Meyler relieved as Kerry edge to final

THEY were nigh-on unbackable favourites beforehand, but Kerry got the fright of their lives from a superbly drilled Wicklow in this Christy Ring Cup semi-final in Nenagh on Saturday.

A late scoring flurry – an emphatic ‘doubled’ goal from a long Mike Conway centre by giant full-forward Gerry O’Brien and a hat-trick of points from teenage free-taker Darragh O’Connell – was enough to see the Kingdom into the final against Westmeath on Saturday July 3 in Croke Park. But it was a close-run affair.

In truth, any other result would have been a travesty, as Kerry were certainly the better team, but an early straight red card for corner-back Andrew Keane for an off-the-ball incident saw them reduced to 14 players for most of the game and Wicklow used the extra man to superb advantage. Initially they had captain Willie Collins acting as sweeper, but soon Willie was sent back to his man-marking duties in the corner, and Geoffrey Bermingham was called on to take the free role and it was an inspired decision. Time and again, the long-striking wing-back sent superb ball forward to a dangerous full-forward trio, in which corner-forward Andy O’Brien excelled (finished with 2-2 from play). Credit to Wicklow, then, they made this a real contest from start to finish and emerged with real credit. But Kerry boss John Meyler could also take considerable satisfaction from the character shown by his side in those crucial final minutes.

“What ye got today was pure north Kerry drama!” he said. “To lose a man after only three minutes... we didn’t play well, to put it mildly – we were all over the place at times and lacked coordination. That was probably our worst performance all year in terms of fluency – we just didn’t play. But someone said to me the other night that we’re now beginning to be like a club team; what we’ve done is we’ve got the eight or nine senior teams in north Kerry coming together, everyone feels part of it now and you can see that in their reaction. We took off Liam Boyle (experienced centre-back), we took off Colm Harris, the captain, and there’s no acrimony, no bitching – it’s all for the good of Kerry hurling.

“The last 10 minutes there was heart-stopping stuff, but that’s the way to win them.”

Critical to those last 10 minutes were the performances of young substitutes James Flaherty and Colm Harty, with free-taker O’Connell also rediscovering his radar after three second-half wides. Most telling of all, however, the contribution of veterans Mike Conway and centre-forward Michael Boyle, along with the ever-dangerous O’Brien.

Meyler continued: “I thought the few changes made a difference. Conway went to centre-back from midfield and he really dominated, young Harty and young Flaherty went in and they excelled. But you’re looking at John Mike Dooley at 36 and Harty at 18 (Harty replaced Dooley), you’re trying to nurse Dooley through the end of his career, you’re trying to start another career, trying to get that balance – luckily we got it right today.”

Another who made a huge impression for Kerry was goalkeeper Bernard Rochford, from the Killeagh club in Cork, sub to Donal Óg Cusack when Cork won the All-Ireland in 1999 but brought into the team by Cork-based Meyler, himself a former Cork star. He produced two magnificent saves in the first half and several point-scoring attacks were launched from his booming clearances certainly made a telling contribution.

Probably the biggest problem of all for Kerry, however, was indiscipline. The red card apart, there were several other incidents, four yellow cards issued as several Kerry players lived on the edge. “You have to play on the line,” said Meyler. “When I played, I played on the line and sailed very close to the wind. It depends on the referee at times; now there were a few silly things like talking back to the referee, but Wicklow were yapping on the sideline when we were taking frees, and I don’t like that. Maybe there was a small bit of cockiness in us coming up here, that we’d beat Wicklow and on we’d go.”

Well they did beat Wicklow, they do go on, still unbeaten, but they made harder work of it.

Scorers for Kerry: D. O’Connor 0-10 (0-8 frees); M. Boyle 1-1; G. O’Brien 1-1; J. Egan, JM Dooley, S. Nolan, J. Flaherty, C. Harty, 0-1 each.

Scorers for Wicklow: A. O’Brien 2-2; J. O’Neill 0-7 (0-6 frees); E. Glynn 0-3; R. Keddy 0-2

Subs for Kerry: J. Flaherty (Egan 38); C. Harty (Dooley 41); A. Healy (Harris 43); S. Young (L. Boyle 60).

Subs for Wicklow: L. Browne (Kearns 58); S. McGrath (M.A. O’Neill 68).

Referee: D. O’Driscoll (Limerick).

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