Kerry's rescue package yields rich dividend against Mayo
Kerry 1-16 Mayo 1-16 (All-Ireland SFC Semi-Final)
The trains didn't run from Kerry or Mayo yesterday but their footballers still managed to stay on track for an All-Ireland final date after each appeared to have been derailed at various stages in Croke Park yesterday.
The journey had so many twists and turns, none more dramatic than Kerry's remarkable recovery in the closing minutes, that a draw was a wholly appropriate outcome to a game, which packed most of the best-quality action into the second half.
If Mayo were told at half-time that they would emerge with a draw, they would have happily grabbed it after losing Lee Keegan on a straight red card two minutes before the break, at a time when the momentum was very much against them.
They trailed by four points at the interval (0-9 to 0-5), leaving them facing the ultimate test of character as they headed into a second half, knowing that it could define their season and possibly even their careers.
In fairness, their response was magnificent. Summoning on every emotion, they gradually shaped the game to their liking, imposing their style and structure on proceedings to such a degree that it made Kerry look very much like the team who were a man down.
Kerry had started the second half with a point from James O'Donoghue to stretch the led to five points before Mayo produced a brilliant half-hour's football.
Dominant all over the field, they out-scored Kerry by 1-11 to 0-4 to open up a five-point lead after 66 minutes. With the hard work done, they seemed certain to close out the tie and book a third successive All-Ireland final appearance, but all changed on the frantic run-in.
Bryan Sheehan's pointed free looked no more than a token gesture of defiance, since it was clear that Kerry needed a goal to give themselves any chance of rescuing the situation.
They had some a few goal chances earlier on, but took none of them so where was the big breakthrough going to come from in the closing minutes?
It arrived off an old-fashioned Route One approach, when midfielder, David Moran, one of Kerry's better players all afternoon, lobbed the ball into the Mayo square where sub Kieran Donaghy revived memories of his best days with an excellent catch.
Ace poacher, O'Donoghue, who found Keith Higgins a tougher opponent than anyone else he encountered in the championship, was still on opportunist alert and after taking a pass from Donaghy he blasted the ball to the net in the 68th minute
Tom Cunniffe missed a good chance to put Mayo two points clear, which became all the more significant when Kieran O'Leary, another Kerry sub. kicked the equalising point in the 72nd minute.
O'Donoghue and Sheehan had late chances to win it for Kerry but the former shot wide, while the latter was short with a 60-metre free, leaving it all square and the first semi-final to finish level since Cork v Kerry in 2008.
While delighted to have got a second chance, Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice wondered afterwards why such late dramatics were necessary for Kerry.
It was a fair question in a game where they dominated the second quarter before being handed a massive advantage when Keegan was dismissed.
The look on Keegan's face when referee David Coldrick waved him off pointed to a man who was utterly stunned by the decision, but he actually could have no complaints.
For while his boot didn't make contact with Johnny Buckley as he tried to make space to take a quick free, it was still deemed a kick, an offence which carries a red-card sanction.
Losing Keegan looked as if it might be the ultimate game-wrecker for Mayo. Not only were they facing a sizeable deficit with depleted forces, they were also without the attacking impetus, which is such an impressive feature of Keegan's game.
In the circumstances, their second-half performance was quite remarkable, proving beyond doubt that their determination levels remain very much intact.
After the disappointment of losing the last two All-Ireland finals, they might well have seen Keegan's dismissal, coupled with a five-point deficit, as a sign that the gods had turned on them with malicious intent.
Instead, they viewed it as just another challenge to be taken on with as much courage and perseverance as they could muster.
The reward for their endeavours was a period when they played possibly the best football by any side in this year's championship.
Aidan O'Shea, Cillian O'Connor, Alan Dillon, Colm Boyle, Donal Vaughan and sub Andy Moran led the recovery trail, taking their colleagues with them on an adventure which yielded a torrent of thrills.
Some of Mayo's point-taking was of the highest order as they systematically reeled in a Kerry team that grew increasingly dishevelled under the intense pressure.
It was level in the 58th minute when Vaughan's galloping run through the centre took him into the Kerry square, where he was grounded by a despairing challenge from Peter Crowley.
O'Connor's spot kick whizzed high into the net, giving Mayo the lead for the first time since the early minutes,
With their confidence soaring, Mayo pressed on, extending their lead to five points, before being hit with Kerry's late rally.
The team that grabs the equalising score usually claims to have the psychological edge for the replay but, in this instance, Kerry won't find it easy to sustain that argument.
Granted, they showed commendable resilience in the final few minutes and will also enjoy reviewing the final ten minutes of the first half, during which they outscored Mayo by 0-5 to 0-1.
However, having worked so constructively to put themselves in such an advantageous position before being handed the bonus of Keegan's dismissal, they fell apart quite easily once Mayo took the game to them.
Mayo's tactic of hoisting long deliveries into the full-forward line yielded a poor harvest in the first half, but it was all so different in the second half when they began to run at Kerry.
They regularly broke the first tackle, setting off alarm bells in the Kerry defence, and once they found the range, the points followed in a consistent flow.
It wasn't that Kerry didn't have some good chances during Mayo's good spell. Indeed, Kerry should have had goal in the 52nd minute but O'Donoghue fired over the bar. However, he later made amends with the game-saving goal.
Scorers - Kerry: J O'Donoghue 1-3, D Walsh, D Moran 0-2 each, P Geaney (f), S O'Brien, J Buckley, M Geaney, F Fitzgerald, P Murphy, P Crowley, K O'Leary, B Sheehan (f) 0-1 each.
Mayo: C O'Connor 1-8 (1-0 pen, 5fs), A Dillon 0-3, A Moran 0-2, J Doherty, L Keegan, C Boyle 0-1 each.
Kerry - B Kelly 7; M O Se 7, A O'Mahony 6, S Enright 7; P Murphy 7, P Crowley 8, F Fitzgerald 7; A Maher 6, D Moran 8; M Geaney 7, J Buckley 7, D Walsh 8; S O'Brien 6, P Geaney 7, J O'Donoghue 8. Subs: Declan O'Sullivan 7 for O'Brien (20)), B Sheehan 7 for M Geaney (43), K Young 6 for O'Mahony (51), K Donaghy 7 for Maher (59), BJ Keane for Buckley (63), K O'Leary for Walsh (67).
Mayo - R Hennelly 7; K Higgins 7, G Cafferkey 6, T Cunniffe 7; L Keegan 5, D Vaughan 8, C Boyle 8; J Gibbons 5, S O'Shea 7; K McLoughlin 6, A Freeman 7, J Doherty 6; C O'Connor 9, A O'Shea 8, A Dillon 8. Subs: T Parsons 6 for Gibbons (ht), A Moran 7 for Freeman (48), M Conroy 6 for Doherty (54), M Sweeney for Dillon (63), K Keane for Cafferkey (70)
Ref - D Coldrick (Meath)