Where to start with this strangest of days in Croke Park?
Best to start at the finish and shortly after 5.30pm yesterday, the two best teams of the four contenders on show, Cork and Donegal, could start to eye each other across the dance floor.
Cork got to the semi-final at the end of the month by dent of an awesome second-half performance when they blew Kildare off the park with a showing we all thought was in them but suspected might be slow in coming given their lay-off after the Munster championship.
Donegal, on the other hand, got nervous with the finishing line in sight after enjoying a purple patch midway through the second half that saw them pull six points clear.
It is of course entirely understandable that Donegal would stutter and even with their cultish devotion to the principles and practicality of Jim McGuinness’s gospel, they wouldn’t be human if they didn’t leak some water against a Kerry team who tried heroically to retrieve a game that had seemed beyond them.
This was a cusp game for Donegal. They needed the big scalp to validate the method to the apparent madness of last year and my how they delivered! A historic first clash of the greens and golds, north and south, was always going to be a cagey affair but it was thought that if anybody could decode the Donegal blueprint, Kerry could.
A daft goal conceded within six minutes didn’t appear to knock Kerry off their stride. Despite Michael Murphy’s point immediately after to put Donegal four points up, Kerry kept their composure.
The signs were there all day, however, if Kerry folk wanted to absorb them.
The variety that Kerry required from their attacks was there, mixing both long and short but the quality left much to be required. Donegal can take credit for the pressure applied outfield that saw Kerry kick wild and wide and into Paul Durcan’s hands in the first half.
Further signs that things weren’t going to plan were Eoin Brosnan’s early injury, James O’Donoghue being turned over on a few occasions, Bryan Sheehan opting to try and catch instead of trying some clever knock-downs, Paul Galvin not winning his usual quota of breaking ball in the first half — and that goal.
Kerry saw things needed to be changed before half time and Killian Young paid the price for a crucial turnover that yielded a point for Colm McFadden. His replacement, Darran O’Sullivan, had minimal impact on proceedings and with Declan O’Sullivan struggling, it was always going to be a big ask to break the line.
Heroic efforts in the second half by the old-stagers Galvin, Tomás Ó Sé, Aidan O’Mahony and Marc Ó Sé and the incredible workrate of Donnchadh Walsh kept Donegal honest but with each substitution on either side, the case for having a strong bench became more and more compelling.
On 50 minutes a Colm Cooper free after a foul on Walsh pulled Kerry to within two points but critically, half-time substitute Neil Gallagher caught the next kick-out and Donegal got the next four scores.
McGuinness will wonder how his charges allowed Kerry back into the game to score 1-2 in a four-minute spell before the end but they responded magnificently.
Rory Kavanagh, magnificent throughout, won a breaking ball to set up Karl Lacey for the insurance score with 40 seconds left. Kerry now needed a goal. Kealy misfired on the kick-out and despite winning the ball back, the game was up for the Kingdom and with that a mountain overcome, a flattening of hierarchies and Donegal stay ahead of the curve.
Thoughts now turn to whether or not Sam could once again be for the hills. Cork frightened the living daylights out of all pretenders with their showing against Kildare and McGuinness will have to study them long and hard to try and find a way around the challenge.
When there was a semblance of competition in the first match, in the 10 minutes before half time, Cork got an awful lot right. Alan Quirke was very clever picking out Graham Canty in an aerial mismatch with Eoghan O’Flaherty, Noel O’Leary was keeping Mikey Conway very quiet, Eoin Cadogan was horsing into Tomás O’Connor and Aidan Walsh was having a whale of a game in the middle.
The substitution of Declan O’Sullivan in the second game may have drawn gasps from the crowd but Cork’s substitutions were all adding to the on-field effort. Ciarán Sheehan, so effective four weeks ago against Clare, was withdrawn before half time for Patrick Kelly, who excelled; Nicholas Murphy was called ashore six minutes into the second half for Daniel Goulding, who almost as if to enhance the case for the bench kicked a point with his first touch; enter Pearse O’Neill when Alan O Connor was walking on thin ice and Cork never looked back.
Garbage time came early and thus it may be hard to make a judgement on just how good Cork are. The sight of Emmet Bolton, Darryl Flynn and the big-hearted John Doyle flailing hopelessly in the tackle says more about Cork than Kildare and if even Donegal can match them for fitness, Cork’s sheer size is another thing entirely.
I have a suspicion Cork may struggle to think their way through and around the Donegal system but, crucially, of all the remaining contenders they (and only they) have the capacity to steamroll over it.
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