Same as it ever was then, yeah? Well, yes and no. How could it, with Colm Cooper and Tomás O Sé starting on the bench?
As expected, the pair were made cool their heels on the sideline after their infractions last weekend but both were eventually called on by Jack O’Connor who, despite everything, has again taken Kerry to the last eight of the championship.
As expected, Antrim ran them close. The sides were level with eight minutes of normal time to play but then came Paul Galvin’s goal, Kerry’s second, and the prospect of a seismic shock subsided.
The Gooch and O Sé were two-fifths of a second wave that O’Connor badly needed after a dispiriting first-half performance that ended with Kerry lucky to be just a point in arrears. Yes, they were that bad.
Killian Young came in for Tomás O Sé at wing-back, to good effect, but it wasn’t so simple up front where, Cooper’s omission aside, a number of other changes were made.
Tadhg Kennelly came back from injury, Darran O’Sullivan got the nod to start in the corner and Declan O’Sullivan was pushed up to the edge of the square with Tommy Walsh shuffling over to the left.
It was hardly surprising, they lacked cohesion going forward, especially in the first half when it was hard to know whether to blame ball to the forwards or the receivers’ failure to present themselves as a target. Now and then, glimpses of their capabilities emerged, as in the 12th minute when Darran O’Sullivan and Tadhg Kennelly combined to present Tommy Walsh with the space to slot a shot low to the net. Darran O’Sullivan saw a chance of a second goal rebound off keeper John Finucane two minutes later but Kerry’s form began to disintegrate from there to the half-time whistle.
Two terrible frees, one from Sean O’Sullivan and another from Declan O’Sullivan that flew 15 yards wide, were symbolic of their travails and Antrim seized the opportunity.
Tony Scullion kickstarted it with a goal 19 minutes in. That he should have been pulled up for steps is immaterial now and his fellow wing-back James Loughrey almost added a second four minutes from the break. That pair were pouring forward stage safe with Terry O’Neill back holding the fort.
Unfortunately for Antrim, their shooting was every bit as bad as Kerry’s general play and they must have feared the worst when they saw Cooper jogging on before the interval in place of Sean O’Sullivan.
Something was needed because Kerry went 16 minutes of the first half without a score and another 10 minutes spanning both sides of the interval. This despite an almost total dominance of the midfield.
It was that battleground that won them the game. By the game’s end they claimed over 71% of the game’s 35 kickouts. It was no surprise they won more frees on the restart.
Another key to their improvement was Mike McCarthy who called O’Neill’s bluff playing practically as a half-forward. The Kilcummin centre-back ran riot through the centre of Antrim’s defence in the third quarter.
Cooper extracted the maximum reward for those efforts with four frees and Paul Galvin added another from play before Liam Bradley saw fit to call O’Neill to the line. O’Connor trumped that by sending in Micheal Quirke. The Kerins O’Rahillys man had saved Kerry’s bacon in Longford and he was in imperious form again for 15 minutes here. Galvin’s goal stemmed directly from the big man’s catch and quick ball forward.
Michael McCann did his best to keep Antrim in business with four points in the last 15 minutes but Kerry finally discovered something resembling their old groove with four of the last five points.
For Kerry, tentative signs that their worst performances may finally be behind them. That said, yesterday’s performances won’t suffice for an All-Ireland quarter-final. Not by a long shot. Theirs’ is a season that remains very much in the balance.
Scorers for Antrim: M McCann 0-4 (3f), T Scullion 1-0, P Cunningham 0-3 (2f), T McCann 0-2, C Close 0-1.
Scorers for Kerry: T Walsh 1-2, C Cooper 0-4f, P Galvin 0-2, P O’Connor 0-2f, Declan O’Sullivan 0-1, S O’Sullivan 0-1f.
Subs for Antrim: A Douglas for O’Boyle 13, C Murray for Close 50, K Brady for O’Neill 54, S Burke for Niblock 65.
Subs for Kerry: C Cooper for Sean O’Sullivan 31, T O Sé for O’Mahony 48, D Walsh for Kennelly 48, P O’Connor for Darran O’Sullivan 57, M Quirke for Scanlon 58.
Referee: J White (Donegal).