Smooth take-off for Mayo sees Kerry grounded
Mayo 2-11 Kerry 0-10
It's no consolation for the misery of losing last year's All-Ireland semi-final replay but beating Kerry in Killarney has brought early-season cheer to Mayo as they begin the new campaign under new management.
Joint manager Noel Connelly (he shares the responsibility with Pat Holmes) remarked after a comprehensive win over the All-Ireland champions that it was very important to make a good start, a target easily achieved on a cold, sunny afternoon.
The snow-covered mountains in the background provided a glistening reminder of how far away the big action is but every step is important for Mayo as they continue their drive to end the All-Ireland famine.
Kerry are in different territory as they enjoy their latest term as All-Ireland champions, a status that is not always conducive to early-season heroics. And so it proved in front of a crowd of 8,123.
Kerry led by two points after 19 minutes but that was as good as it got against a Mayo team that were clearly determined to record a fourth successive league win over rivals that broke their hearts in Limerick last August.
Kerry were outscored by 2-10 to 0-7 over the final 50 minutes, a margin that would have been higher if Mayo got a little more precision into their forward play, which was most impressive at various stages.
It was led by Michael Conroy, who came on as a sub for Evan Regan early on. Regan, who had scored Mayo's opening point, sustained a broken collarbone and concussion after a thumping collision with Johnny Buckley and Mark Griffin and was treated on the pitch for several minutes before being taken to hospital.
Questions were later asked when Mayo used seven subs but Connelly explained that Regan's injury also included a gash to the lip, allowing Conroy on under the blood sub rule. Technically, Mayo were correct but it's a rule that needs to be re-examined because it's riven with loopholes.
Regan sustained a serious collarbone injury, yet the fact that he a cut on lip meant that he could be replaced under the blood sub rule, allowing Mayo to make six more replacements.
Conroy's arrival coincided with a Mayo power surge and, by half-time, he had scored 0-3, a hefty contribution to his side's 1-7 to 0-4 lead. The goal came in the 24th minute when Alan Freeman skipped around Mark Griffin before calmly slotting the ball past Brendan Kealy.
Kerry's half-time repair work included sending Tommy Walsh in for Bryan Sheehan at midfield, a switch that improved the supply to the attack. Walsh made a number of fine catches and looked very much like a man who will slot in easily after his AFL adventures. He later switched to full-forward before taking a knock which forced him out late on.
Kerry's best spell came in the opening 15 minutes of the third quarter when they cut the deficit to three points (1-8 to 0-8) but the recovery drive stalled in the 51st minute when Kevin McLoughlin cleverly angled a shot to the top corner of the Kerry net.
Having worked so hard to put themselves in a position to ask really hard questions of Mayo, Kerry were back in serious trouble and never looked like escaping from there on. Their work rate never dropped but it was being carried out at a slower tempo than rivals whose training regime is more advanced.
"I thought we worked hard in parts but that bit of chemistry was missing from our game," said Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice.
Nowhere was that more obvious than in the manner in which they went about getting the ball into scoring zone.
Quick, direct ball can be very effective but it has to be underpinned with accuracy, an area where Kerry fell down yesterday. After an edgy start, Mayo, who wore unfamiliar green and black jerseys, got their defensive alignment right, with Kevin Keane, Keith Higgins and Stephen Coen repeatedly stepping out in front of their opponents to pick up deliveries.
"Kevin Keane did very well. He was strong in the air. We possibly didn't vary it enough, But then we're ring-rusty. That decision-making and chemistry I keep referring to, hopefully we can improve on it," said Fitzmaurice.
Kerry have grown accustomed to slow starts in the league and with an away game against Derry coming up next Sunday, they could easily find themselves with a lot of ground to make up when the action resumes on the first Sunday in March.
Given the spectacular manner in which they turned last season around after a poor league campaign, they won't be unduly concerned by early setbacks but, at the same time, they will be anxious to get momentum going as quickly as possible.
"It's the first game we've lost since last April against Cork in Tralee, so it is disappointing. Mayo were just better than us. You can see they are further ahead; they have a bit more training done than us," said Fitzmaurice. That was fairly evident, but then a good start to the season is vital for Mayo.
"With a new regime coming in - you always want to start with a win. It builds confidence. If we were travelling up the road this evening on the back of a defeat, it would make it hard going in on Tuesday night," said Connelly.
"Now it's that much easier. The lads will take confidence from the win and will be looking forward to next week's game. Tyrone will be coming to Castlebar with a sting in their tails after losing this weekend."
Winning the league has to be very much on Mayo's target list after so many close calls in national finals but Connelly wasn't prepared to look that far ahead.
"Staying in Division 1 is crucial. If we qualify for the play-offs, we'll take it as it comes along," he said.
As for Kerry, Fitzmaurice will be anxious to raise the efficiency levels quickly. He was disappointed at the manner in which they conceded the goals; nor could he be happy with an attack which underperformed.
Man of the Match: Michael Conroy
Scorers - Mayo: M Conroy 0-4, J Doherty 0-3 (1f ), A Freeman, K McLoughlin 1-0 each, S O'Shea, E Regan, D O'Connor, D Vaughan 0-1 each. Kerry: BJ Keane 0-4 (1f), P Geaney(1f), D Moran (1f, 1 '45) 0-2 each, M Geaney, K O'Leary 0-1 each.
Mayo - R Hennelly 7; S Coen 8, K Keane 8, K Higgins 8; L Keegan 7, C Barrett 7, P Durcan 7; S O'Shea 7, D Vaughan 7; K McLoughlin 7, A Gallagher 6, J Doherty 7; E Regan (not on long enough), A Freeman 7, M Ronaldson 8. Subs: M Conroy 9 for Regan (12 blood sub), D O'Connor 7 for Gallagher (44), A O'Shea 8 for Freeman (50), M Sweeney 6 for Conroy (57), C Boyle 6 for Barrett (57), E Varley 6 for Ronaldson (61), B Moran for S O'Shea (67).
Kerry - B Kealy 6; P Kilkenny 6, M Griffin 6, J Sherwood 7; J Lyne 6, F Fitzgerald 6, P Murphy 6; D Moran 8, B Sheehan 5; M Geaney 6, K O'Leary 6, J Buckley 6; S O'Brien 6, P Geaney 6, BJ Keane 6. Subs: T Walsh 7 for Sheehan (h-t), P O'Connor 5 for O'Leary (48), C Keane 5 for Keane (56), J McGuire 5 for P Geaney (60), D Casey for O'Brien (65), A Fitzgerald for Walsh (65).
Ref - M Deegan (Laois)