Colm Keys: 'David Clifford a constant source of optimism for Kerry - but return to form of one midfielder just as important'
Killarney on Sunday felt significant for a number of reasons.
Inevitably, the first drops of ink on Mayo's latest obituary were applied but given the pathway that they have over the next three weeks and the way the group might yet pan out, it might be best not to be too premature about that.
Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.
What can be said with some certainty is that Kerry took a sizeable step forward. Beating Mayo, albeit a Mayo team that had been out over the previous three weekends, including two journeys outside the county and had lost some important players to injury on the way, was the first real positive response to a pressure situation that most of these emerging players have experienced.
Collectively the county will feel a weight off their shoulders for that.
Many were involved in a league final win over Dublin in 2017 that brought the champions' 36-match unbeaten run to a halt in 2017, but it was temporary respite from those blue clutches.
Winning by a point in their Tralee league tie with Dublin last February felt like another important milestone. But it was the league, no more than the league in which Mayo inflicted the only wounds on Kerry with regulation and final wins in March.
Still, Kerry could not countenance losing a third time to the same team and especially in Killarney where they the county team had not lost a game in 24 years. Ultimately, they knew they could not be pushed around and had to start earning some interest on the deposits that those five successive All-Ireland minor titles represent.
That interest began to accumulate last year when David Clifford bailed them out in Clones with that late goal, having struck 1-5 against Galway the week before.
But otherwise, it has been slow in coming. Despite all the calls for patience, Kerry have needed development to come at a quicker pace. Easier said than done.
Clifford's talent has to be a constant source of optimism. Once again he had the movement and appearance of a forward who is virtually unmarkable, twisting and turning his body out of trouble and getting shots away accurately that are quicker than the speed of thought of any marker, diminishing the ability to even second-guess. That's an invaluable commodity.
Seanie O'Shea's capacity to withstand the physical scrutiny of Lee Keegan tracking him and checking him until Keegan, on a yellow card, was withdrawn in the 60th minute, presumably to rest his troubled ankle, will have felt like another important box ticked.
Just as Jason Foley and Tom O'Sullivan seeing off Mayo's form forwards, Darren Coen and James Carr. Kerry defenders have not had many one-to-one successes in their biggest games over the last three seasons. Indeed, the overall application of Kerry's defence was the best it has been for some time.
But maybe the most important facet of the Kerry performance was David Moran's midfield dominance, especially in the first half.
It was, arguably, the tonic Kerry needed most, a combative show from a 'fear laidir' and a throwback to 2014 and the earlier part of 2015 when he was the most dominant player in the position in the game. Coming off at the end of All-Ireland quarter-final against Kildare Moran felt like a "footballer of the year" in waiting.
His form dipped after that, however, and he was in Brian Fenton's slipstream for much of the 2015 All-Ireland final.
He did regain some ground on Fenton in the 2016 All-Ireland semi-final and 2017 league final when his late point was effectively the match winner. But that same consistency he had in the middle of the decade just wasn't there.
Last year, he couldn't get much of a foothold either to provide the leadership that younger players required. Neither could Paul Geaney or Paul Murphy in those games against Galway and Monaghan. Instead, that mantle was grasped and provided, brilliantly, by Clifford himself.
With Donnchadh Walsh, Kieran Donaghy, Darran O'Sullivan and Anthony Maher retiring in the off season that requirement for leadership is even greater now.
Kerry used Moran sparingly in the league and it appears, now, to be paying off for them. His catching was magnificent on Sunday, so too was his sweeping in front of his own full-back line to take command of things and dictate play.
Prior to throw in on Sunday he stood his ground with Adrian Spillane as they hopped off Aidan O'Shea and Donal Vaughan with no intervention by referee Sean Hurson. The optics were just as important as the weight of the contact and Kerry were able to take their cue from it.
The energy it generated quickly permeated through the team and the terraces. They became much more proactive than reactive as they had been at the same stage last year.
Dublin have an established leadership axis in Fenton and Ciaran Kilkenny who gauge the temperature of a game, Michael Murphy and Ryan McHugh have that same innate understanding for Donegal as have Mattie Donnelly, Colm Cavanagh and Peter Harte in their triangle of influence.
Moran can be the senior partner with O'Shea to direct matters in a similar manner for Kerry. And if he is, all the relevant parts might just click together quicker than anyone expected.