Whatever this game was, it wasn’t last year’s All-Ireland final.
Sure it was tactical and at times both sides got numbers behind the ball and they played conservatively when required.
But there was more of the traditional elements prevalent in this game at a time when football seemed to have further turned its back on its roots.
Two of the finest exponents of full-forward play around – Michael Murphy and Kieran Donaghy – spent most of their time there.
And in the end, it was a happy homecoming from Donaghy in his first game as Kerry captain on his own patch.
With the Kingdom two points up and a Donegal free dropping in around the square late in injury time, Donaghy rose highest to claim it and referee Rory Hickey called time.
Hickey left the field to a chorus of boos that was hardly merited in a game that simmered with tension at times without ever boiling over.
Afterwards, Eamonn Fitzmaurice reflected that his side had been more focused than a week ago when they lost heavily in Cork and they seemed to have a slight edge for most of this game.
Donegal grabbed the only goal of the first half when Murphy gathered an angled delivery that dropped on the square. Some slick Donegal hands eventually found Ryan McHugh’s intelligent run.
The Kilcar youngster had started the move 60 metres down field and he got on the end of the final pass from Martin O’Reilly to calmly slot past Brendan Kealy after 11 minutes.
That score handed them the lead briefly but Kerry, who were playing against the wind, were moving nicely in attack.
Bryan Sheehan was showing his full array of dead-ball skills, stroking over from a variety of angles and distances.
The St Mary’s man also managed two from play and had amassed six points by the break. He didn’t re-emerge for the second half with a rib complaint that Kerry will have assessed later today.
By the short whistle, they held a 0-9 to 1-5 advantage after Donegal had ended a 13-minute scoreless period with two late scores. The visitors came out strong on the restart.
They hit three points in as many minutes to take charge but Barry John Keane bundled the ball to the net to take the wind from their sails. Keane had missed three very kickable chances before that but he was in the right place to punch home ten minutes into the second half.
Both sides then made a number of changes which saw the game lose its shape. Tommy Walsh was introduced and stationed at full-forward alongside Donaghy but still scores were hard to come by for both sides.
Killian Young pulled a goal-bound effort just wide before the excellent Johnny Buckley landed a fine point to make it 1-12 to 1-10.
It stayed that way for almost ten minutes and Donegal manufactured chances to take the lead. However, Mark McHugh, Colm McFadden and Christy Toye all miscued and with that it seemed their last chance was gone.
At the other end, Kerry won a penalty when Eamonn McGee fouled Paul O’Donoghue after a scrappy passage of play.
David Moran, who had ruled midfield all afternoon, took the responsibility and lashed to the net. That put the home side 2-12 to 1-10 up with just five minutes left to play. Stephen O’Brien stretched the gap to six before McBrearty replied with his fourth of the afternoon and end a 14-minute scoreless period.
There was time for a late Donegal penalty that Murphy converted to put two between the sides. From there, Kerry played keep-ball in a bid to run down the clock and having been close to the Donegal 45-metre line they eventually worked possession all the way back to goalkeeper Kealy.
Donegal’s last chance came with a hopeful free that dropped in around the square.
Donaghy rose highest to complete Kerry’s redemption from last week’s defeat to Cork while Donegal are now nervously looking over their shoulders.
“I think everyone upped their game from myself in the management down to the players who upped their game,” reflected Kerry manager Fitzmaurice, whose side welcome Monaghan in two weeks’ time. “We were disappointed with last weekend and we weren’t too happy on Monday morning when we woke up. We trained twice this week and had two good sessions and we were a good bit more tuned in.
“We knew Donegal were going to be very motivated coming down and difficult to beat and we were desperate to get those two points on the board. We’re delighted it worked out that way.”
Fitzmaurice was also pleased with his side’s haul of 2-13 against a Donegal side that seemed more attack-minded than they have shown at times in the past.
“I think they do that a lot of the time. They are very capable. In the All-Ireland final when Kieran got the goal they really came after us and they got back level and we got a few points after that.
“They have a lot of very good players. Obviously they put a lot of emphasis on their system, but when they are in possession they are very effective.”
“We got better performances from players and unless you’re getting that from most of the players on the field you are not going to win games.
“Last weekend we didn’t. Cork were a good bit better than us. They were better in everything they did. They were more up for the game. Their attitude was better. But this weekend we were more focused and that helped our performance.”
Donegal manager Rory Gallagher agreed that his side hit wides at crucial times but admitted Kerry were the better side throughout.
“I think we had three wides and all from very scoreable positions and one of them possibly Mark could have looked to continue on from where I was looking.
“And then we had a wee bit of bad luck with the ball coming off the post (before the penalty). But look these things happen, Kerry were clinical and didn’t miss their chances; they deserved it then.”
Gallagher’s side welcome Tyrone to Donegal next and with both sides on four points, he knows a win is vital if they are to stay up.
“It was always going to be tight, it’s the nature of the division,” he said. “It doesn’t look like six points is going to keep anyone safe this year so you will possibly need seven or eight. So we need to get a win the next day out.”
Man of the Match: David Moran
Scorers – Kerry: B Sheehan 0-6 (3f, 1 ’45), D Moran (1-0 pen), BJ Keane 1-1 each, P Murphy, J Buckley, S O’Brien, P Geaney, A Fitzgerald 0-1 each. Donegal: M Murphy 1-3 (1-0 pen, 2f, 1 ’45), P McBrearty 0-4, R McHugh 1-0, H McFadden, C McFadden, N Gallagher, M McElhinney 0-1 each
KERRY – B Kealy 7; P Kilkenny 6, M Griffin 8, P Murphy 7; J Lyne 6, P Crowley 7, K Young 7; A Maher 8, D Moran 9; S O’Brien 7, B Sheehan 8, J Buckley 8; P Geaney 6, K Donaghy 7, BJ Keane 7. Subs: A Fitzgerald 7 for Sheehan (h-t), S Enright 7 for Kilkenny (47), T Walsh 6 for Geaney (55), P O’Donoghue 6 for Keane (58), F Fitzgerald for Crowley (66), K O’Leary (68).
DONEGAL – P Durcan 7; N McGee 7, E McGee 7, P McGrath 7; K Lacey 6, R McHugh 8, E Doherty 6; H McFadden 7, N Gallagher 7; C Toye 7, M McHugh 7, M McElhinney 7; M O’Reilly 6; P McBrearty 8, M Murphy 7. Subs: C McFadden 6 for McElhinney (h-t), A Thompson 6 for Doherty (56), E McHugh for O’Reilly (66), G McFadden for Toye (69), D McLaughlin for M McHugh (72).
Ref – R Hickey (Clare)