When Páraic Duffy sat back in his chair and dreamed up the idea of the Super 8s, sun-kissed days like Sunday in Killarney between two evenly matched teams in front of a sell-out crowd must surely have been his wild fantasy.
You could tell by the traffic alone that this was no ordinary game — every known and unknown back-road heading into the tourist capital was stuffed with cars from miles out. There was no escaping the curb-crawling pace and soaring temperatures on the way to Fitzgerald Stadium.
By the time the ball was eventually thrown up, the four midfielders had already packed in a heavy 20-second round of wrestling, like rutting deer who had escaped from the National Park down the road.
You immediately got the impression Kerry wouldn’t be taking a backward step all afternoon.
In the counties’ two previous meetings this season, Mayo did the bullying. They used both their power and experience to good effect and outfought their younger opponents in Tralee and Croke Park.
But physicality is as much about mindset as it is about bulk, and the approach of the home side seemed to be about assuming the role of aggressor. Behind it, Kerry duly stamped their authority on proceedings from the start and had all the dominant personalities throughout.
For some reason, David Moran never seems to be held in the same high regard inside Kerry as he is outside the county. He and Aidan O’Shea banging off each other before the match set the early tone and rules of engagement. O’Shea was doing a bit of a Conor McGregor impression by the end of it; bouncing on his toes, smiling and goading Moran like a prize-fighter waiting for the bell to ring before he’d come out swinging.
That pre-match jostle was about as close as he, or any Mayo player, got to Moran all day.
Kerry supporters are always looking for that perfect specimen — the ideal blend of the footballer, athlete, leader mixed with just the right amount of badness. Your Darragh O’Sé or Brian Fenton type.
On his day, Moran can be every inch as good as the very best the game has to offer and Sunday afternoon was one of those days. Physically, he stood up and established himself as Kerry’s big leader around the field and his kick-passing and high-fielding were gorgeous to watch. He linked the play through lines for the hosts and was a constant outlet for his defenders and provided some brilliant quality ball for his inside men to feed off.
He stood up and showed the way for everybody in a gold jersey. Like it’s been for many of the previous 24 years of an unblemished championship home record, Kerry’s kick-passing was a real feature of the game, with nothing forced or put up for grabs.
Everything was controlled, with lovely dinked ball to the advantage of the forward. Mayo had no answer to the slickness of the ball movement. With the home side pushing their halfbacks into the Mayo half on most of David Clarke’s first-half kick-outs, Kerry suffocated the space, and if it wasn’t a short restart, invariably, it seemed like a gold jersey was coming up with possession from the punted restart.
Crucially, that abundance of possession was put to great use by the hosts. Much like Dublin did against Cork on Saturday evening, Kerry were extremely efficient in their attack, taking all but three scoring chances in that first-half.
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David Clifford reminded everybody what a special talent he is with an absolute masterclass of forward play. None of the Mayo defenders were able to win the battles with their direct opponent, but Clifford in particular gave Brendan Harrison an afternoon he’ll quickly want to forget.
Paul Geaney, Sean O’Shea, and especially Stephen O’Brien all contributed to a ruthless attacking display that sucked the oxygen out of Mayo with their accuracy and work rate.
O’Brien is a great example of a player developing his game over a few years and constantly improving. He’s come along way from when he first came on the inter-county scene, when he’d put his head down and carry down blind alleys routinely.
Paul Geaney’s goal was all about O’Brien’s clever movement to create the space to run into, with a spin move out on the wing, the pace to get away from his man, the decision-making, and timing of the pass. That showed just how much he has evolved as a footballer.
But for all the back-clapping that Kerry will receive for their offensive output, supporters surely left Fitzgerald Stadium equally pleased with their defensive solidity against a Mayo outfit that contains a capable attacking unit, including the newly crowned, all-time top championship scorer.
There was a certain ironic symmetry to the fact Cillian O’Connor broke Gooch’s record only a few hundred yards from his homeplace of Ardshanvooly. Perhaps we’re starting to see Donie Buckley’s imprint on the way this Kerry side defended last weekend, and maybe that’s being unfair on Tommy Griffin, or Peter Keane himself.
Buckley came back to his home county with a big reputation and impressive coaching pedigree. He received much of the credit for turning Mayo into a perennial powerhouse during his time in Connacht and the hope was that his presence could infuse this young Kerry side with a similarly hard defensive edge.
Whatever about Buckley’s role or influence, Kerry delivered their very best collective performance of the year on Sunday and they’ll need plenty more of the same in the coming weeks.
Like most games, it’s difficult to truly assess how much of this performance was down to Kerry brilliance or Mayo simply hitting the wall. Regardless, it was the most accomplished defensive performance the likes of Jason Foley and others have delivered in quite some time. Were Mayo a spent force? Had the few weeks on the qualifier route eventually caught up with them and emptied their tank?
They navigated treacherous waters to get through Down, Armagh, and Galway, and looked like they were finding their flow again. Whatever the reason, they never showed up in Killarney and they’ll need to re-energise quickly, for what is a must-win game next Sunday against Meath in Croke Park.
For Peter Keane and company, the challenge will be to back up this impressive performance against Donegal. That game should provide supporters with a more accurate reflection of exactly where Kerry are at in the grand scheme of things.
Next to Dublin, Donegal have been the most impressive team in the country this championship season and will ask far more searching questions of Kerry than they received from a limp Mayo challenge.
We’ll know more by 6pm next Sunday evening, but whisper it softly for now, Kerry are very much back in the conversation and next weekend will tell us if we should start to say it a little louder or not.