'There is a responsibility in playing for Mayo' - Stephen Rochford hails Mayo's pride as they weather storm in Kerry
Mayo 0-15 Kerry 1-10
The everlasting tightrope that Mayo football appears to tread has stabilised again. After a poor opening round defeat to Monaghan at home last weekend, the chorus to dismiss them, in a broader context, grew louder.
After 30 minutes in Austin Stack Park, Tralee, when Barry John Keane reacted to hook on to David Clarke's punched clearance and give Kerry a six-point lead (1-7 to 0-4), the basis for such a critique was gaining some traction. They were all at sea at that stage.
The home side lost James O'Donoghue before the throw-in to a slight hamstring injury that wasn't being risked. Paul Geaney withdrew with a similar ailment after only 19 minutes, before Killian Young's departure through injury eight minutes later.
However, it wouldn't be an exaggeration to suggest that their lead could have been in double digits as the half closed out, after they created a host of goal chances.
Adrian Spillane hit an upright, Keane batted over a point when he should have goaled, David Moran had a penalty saved brilliantly by David Clarke and Jack Barry, the hugely promising midfielder, steamed through for two points, both of which could be classed as goal opportunities.
Mayo's grizzled warriors just couldn't live with the pace Kerry's young tyros were operating at.
Paul Murphy pulled the strings at centre-forward, from where his kick-passing was a joy; Jack Savage bobbed and weaved inside and Mayo, curiously, couldn't lay a glove on Barry at midfield.
With Young and Peter Crowley pouring through from defence and Tadhg Morley hoovering up everything, Kerry looked compact and assured for much of the half, even if the scoreboard didn't reflect it.
Eventually, though, the weight of the absentees told and as the pace slowed and a more physical battle developed, Mayo enjoyed these terms of engagement and the greater frequency of contact that came with it.
In the end, they might reflect on a scoreboard that didn't do them justice in the second-half, with goal opportunities for Conor O'Shea and Jason Doherty spurned - though in Doherty's case Kerry defender Ronan Shanahan showed bravery to prevent his effort hitting the net.
The win will be therapeutic for Mayo, leaving Kerry still without a February home league win in this decade.
Asked afterwards if it would ease the pressure, manager Stephen Rochford replied that it would "make the journey home a little bit easier".
However, after the fallout from the All-Ireland final defeat and the interview conducted by previous joint-managers Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly, this was early public assurance that Mayo's will still remains unwavering. Those among the 8,991 crowd who had travelled from Mayo let their feelings of approval known quite vocally afterwards.
"We're in better shape than we were this time 12 months ago, what's not reflecting that is consistent performance levels," Rochford added.
Mayo's management earn credit for fixing the problems of the first-half. Stephen Coen took a more central role as Barry flagged, specialist corner-back Eoin O'Donoghue came in to release Paddy Durcan further forward and with Tom Parsons also pushing up, Mayo had a different shape after the break when they chased down a 1-7 to 0-6 interval deficit.
Andy Moran earthed them at all times from full-forward, showing great enthusiasm to be consistently out in front of his marker Mark Griffin. He scored three points and won four frees, three of which Cillian O'Connor converted.
It was a mixed evening for O'Connor, who dropped two close-range frees short and missed another effort in the second-half, but he still converted nine, on top of a decent contribution from play.
Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice felt, however, that Griffin was sometimes harshly treated.
"I thought in the first-half there were a couple of very harsh calls on Mark coming out with the ball," he said.
"He was being pulled and there was frees for over-carrying given against him, whereas on the other side it was very hard to get those frees."
Mayo outscored Kerry by 0-11 to 0-3 after Keane's 26th minute goal and Rochford wasn't surprised at the strength of the finish.
"Maybe we have just done a little more work, I'm not sure. But we were certainly able to finish strongly and that's something we expected.
"We couldn't play any poorer than we played in the first-half. One thing about the group, they have a lot of pride, they understand the responsibility they have playing for Mayo. That performance in the first-half was very 'stand-offish', it was everything we hadn't asked for."
There was, Rochford acknowledged, no sense of alarm after last weekend.
"It was irrelevant as to what the year will play out like. We still have a lot of improving to do and there will be plenty to critique us on," he said.
Fitzmaurice pointed to a lack of leadership within the team as big figures dropped out.
"The balance of experienced players to inexperienced players certainly got stacked towards the latter in the second-half and that can happen. You're playing a very battle-hardened outfit."
As that battle intensified, the cards accumulated - 10 yellows (seven for Mayo), black cards for Mayo's Evan Regan and Kerry's Jonathan Lyne and Jason Foley and a late straight red for Tom Parsons after an altercation.
For the second successive league tie Kerry didn't score for the last 15 minutes, inclusive of added time, and they gave O'Connor 12 attempts to convert frees. Ref Padraig Hughes may have been too intolerant of the contact in a few cases, but that's a lot of clumsy, panicked tackling for Kerry to ponder.
"Conor McManus is coming to town in two weeks and he's very accurate, so we'll have to be more disciplined," said Fitzmaurice.
However, the potential in so many players is obvious and the return of more established players is imminent. Dr Crokes' advancement to an All-Ireland club final increases the prospect of Colm Cooper staying on as well.
"It brings him to the middle of March, which shortens the gap to the summer, which is no bad thing," added Fitzmaurice.
Scorers - Mayo: C O'Connor 0-9(9fs), A Moran 0-3, C O'Shea, T Parsons, K McLoughlin all 0-1 each.
Kerry: BJ Keane 1-3, J Barry, P Geaney (2fs) 0-2 each, J Savage, P Murphy, C Geaney 0-1 each.
Mayo: D Clarke 8; P Durcan 7, K Higgins 7, D Newcombe 6; S Coen 7, C Boyle 7, D Drake 5; T Parsons 7, D Vaughan 6; F Boland 6, C O'Connor 7, C O'Shea 6; K McLoughlin 6, A Moran 8, J Doherty 5. Subs: E O'Donoghue 6 for Drake (33), D O'Connor 6 for Boland (46), S Nally 6 for Vaughan (50), E Regan for Doherty (58), M Plunkett for Regan BC (69), D Kirby for O'Shea (70).
Kerry: B Kelly 7; R Shanahan 7, M Griffin 5, K Young 6; J Lyne 6, P Crowley 7, T Morley 7; D Moran 6, J Barry 8; A Spillane 6, P Murphy 7, D Walsh 6; J Savage 7, P Geaney 5, C Keane 5. Subs: BJ Keane 8 for Geaney inj (14), T O'Sullivan 6 for Young inj (27), C Geaney 6 for C Keane (49), M Geaney 5 for Spillane (50), J Foley for Shanahan inj (57), Barry O'Sullivan for Lyne BC (60). Foley BC (67).
Ref: P Hughes (Armagh)