With Kerry’s shock All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Down last year still fresh in the county’s memory, Jack O’Connor’s men made amends somewhat in sunny Killarney with a victory that, while not enough to book a place in the league final due to Cork’s win over Armagh, ensured Kerry finished their campaign on a high.
Darran O’Sullivan’s early second-half goal allowed Kerry the necessary breathing space in a frantic second half that saw Tom O’Sullivan sent off for a straight red — it means that he will miss the Munster championship opener against Tipperary — as well as a Down comeback that whittled a 1-8 to 0-5 advantage down to 1-11 to 1-10 lead with 15 minutes to go.
By this stage, Kerry defender O’Sullivan had been sent to the line for an off-the-ball incident with Down substitute Eoin McCartan but instead of driving home their one-man advantage in the final stages of this tie, the Ulster side surrendered the momentum to a Kerry team that controlled the last 10 minutes.
With the game up for grabs, two late Bryan Sheehan frees — he replaced the injured Paul Galvin who appeared to suffer a hamstring injury midway through the first-half — guided Kerry home to a fifth win of the league, even though Down pushed hard for a match-winning goal late on, after Martin Clarke had made it a two-point game.
It was a Kerry performance that brought a smile to the face of trainer Jack O’Connor, as attention now turns to the championship next month.
“The thing that has given me heart is that there is a lot of energy in the team and a lot of hunger. That always helps,” O’Connor said. “I think the lads will be looking forward to this championship because they felt we didn’t do ourselves justice last year. There is great togetherness in the camp. I’m very happy with where we are.”
O’Connor’s opposite number James McCartan was left to rue his team’s “decision-making” in the second-half that saw them waste the opportunity to inflict a second consecutive defeat on the Kingdom.
The 2010 All-Ireland finalists made their task all the harder when they let Kerry race into an early 0-4 to 0-0 lead, as the home team enjoyed a Colm Cooper brace, a Kieran Donaghy effort and a fine score from the impressive Donnacha Walsh.
But then as Kerry lost Galvin through injury, back came Down, thanks to the eye-catching Mark Poland, and the Ulster men levelled the game at 0-5 apiece 25 minutes in; Poland kicked 0-3, while Conor Maginn and James Colgan were also on the mark for the Mourne men, as Anthony Maher scored Kerry’s solitary reply.
The final stages of the opening half saw the home side pick up the pace, as Darran O’Sullivan, Declan O’Sullivan and a booming long-range free from Sheehan sent Kerry into a 0-8 to 0-5 half time lead.
Within five minutes of the restart, Kerry’s advantage had billowed to six points, 1-9 to 0-6, as Darran O’Sullivan was on the end of a Bryan Sheehan and Colm Cooper link-up to punch the ball home from close range.
But Kerry allowed Down back into the game, with Benny Coulter, quiet up then, fisting a Conor Laverty centre to the net midway through the second period, to leave two points the difference, 1-11 to 1-9.
Clarke did narrow the gap to just one but even though down to 14 men, Kerry bossed the final stages to end a bad week for Kerry football on a more upbeat note.
But Jack O’Connor will have plenty to ponder with Tom O’Sullivan set to miss the championship opener, while it’s not yet known how serious Paul Galvin’s injury is.
Scorers for Kerry: Darran O’Sullivan (1-2), B Sheehan (0-4, 0-3 frees), C Cooper (0-2, 0-1 free), Declan O’Sullivan (0-2), A Maher, D Walsh, K Donaghy (0-1 each).
Down: M Poland (0-5, 0-4 frees); B Coulter (1-0), M Clarke (0-3, 0-1 free), C Maginn, J Colgan, C Garvey (0-1 each).
Subs used: B Sheehan for P Galvin (16); S Scanlon for A Maher (61); A O’Connell for A O’Mahony (62); K O’Leary for D Walsh (64).
Subs used: A Carr for K King (28); D Rafferty for B McArdle (42); E McCartan for P McComiskey (46), C Laverty for C Maginn (53); R Sexton for M Poland (63).
Referee: Rory Hickey (Clare).