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End of a Kerry era

SIX years ago I did my utmost to convince a Limerick football team that the sands of time were running out for this Kerry side.

As with all great champions they had picked up wounds and cuts in every campaign and I felt they were at their most vulnerable when we met in the Munster championship.

Yet the Kingdom found a way to prevail and went onto claim the ultimate honours four times since – 2004, 2006, 2007, 2009.

This year, however, a combination of retirements, Tadhg Kennelly’s return to Australia along with the high profile suspensions of Tomás O Sé and Paul Galvin, proved the undoing of Jack O’Connor’s men.

The perceived wisdom prior to this contest was that the draw had been kind to Kerry. While they were vulnerable, the attitude was that Down would not be good enough to take advantage of the Kingdom’s woes.

It took Down less than a minute to prove that theory wrong as Mark Poland hared past Tom O’Sullivan to plan the ball in the the Kerry net. This early cameo was a sign of things to come with the young Down players – and their forwards in particular – sharper, hungrier and faster to the ball than their older opponents.

Bryan Sheehan’s opening point after 14 minutes heralded Kerry’s best period of the game as they proceeded to win the next seven Down kickouts in-a-row following good work by Micheal Quirke under the dropping ball and Mike McCarthy under breaks to gain a foothold in the middle third. Inside them Colm Copper had the beating of Damien Rafferty and proved the point by helping himself to three points in that period. However, Dan Gordon comfortably coped with the threat of Kieran Donaghy while his defensive colleagues were also in the ascendency with centre-back Kevin McKernan becoming more and more influential as the game progressed.

When referee Joe McQuillan controversially disallowed Killian Young’s well-worked goal it galvanised Down and good work by Ambrose Rodgers and midfield partner Kalum King in the last ten minutes of the half resulted in them wrestling back control of the engine room.

Their forwards, with more possession, continued to torment the Kerry defence with Paul McComiskey, Poland and Martin Clarke combining to push Down into a six point lead at half time.

Kerry were now on the ropes and looking for inspiration from somewhere. But, Colm Copper aside, there was none available and, to compound matters, they were further wounded by the dismissal of Donnacha Walsh for a second yellow card in the 44th minute.

The midfield area was haemorrhaging badly, both starting midfielders were replaced by the 45th minute and Donaghy had been relocated there to little effect. Down took full advantage to add a further nine points, eight from play and could afford the luxury of a disallowed goal, another controversial decision.

To their credit, Kerry battled to the end and it took two great saves from Brendan McVeigh to deny Donaghy on both occasions after the genius of Cooper had created the openings.

Ironically, it was one of Down’s veterans, Benny Coulter, who applied the coup de grace with two sublime finishes in the final stages.

So where does this result leave Kerry’s veterans? Men like Tommy Griffin, Tom O’Sullivan and Mike McCarthy have given many fine performances at Croke Park, but on Saturday they met faster, younger and hungrier opponents and struggled to keep pace.

Other veterans such as Micheal Quirke, Seamus Scanlan, Aidan O’Mahony, Tomas O Sé and Paul Galvin have nothing left to prove and will find it hard to contemplate a rebuilding process.

When you add these players to the five that retired last year it becomes clear that finally, six years after my proclamation, the sands of time for this great Kerry squad can indeed no longer be held back.

When one considers that the team that has shared the last seven All-Irelands with Kerry, Tyrone, were also defeated by Dublin, one would be forgiven for thinking that a seismic shift in the gaelic football landscape occurred.