After the technicolour madness of the Galway Armagh game that went before it in brilliant sunshine, the skies over Croke Park suitably darkened for the monochromatic mediocrity that followed as Kerry saw off the wilting challenge of Mayo to book the last semi-final spot in two weeks.
That Kerry face Dublin – another of their nemeses of the last decade – won’t trouble them this evening, but Jack O’Connor and his players will surely realise that this performance probably won’t be good enough to beat the Dubs in front of a full house in a fortnight.
But, scratchy and stiff as Kerry were for long tracts of this quarter-final, it was plenty good enough to beat a Mayo team that huffed and puffed but couldn’t muster the intensity or accuracy to blow any house down, let alone Kerry’s.
Kerry did plenty of huffing and puffing of their own, mind. And when Shane Ryan flapped at a dropping ball in the 44th minute, allowing Matthew Ruane tidy up with a point, Mayo were just a point behind, 1-9 to 0-11, there was a sense that the momentum was shifting towards the Connacht county.
They had weathered Aidan O'Shea’s black card eight minutes before half time – and won the period they were down to 14 men by a point. Jordan Flynn’s point had cancelled out Tom O’Sullivan’s fisted effort at the other end, and Mayo were starting to roll. Or so it seemed.
Four minutes after that Ruane score, David Clifford converted a mark, and Kerry won the rest of the game by 0-8 to 0-2.
Mayo limped out of the Championship as meekly as they have done in years. Kerry ambled into the semi-finals with plenty to do and work on. Jack O’Connor will have no axe to grind with that scenario.
It had taken just 20 seconds for Aidan O’Shea to win a free and Cillian O’Connor to convert it to get Mayo off the mark, and for the rest of the first half there was never any more than two points between the teams. The National League final this certainly was not.
It took just two minutes for David Clifford to fully dispel the rumours that he wouldn’t or couldn’t play, the Fossa man winning and converting a mark, but for a while it looked like it might be a pyrrhic point as he struggled with an ankle problem for much of the rest of the half.
We say ‘much’, because among the intermittent hobbling and wincing and medical treatment, Clifford found time, in the 28th minute, to breeze on to Stephen O’Brien’s measured pass and stick the ball high past Rob Hennelly. The goal put Kerry 1-6 to 0-7, only the second time up to then that the margin was more than one point.
Much of the opening period was as much a battle with the greasy conditions as anything, with players struggling to hold their feet and the football, but there was plenty of neat and tidy football played nonetheless.
Aidan O’Shea whipped over a rare Croke Park point off the outside of his boot. Tom O’Sullivan crept forward to kick the first of three points from his corner back station.
Just before that, Paul Geaney dragged his shot wide of Hennelly’s goal when you’d have backed the house on him that he would hit the target.
Oisin Mullin was getting plenty of joy out of marking David Clifford, and Lee Keegan was locking down the older brother, and here and there Mayo were kicking the sort of scores they don’t normally. Case in point was Stephen Coen’s raker off the outside of the boot in the 27th minute.
Hawkeye was as busy as anyone. In the 21st minute it overruled a Dara Moynihan ‘point’ that has been awarded. Five minutes later it gave the ‘Tá’ for a Jack Carney point that confounded the umpires.
The last 10 minutes of the half gave us Clifford’s goal, O’Shea’s black card, a David Moran point under pressure, and a Kevin McLoughlin point that might have been a goal.
It all added up to a 1-7 to 0-9 lead for Kerry at the interval and the anticipation of a second half cracker. It never materialised.
Mayo’s old failing of poor shooting haunted them in the second half – the wides mounted up, the intensity fell away, they began to look like an old and tired team.
Kerry didn’t exactly pull up any trees either, but they didn’t have to. That kind of effort will be needed in a fortnight against a Dublin team that passed a very similar sort of examination from Cork the evening before.
Still, Kerry clocked the kind of score that will win most championship games. Five points from play came from defenders, another two from a rejuvenated Moran at midfield.
It was a day when Paudie Clifford and Diarmuid O’Connor were subdued. Sean O’Shea managed just two points from play, David Clifford no point from play.
It will all play into the idea that Dublin will be favourites when the teams meet in a fortnight – and that will suit Kerry fine.
There will be much speculation, too, on the whereabouts of David Clifford’s right ankle for the next two weeks as well. And that will suit Kerry just fine too.
KERRY: Shane Ryan, Graham O’Sullivan 0-1, Jason Foley, Tom O’Sullivan 0-3, Brian Ó Beaglaoich, Tadhg Morley, Gavin White 0-1, David Moran 0-2, Diarmuid O’Connor, Dara Moynihan, Seán O’Shea 0-3 1f), Stephen O’Brien, Paudie Clifford, David Clifford 1-3 (0-1f, 0-2m), Paul Geaney 0-4 (1m). Subs: Killian Spillane 0-1 for D Moynihan (48), Paul Murphy for B Ó Beagaloich (58), Micheál Burns for S O’Brien (60), Joe O’Connor for D O’Connor (65), Tony Brosnan for D Clifford (67), Gavin Crowley for J Foley (73, temp)
MAYO: Rob Hennelly; Lee Keegan, Oisin Mullin, Enda Hession; Paddy Durcan, Stephen Coen 0-1, Eoghan McLaughlin; Aidan O'Shea 0-1, Matthew Ruane 0-1, Jordan Flynn 0-2, Diarmuid O'Connor, Conor Loftus 0-1, Kevin McLoughlin 0-1, Jack Carney 0-1, Cillian O'Connor 0-3 (2f). Subs: James Carr 0-1 for J Carney (ht), Fergal Boland for C Loftus (52), Aiden Orme for K McLoughlin (58), Padraig O'Hora for Aidan O’Shea (64), Jason Doherty for C O’Connor (70), Paul Towey for A Orme (73, temp)
REFEREE: David Gough (Meath)