TONY LEEN: Plenty of f’s and effort in Saturday night slugfest

It didn’t require a trained lip-reader to decipher the sentiments of the Kerry players at the final whistle in Tralee, two words repeated and rhyming with book it.

It’s not like the home side didn’t emerge with positives, but in the metric of these things, the lost opportunity to spike Dublin’s hard-shelled confidence for the next high-stakes duel dilutes them somewhat.

That said, perspective is paramount: Would Éamonn Fitzmaurice prefer to end Dublin’s unbeaten record or the tenancy of Sam Maguire in the capital?

His team selection suggested Fitzmaurice was less interested in aesthetics than he was aiming a blow at the solar plexus of the All-Ireland champions and at several points in both halves, Kerry had Dublin cornered and vulnerable.

A lack of poise in those key moments would be understandable if Kingdom rookies were responsible, but most of the frustrating errors for the Kingdom came from his established seniors — Paul Geaney missing a presentable goal chance and a crucial second-half free, Donnchadh Walsh passing up a scoreable free for an ill-advised quick pass, and Paul Murphy committing an underage error in kicking a free across the pitch in injury time, facilitating the final Dublin equaliser.

There were bad wides and poor shot selections at untimely moments, but against a lesser side than Dublin — 34 not out now — they may not have been as significant. Then again, against a lesser side, the same real-time pressures wouldn’t apply.

The critical moments of poise on display in Tralee came from the visitors — and in such gladiatorial arm-wrestles, poise is the most valuable commodity of all.

After Kevin McCarthy stretched Kerry’s lead to 0-9 to 0-5 after 43 minutes, the home side were held scoreless (with the wind) for almost 20 minutes as Jim Gavin threw his A-listers at the puzzle. Paul Flynn, Kevin McManamon, Eoghan O’Gara, and Cian O’Sullivan torqued the Dubs enough to force a retreating Kerry into persistent fouling, Dean Rock happy to oblige with nine points from frees.

Kerry’s reinforcements were no slouches either, though Darran O’Sullivan’s introduction might have come 10 minutes earlier than it did.

Stephen O’Brien caused Dublin a lot of issues, and Barry John Keane made a scoring contribution, as he always does. Just as well. There’s a fallacy about that Kerry have a battalion of star turns to come back when the U21s have done their business and Dr Crokes have called a halt to their parties.

No such thing. If Colm Cooper decides to polish his medals for the summer — and well he might — and Kieran Donaghy’s roles are bit-part, then maybe Kerry were without three to four championship starters — James O’Donoghue, Johnny Buckley, Brian O Beaglaoich, and perhaps a bolter in Gavin White or Jason Foley.

Gavin says he doesn’t bother with unbeaten records but he’ll delight in the survival instincts and appetite his younger players showed in such a demanding crucible. Conor McHugh kicked two left-footed points and though Niall Scully and Shane Carthy will have better nights with the ball, they’ll profit from the experience.

When Donnchadh Walsh popped over Kerry’s 13th point in the 70th minute, it required two points against the wind in four injury-time minutes to preserve Dublin’s record-equalling run without loss. Rock’s ninth free and a bad Kerry turnover helped level things up.

Over 11,800 spectators ramped the occasion into a fevered Saturday night, and the prospect of a third successive home loss had Kerry aggressive from the get-go, much like they were at home to Donegal at the same venue last season. Flash fires sparked in various areas of the pitch, seldom with the ball in the vicinity.

With four of their six forwards preoccupied with their defensive and spoiling responsibilities, Kerry’s options up top were reliant almost exclusively on Geaney. Seldom has the Dingle man operated without a medalled partner, and usually it’s been of the formidable variety — Gooch, Donaghy, or James O’Donoghue, who missed last night with a calf injury. In the circumstances, Geaney did well with three points from play.

The upside for Kerry’s management is exposure for the likes of Ronan Shanahan, Adrian Spillane, and Kevin McCarthy. But they will go to Cavan next Sunday further depleted, with Shane Enright (hamstring) and Killian Young (groin) victims of Saturday night.

Such is Gavin’s bountiful harvest that he may be able to ease Diarmuid Connolly back into his attacking permutations alongside others held in reserve on Saturday — O’Gara, Brogan, Mannion, Flynn. Advancing to a 35th game unbeaten doesn’t look beyond them with Roscommon coming to Croke Park next Saturday night.

It’ll hardly be as chaotic as Tralee, hence Gavin’s wide-eyed wonder as he surveyed the battlefield afterwards.

Fitzmaurice can’t be too displeased either. His frustration will pass with the hardening grounds


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