A dramatic Hail Mary kick from James O’Donoghue into a crowded square, a deft Kieran Donaghy touch, and a stunning David Clifford finish rescued a draw for the Kingdom in Clones — and with it their season.
The ball left his right foot and somehow found the far corner of the net through a sea of Monaghan legs and arms.
It was like a golfer pinging a five-iron through the branches of a big tree blocking his way to the green. You kept waiting for it to ricochet off an overhanging limb.
There’s no way it should have got through but Clifford showed incredible composure under the most intense pressure to pick his spot and trust his talent.
At the very end of the previous game against Galway in Croke Park, I was sitting in the half-empty lower Hogan Stand with my family as the game ticked towards its inevitable conclusion. Kerry had failed to show up. They were dead on their feet, and some Kerry supporters wanted their pound of flesh for an inept performance.
One of those supporters, old enough to know better, left his seat to go down and tell Éamonn Fitzmaurice exactly what he thought of him moments before the final whistle.
In a near silent stadium, he gave him a verbal lashing for 30 seconds or more.
If he was close enough, I would have told him to sit down and stop embarrassing himself and the rest of the Kerry supporters.
I don’t care how frustrating it is, you shouldn’t assume that because you pay for a ticket to a game you then have the right to abuse a guy who is essentially a volunteer.
There is a difference between criticism and abuse. The Kerry team and management will get plenty of the former, but don’t deserve the latter. I thought of that guy in his gold Kerry jersey last Sunday: Had he been in Clones his head may very well have exploded.
Fitzmaurice and his management group were forced into replacing their entire full-back line due to a combination of injuries and Killian Young’s suspension. A change of goalkeeper before throw-in meant that Kerry started a back four that had very little football played this season and exactly zero competitive minutes as a quartet.
While the options were admittedly limited, matching Mark Griffin up against the deadly Conor McManus one-on-one without help from the start was a complete head-scratcher and a terrible call. It reminded me of that line about judging a fish by his ability to climb a tree.
Griffin has never been a lock-down defender capable of marking the top inside forwards and blotting them out of a game. That’s not his forte.
For me, he’s Michael Darragh Macauley in disguise. The similarities are plentiful: Both are powerful runners and ball carriers who are capable of putting defences under severe pressure by doing what they do best.
Macauley wouldn’t be capable of marking McManus and neither is Griffin. But by putting the guy further out the field in the second half, suddenly he became a hugely effective weapon for a team in desperate need of life. He drove Kerry on in the third quarter and, but for his injury, looked to be becoming a central figure in the fightback.
Starting him midfield against Kildare would shake things up and give Kerry a very different dimension to their play. They need to try something a little left of centre because at the moment, as hard as they are trying, nothing is clicking.
McManus was at his imperious best on Sunday.
His movement and score-taking were a joy to witness and Kerry couldn’t find the solutions to the problems he posed all afternoon. But if he was the icing, their keeper Rory Beggan was the cake. His ability to strike a ball off the ground and the elegance of his technique is a beautiful sight. The effortlessness with which he caressed over free kicks from distance was incredible.
Bryan Sheehan was the most impressive kicker of the ball I’ve seen in the modern era, certainly in terms of kicking from the big distances.
But as great a kicker as he was, he still looked like he was putting a lot of effort to get the ball to the goal.
Beggan looks like he’s tickling a balloon with a feather, but the ball takes off as if it has been shot from a cannon.
His display, both for scores and from restarts highlighted the stark contrast between Monaghan and Kerry’s ability to use the kick-out effectively.
It was a challenge for the visitors to just secure possession as Brian Kelly took time to settle into the first half while Monaghan were using it as an offensive weapon, picking out targets as they made a move into space or by going all the way over the top.
It’s a recurring criticism of this Kerry management, that there just doesn’t seem to be a kick-out strategy to get you a few guaranteed possessions when you’re under severe pressure.
Strangely (or perhaps, impressively) it was the Kerry newcomers who ensured Monaghan never quite got out of reach. They fought on their backs to hold on for dear life when things looked like they were slipping away from them.
Tom O’Sullivan, Gavin White, Sean O’Shea, and 19-year-old Clifford were the ones who stood up and displayed the type of leadership you would have expected from some more established guys.
But they weren’t in anyway intimidated or overawed by the bleakness of the situation they found themselves in. They kept plugging away. A tackle and turnover here. A score there.
It all added up.
Perhaps, their fight and relentlessness got them a result that the quality of their performance scarcely deserved.
Certainly, Monaghan will feel hard done by. They had done the work. They kept Donaghy virtually anonymous on the edge of the square and kicked 1-17 into the bargain.
And they missed at least another 10 scoreable chances, including a butchering a simple opportunity at the very death. They had Kerry on the edge of the cliff but just couldn’t push them over.
After facile wins over Clare and Cork, Kerry have learned more in the past two games that they did in the previous six months.
This has been like a run through the qualifiers and slowly but surely, they are discovering more about themselves with each passing game.
If Galway take care of business against Monaghan in Salthill in a fortnight (which is no guarantee) and Kerry cover the scoring difference against a Kildare side that will be without their most effective inside forward, they could very well find themselves with a week to prepare to face Dublin in an All-Ireland semi-final.
As daunting as that may appear given current form, it is more appealing that the prospect of playing Kildare in a meaningless dead rubber, while Galway and Monaghan did a similar dance in Salthill.
Clifford’s goal not only sustained Kerry’s involvement in the Championship, it sustained the competition itself and kept the Super 8s living and breathing.