Tuesday 20 August 2019

Ruthless O'Shea exposes Royals to book Kerry's semi-final spot

Kerry 2-18 Meath 1-13

Tom O’Sullivan gets his shot away under pressure from the Meath defence in Páirc Tailteann last night. Photo: Sportsfile
Tom O’Sullivan gets his shot away under pressure from the Meath defence in Páirc Tailteann last night. Photo: Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

Kerry hadn't been in Navan for a competitive fixture since November, 1996, when they lost to a Meath team depleted by suspensions after their All-Ireland final brawl with Mayo two months earlier.

Meath don't have the same quality now, but yesterday they fought courageously and made a game of it for an hour before Kerry eased into the clear late on.

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Kerry's Paul Geaney of Kerry keeps possession from Meath's Conor McGill. Photo: Sportsfile
Kerry's Paul Geaney of Kerry keeps possession from Meath's Conor McGill. Photo: Sportsfile

The Munster champions topped their group and join Mayo in next weekend's semi-finals. The expectation will be that they'll also have avoided Dublin, who are favourites to top Group 2 ahead of their match with Tyrone in Omagh today. Kerry completed their round-robin games undefeated, without ever hitting the high notes before a crowd of over 9,000.

They lined out without David Clifford, who appeared to be carrying an injury when he walked out on the pitch before the game, and they lost Stephen O'Brien to a black card in the second half. Sean O'Shea took over in Clifford's absence with an exceptional performance, shooting 1-8. His 42nd-minute goal came when the teams were level on 1-10 apiece, a thunderous finish from an angled position after he slipped past Gavin McCoy when taking Paul Murphy's kick pass. The unfortunate McCoy lost his footing, leaving an open run for O'Shea but the finish was ruthless and sublime.

From there Meath would score just three more points, Kerry adding eight points on to O'Shea's goal, but they were still only three clear when Bryan McMahon scored his third point near the hour mark. Over the last ten minutes of normal time and six additional minutes for stoppages, Meath tired and were outscored 0-6 to 0-1. O'Shea had four of those, including a beautifully struck '45.

In the earlier rounds Meath were competitive before fading in the final stretch and this, their eighth game in the championship, followed a similar pattern although they stayed longer in contention. They signed off on a good season that brought promotion to Division 1 of the National League, where they will face a stern examination of their credentials next spring.

Kerry's Seán O'Shea celebrates scoring his side's second goal. Photo: Sportsfile
Kerry's Seán O'Shea celebrates scoring his side's second goal. Photo: Sportsfile

Qualifying for the Super 8, and a first Leinster final in five years, were also undeniable marks of progress. The experience of playing this kind of opposition in the Super 8 will be invaluable to them ahead of next season's challenges.

Kerry weren't at their best but much of that was down to Meath's spirit and tenacity. The visitors had another fine contribution from Killian Spillane, who kicked three points from play, and David Moran kicked two on his return to the team after injury. His midfield partner Adrian Spillane was taken off 11 minutes into the second half and Kerry's middle sector remains unsettled heading into next weekend's semi-final.

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Kerry's return to Croke Park next Sunday will demand a much improved display but they are in a far better place 12 months on. Last year their final day in the Super 8s brought a win over Kildare in Killarney, but it failed to save them from elimination. It also ended the reign of Eamonn Fitzmaurice and ushered in a new era under Peter Keane. The Kerry manager has done all that has been asked of him so far and will be hoping to have Clifford available when they aim to reach the final on their next day out.

Kerry and Meath hadn't met in the championship since 2009 and the visitors went into the match in the most favourable position of the three remaining contenders for two All-Ireland semi-final spots. But there was still a risk of them not making it if they lost and Donegal won. That, and Meath's resilience, kept the crowd engaged for long spells.

Ultimately Meath were unable to rack up the kind of scoring needed to win a group game. Despite not having a brilliant night, Kerry still managed 2-18, following on from the 1-22 accumulated when defeating Mayo and the 1-20 reached in a thrilling drawn match with Donegal a fortnight ago in Croke Park.

Meath didn't show any inclination to make it easy for them. They were a point down at half-time, well in the match, and Kerry realised they needed to improve.

The Kingdom kicked some glorious points in the first half, two in particular from O'Shea, and should have had a goal when Paul Geaney went around Conor McGill but dragged his shot wide. But they had the ball in the net shortly afterwards, when Kerry turned over Meath as they worked a short kickout and Geaney played in Brian O Beaglaoich who beat the veteran Marcus Brennan in the home team's goal. Sixteen minutes in, the goal left Kerry holding a 1-5 to 0-5 lead.

But Meath were relentless, with Cillian O'Sullivan dropping back and often the architect of attacks, either by running directly or playing astute passes to better placed colleagues. McMahon kicked his second point after a pass from the impressive Thomas O'Reilly and, in the 23rd minute, Meath rocked Kerry with a goal to take the lead.

O'Sullivan made the break and laid the ball wide to Darragh Campion, who showed terrific composure in moving to the right and then sending a low ball back into the empty Kerry goal. O'Shea landed a free to bring the teams level and an inspirational score from Geaney, taking on his marker and shooting high over the bar, extended their lead.

Meath were still a threat. Shane Walsh, who had a fine match, won a ball over Jason Foley and tried to make room for a shot at goal, before settling for a point, with O'Sullivan again the provider with a long delivery. Three points in succession from O'Brien, Tom O'Sullivan and Spillane moved Kerry 1-10 to 1-7 ahead in first-half injury time.

But Meath would not lie down. Walsh scored a fine point after a delightful diagonal ball from O'Sullivan and before the interval whistle, Ethan Devine had another as Meath stormed forward from the Kerry kickout, trailing just 1-9 to 1-10 and leaving to a rousing reception.

Scorers - Kerry: S O'Shea 1-8 (0-4 fs, 0-1 45); B O Beaglaoich 1-1; K Spillane 0-3, P Geaney, D Moran 0-2, T O'Sullivan, S O'Brien 0-1. Meath: S Walsh 0-6 (0-3 fs); D Campion 1-1; B McMahon 0-3; T O'Reilly, E Devine, B Menton 0-1.

Kerry: S Ryan; J Foley, T Morley, T O'Sullivan; P Murphy, G Crowley, B O Beagaoich; D Moran, A Spillane; G White, S O'Shea, M Burns; K Spillane, P Geaney, S O'Brien. Subs: D Moynihan for Burns (32); T Walsh for Crowley (40); S Enright for White (b/c 45); J Sherwood for A Spillane (46); J Lyne for O'Brien (b/c 51); J Barry for K Spillane (67).

Meath: M Brennan; S Lavin, C McGill, S Gallagher; D Keogan, P Harnan, G McCoy; B Fenton, S McEntee; E Devine, B McMahon, D Campion; C O'Sullivan, S Walsh, T O'Reilly. Subs: T McGovern for McEntee (23); R Ryan for McCoy (45); J Conlon for O'Reilly (51); N Kane for McGovern (b/c 54); M Burke for Devine (64); S Tobin for McMahon (66).

Referee: F Kelly (Longford).

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