moment in the game, if we had got seven points up we'd probably have kicked for home," he suggested.

Instead they fired the ball around as if it was a toxic device in the closing quarter, trying to kill the game by stringing passing moves together backwards and across the field that had no ambition or method. Memories of the 2011 All-Ireland final flooded back.

It was the type of football reflective of a team still very much unsure of themselves.

"The performances have been almost to the point of mystifying, so at least there is something to work forward to," reasoned Fitzmaurice.

"The last couple of weeks it was hard to take anything out of the Dublin and Donegal performances, whereas we won tonight and have two points on the board. There's still loads of stuff to work on. We lost our shape big time in the second half and almost invited Down on to us."

emphasise

Declan O'Sullivan's return only served to emphasise just how important he has been to Kerry over the last decade. They looked a different team in his presence throughout the first half.

Recovered from an injury aggravated against Dublin when he made his previous return, O'Sullivan was always an inside threat that Kerry have been lacking for much of the season, even if everything that he tried didn't quite come off for him.

Alongside Kieran Donaghy and Darran O'Sulivan, it was a full-forward line that rival manager James McCartan knew was a "statement of intent" from the home side.

They gave their outfield players a meaningful point of attack that had been missing in previous games.

With Johnny Buckley and Anthony Maher, also back from injury, dominating midfield and Eoin Brosnan sweeping in from half-forward, not a position he wanted to return to in a Kerry shirt, they controlled the ball throughout the first half.

By the 32nd minute Down had replaced two of their half-backs, Ryan Mallon and Aidan Carr, having lost Daniel McCartan to injury in the warm-up. "Everything that could go wrong did go wrong in the first half. We lost a player in the warm-up, Aidan Carr did pass a fitness test, but probably shouldn't have played," said McCartan.

"Our defensive strategy was thrown into disarray very early in the game.

"We were at sixes and sevens, we knew that the two O'Sullivans were hurting us in the first half, but we couldn't get the extra players there because the guys that we brought in weren't used to the way we were trying to play," he said.

Down have been somewhat unlucky with results against Tyrone and Cork and while their home win over Mayo, whom they haven't lost a Division 1 league match to over the last three seasons, was uplifting, this was much different. It was a largely inept performance that was entirely in keeping with a poor record on the road south over the last three seasons.

With Donal O'Hare, the revelation of their season so far, missing three first-half frees from scoreable distances, Down sensed it wasn't going to be their night, with McCartan acknowledging afterwards that they had "accepted the game was gone" at the interval.

"We're punching with the big boys, we're doing our best, we're fighting and we have another game next Saturday night," conceded McCartan.

Kerry lost Aidan O'Mahony early on with an ankle injury that will keep him out next weekend against Cork, but his replacement Mark Griffin stood up well to the task of tracking Benny Coulter, evidence for Fitzmaurice that the pain being taken to integrate new players may be worth it in the long run.

Marc O Se was tidy and composed, while Brian McGuire, Shane Enright and Dr Crokes' Fionn Fitzgerald were comfortable in everything they did.

Down's goal just after the break from O'Hare once again raised questions about Brendan Kealy's aerial ability as Keith Quinn challenged a dropping Mark Poland ball, but the Mourne men never got real momentum after that.

Accepting such an effort wouldn't be good enough to beat Cork on Sunday next, Fitzmaurice was still entitled to draw positives from the night.

"The results weren't something that were ever high up on my agenda," the manager reflected. "But the performances were disappointing. It's good that it turned tonight."

Man of the match: B McGuire (Kerry)

Scorers – Kerry: J Buckley 0-5 (4f), Declan O'Sullivan 0-3, B McGuire 0-2, J Lyne 0-1. Down: D O'Hare 1-3 (2f), C Harrison, B Coulter 0-1.

Kerry – B Kealy 7; M O Se 8, A O'Mahony, S Enright 8; B McGuire 8, K Young 7, F Fitzgerald 7; A Maher 8, J Buckley 7; J Lyne 7, D Walsh 7, E Brosnan 6; Declan O'Sullivan 8, K Donaghy 7, Darran O'Sullivan 6. Subs: M Griffin 7 for O'Mahony (13), P Galvin 8 for Brosnan (46), K O'Leary 6 for Walsh (56), J O'Donoghue 6 for Declan O'Sullivan (65).

Down – B McVeigh 7; P McComiskey 6, B McArdle 8, R Boyle 7; R Mallon 5, A Carr 5, D McKibbon 6; K King 5, K McKernan 6; C Laverty 5, M Poland 7, K Quinn 6; D O'Hare 6, C Harrison 6, B Coulter 6. Subs: D O'Hagan 6 for Carr (24), D Turley 6 for Mallon (32), A McConville 6 for Harrison (46).

Ref – R Hickey (Clare).

Irish Independent

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