Brendan O’Brien, St Tiernach’s Park
Kerry’s interest in this year’s All-Ireland football championship hangs by the slimmest of threads after an injury-time goal from David Clifford thieved the most dramatic of draws for Eamonn Fitzmaurice’s side in Clones.
And thievery it was.
The Munster champions looked dead and buried. Trailing Monaghan since the opening act, they were four points adrift as the clock struck red and second-best for vast chunks of the game before Anthony Maher set up the unlikeliest of stalemates with a point.
Clifford’s goal was the result of a Hail Mary punt in by James O’Donoghue and it was to Kerry’s enormous good fortune that the loose ball fell to a man of Clifford’s class. His calm finish defied the madness and fever of everything around him.
And from a tight angle too.
It was the roughest of justice on Monaghan who were excellent throughout. They go to Salthill to face Galway now in a fortnight’s time while Kerry will look to do their part of the deal by accounting for Kildare in Killarney.
If nothing else, the last round of the inaugural Super 8s has been rescued from irrelevance.
Kerry couldn’t have imagined a worse start. The last strands of the national anthem weren’t long past when Kieran Duffy looked up and launched a huge and accurate ball in on top of Ciaran McManus who had only Mark Griffin for company.
Griffin knew he was in trouble when the ball was still in the air and his attempt to recover the ground between him and his marker only resulted in a slip that allowed the Monaghan forward all the time in the world to find the net.
McManus was the last man who needed such time.
The Clontibret forward would add another five points before the interval, three of them from play, with Griffin left to fend for himself throughout by a Kerry management team that had plenty of headaches elsewhere.
Swamped for long spells in midfield, they were at sixes and sevens up front as well and clearly nervous all over the field. It was no surprise when Kieran Donaghy ambled back from full-forward to midfield to help them stake a claim in the game.
Monaghan weren’t perfect either. They kicked a horrid succession of woeful wides in their eagerness to build on their superiority but they were clearly the better team and one playing with a much greater clarity as to what they needed to do and how.
McManus was sublime. He kicked points while hounded by a bunch of opponents, he kicked one on the back of a gut-busting run from deep and he kicked another over his shoulder. He kicked one wide, too, mind but leaving Griff on him so long was perplexing.
Kerry survived on a diet of Sean O’Shea frees with the youngster landing six in the first period, not to mention a ‘45’ and another from play, but his dead ball efforts were completely overshadowed by Rory Beggan.
The Monaghan goalkeeper landed three monster kicks from the ground, the longest of them touching close to 60m out, and it all added up to a frustrating experience for a Kerry side that just couldn’t reel in their hosts.
The closest they got before the change of ends was two points but the gap was twice that at the interval and you wouldn’t have begrudged the Ulster side every bit of it. An intriguing second-half awaited.
Kerry started it well enough in claiming the opening three points and bringing an intensity to the table that caused Monaghan problems but, as it turned out, nothing that they weren’t able to adapt to and counter.
McManus was now being marked by Ronan Shanahan but his impact on the game was much the same. Constantly out in front of his man, he was a terror to the Kerry rearguard all day, whether as a link man or the executioner-in-chief.
If he was the standout then Monaghan were much the better as a collective again. They found space and scores easier to fashion and a run of four from five points recorded midway through the second-half left them with another five-point cushion.
They looked home and hosed, only for Clifford to rain on their parade.
Scorers for Monaghan: C McManus (1-9, 0-5 frees); R Beggan (0-4 frees); K O’Connell (0-2); D Hughes, S Carey (both 0-1).
Scorers for Kerry: D Clifford (1-3); S O’Shea (0-8, 6 frees and 1 ‘45’);T O’Sullivan (0-2); P Murphy, D Moran and A Maher (all 0-1); S O’Brien (0-1 free).
Monaghan: R Beggan; K Duffy, K O’Connell, R Wylie; D Wylie, V Corey, C Walshe; N Kearns, D Hughes; R McAnespie, D Malone, S Carey; F Kelly, C McManus, C McCarthy. Subs: K Hughes for McCarthy (42); O Duffy for Carey (62); D Mone for Kelly (68); P Geaney for T O’Sullivan (72).
Kerry: B Kelly; R Shanahan, M Griffin, T O’Sullivan; P Murphy, P Crowley, G White; D Moran, K Donaghy; K McCarthy, J Barry, S O’Shea; D Clifford, P Geaney, D Clifford. Subs: M Burns for McCarthy (HT); J O’Donoghue for Geaney (49); B O Beaglaoich for Griffin (50); D O’Sullivan for O’Shea (54); F Fitzgerald for White (56-58); A Maher for Barry (63).
Referee: M Deegan (Laois).