JACK O’CONNOR’S seeking refuge in the disallowed goal decision served a purpose he certainly hadn’t envisaged – that of highlighting just how tenuous was the thread connecting Kerry with their All-Ireland aspirations.
From the very first minute, the spectre of impending doom hung over the champions. It wasn’t just that Mark Poland picked off a goal after just 49 seconds, but the ease with which it was accomplished: and, all over the country, young followers finally found some relevance in what they had been hearing about Down’s famous swagger.
For a decade and a half, the Mourne swash had been so carefully kept under buckle and key that anyone who hasn’t reached the age of 20 viewed it as it the doting reminiscence of older folk.
But from Poland’s goal onwards, Wee Jamesie’s men played as if to the manor born. They departed Croke Park with a comfortable six-points win – and the sizzle of a burned landscape in their ears. Kerry gone. An era over. A rebuilding phase suddenly shunted to the top of the list of priorities.
Two hours later, Tyrone followed Kerry sheepishly out of the race the pair had threatened to dominate, and, after an afternoon of carnage, the championship looked fresher than gambolling spring lambs.
There was nothing bright and breezy about O’Connor afterwards, though. Throughout his media briefing, he returned time and again – without prompting – to Killian Young’s disallowed goal.
Although O’Connor clearly carried a sense of grievance into the weekend – witness Friday evening’s Fergusonesque TV3 interview – it is possible to understand some of his frustration with Joe McQuillan’s decision to whistle up Donnacha Walsh for an illegal handpass.
Not because Walsh’s strike was definitely legal: television footage failed to confirm an underhand striking action. But O’Connor’s anger stems from the sheer randomness with which the game now treats handpassing: some weeks, a referee blithely overlooks all sorts of breaches.
Indeed, as O’Connor argued on Saturday, there can be wild variations in the same game.
"What did ye think? Would you not say there were 20 of them in the game? It’s fierce disappointing. If you give a referee discretion, pull this one, don’t pull that one, you have anarchy then," he said.
Were there 20? Who’s counting? It is of little consolation to O’Connor that McQuillan balanced the books with a carbon copy clampdown on Benny Coulter’s handpass that led to Paul McComiskey finding the net in the second half.
But, equally, there needs to be some perspective here. Young’s goal, had it been allowed, would have taken Kerry one point clear of Down, having trailed by six after just 10 minutes, but there is no guarantee it would have so energised Kerry as to sweep away the many cobwebs already attaching to their game.
Nor would it have sunk Down without trace, for there was a sense of assurance about their play that suggested this was no smash-and-grab case.
Indeed, their capacity to weather a Kingdom storm was severely tested by the four points on the trot that preceded Kerry’s disallowed goal: Down’s response was to rattle off the next four points to re-establish their six-point lead at the break.
Other goal chances fell Kerry’s way too, and, on a misfiring day, they were unable to strike. On 51 minutes, in the jeer-ridden aftermath of McComiskey’s disallowed goal, Kerry coursed downfield in a rare evocation of that which has made them great. It led to Kieran Donaghy going one-on-one with Brendan McVeigh. The ‘keeper saved. Fourteen minutes later, it was Donaghy versus McVeigh again, and, once more, the net minder emerged triumphant.
O’Connor also sought to cast some suspicion on the fact that McQuillan is a Cavan and Ulster man. Kerry played the final 24 minutes with 14 men, Donnacha Walsh having got a second yellow, and this may have contributed to O’Connor’s general annoyance with the referee.
But place of birth wasn’t his wisest avenue of attack, for a number of reasons.
Firstly, Down did have a goal disallowed too. Secondly, they had every reason to be exasperated just after half-time when the heavily-involved McComiskey, having rounded the Kerry defence, was not allowed to continue his goalward run. Martin Clarke pointed the resultant free, but it could so easily have been a goal.
And, finally, this notion that an Ulster referee would be instinctively filled with a love of his provincial neighbours flies in the face of what we all know about neighbourhood rivalries, anywhere, but particularly those up north.
Kerry, having shipped the loss of four of last year’s team, were unable to handle two more. For all the smoke which has accumulated over the suspensions of Paul Galvin and Tomás O Sé, the bottom line remains that both did the crime – you can finish the rhyme yourself.
Kerry needed all the remaining big guns to perform superbly, and some of the supporting actors to move centre stage. They got few very responses of note.
Declan O’Sullivan found Conor Garvey an uncomfortable shadow no matter where he (O’Sullivan) fetched up. Garvey even trailed Kerry’s would-be playmaker to the edge of the square at the start of the second-half.
Donaghy and Colm Cooper tried hard but the supply was fitful, and, without O’Sullivan creating overlaps, they were rarely able to find the space in which they thrive. Kerry only scored 0-3 from play. You don’t see that every day.
Elsewhere, the entire Kerry defence struggled with a crafty Down attack. It was a stunningly inventive display by Down.
Martin Clarke operated at the heart of the game – and yet, almost inexplicably, at a complete remove. No-one could lay a hand on him.
He remained utterly composed throughout, turning up wherever his services were needed, an interception here, a quick pass there, and three points to keep his team out front.
He had field marshalls at every turn – Coulter, Poland, Danny Hughes, McComiskey, Ambrose Rogers, Kalum King, and a defence which confined Kerry to scraps. And a goalkeeper who will never forget the day he twice denied Star. He was beaten by a late David Moran penalty, but the complexion of his – and Down’s – day had already been established beyond reproof.
Kerry: B Kealy; M O Se, T Griffin, T O'Sullivan; A O'Mahony, M McCarthy, K Young; S Scanlon, M Quirke; Darran O'Sullivan, Declan O'Sullivan, D Walsh; C Cooper, K Donaghy, B Sheehan (capt).
Subs used: D Moran for Quirke (35 mins, inj), BJ Keane for Scanlon (45), K O’Leary for Darran O’Sullivan (49), D Bohan for O’Mahony (55-57, blood sub), D Bohan for Young (59), A Maher for Sheehan (63).
Kerry scorers: C Cooper 0-7 (0-5f), D Moran 1-0 (1-0 pen), B Sheehan 0-3 (0-1f, 0-1 ‘45’).
Down: B McVeigh; D McCartan, D Gordon, D Rafferty; D Rooney, K McKernan, C Garvey; A Rogers (capt), K King; D Hughes, M Poland, P McComiskey; B Coulter, J Clarke, M Clarke.
Subs used: C Maginn for J Clarke (49 mins), R Murtagh for McComiskey (57), P Fitzpatrick for King (68), R Sexton for Poland (70).
Referee: Joe McQuillan (Cavan).
Down scorers: M Poland 1-2 (0-1f), M Clarke 0-4 (0-2f, 0-1 ‘45’), B Coulter 0-3, P McComiskey, A Rogers (0-1 ‘45’) 0-2 each, C Maginn, R Murtagh, P Fitzpatrick 0-1 each.