The denouement of this clash proved far closer than looked likely with just under 20 minutes remaining, though, as, having gone in level at half time, 0-7 to 2-1, the home side began the second half in excellent fashion.
Dan Mac Eoin kicked three wonderful points while fellow West Cork man John O’Rourke added another and to highlight the discord between their fluency and Kerry’s travails, Gavin O’Grady missed a very scoreable free for the visitors and Conor Cox saw his effort first deemed a point before referee Derek O’Mahony overruled his umpire.
By that stage, Kerry had not scored a point from play, but on the three-quarter mark Cox finally put that statistic right, and from there they found an extra gear or two as Cork’s attackers suffered from a lack of possession.
Kieran Murphy, a Leaving Certificate student in St Brendan’s in Killarney, was introduced in midfield and he dovetailed excellently with James Walsh, whose senior experience shone through all game, providing Kerry a platform, while Cork could not progress the ball.
With Cox beginning to find his range, the lead was eaten into, two from the Listowel man leaving just a point in it as Cork led by 0-12 to 2-5 with six minutes remaining.
Cork needed something, and they looked to have got it when corner-back Alan Cronin pointed after linking with O’Rourke, but instead of that stemming the Kerry flow it only galvanised them and Walsh kicked a huge point before Gavin O’Grady held onto possession well before forging an opening for a shot to level.
The momentum was firmly in Kerry’s favour now, and Cox had a speculative effort for a winner, but Cork’s nous — eight of last year’s Munster final-winning side started — showed itself as the ball was worked through Cronin, Luke Connolly, Damien Cahalane and Jamie Wall before Wall gave Kiely his first possession and he showed excellent composure to slot over.
For Cork manager John Cleary, relief was the primary emotion.
“Kerry took over in midfield with 10 or 15 minutes to go, and we couldn’t get the ball up, we were lucky to come out with the win,” he said.
“When we got the ball to the forwards we did well but we missed three one-on-ones and we couldn’t have had any complaints if it had gone to extra-time.
“We got caught for two sucker-punches in the first half, another day that could have cost us, and hopefully we’ll learn from it. You don’t have to tell me that there are aspects of tonight we wouldn’t be pleased with, we’ll have to go away and work on them.”
The key positives for Cork to take ahead of the semi-final clash with Limerick on March 27 were the liveliness of Mac Eoin and Brian Hurley in attack when fed well, with the pair kicking seven points from play between them.
Alan Cadogan at right half-forward also worked hard, though an anxiety when shooting let him down at times, while midfielder Ian Maguire, a minor last year, got through plenty of ball before tiring and being replaced by match-winner Kiely.
For Kerry, Walsh and Shane O’Callaghan stood out, while they had goalkeeper Shane Murphy to thank for not allowing Cork to build up a big first-half lead.
The tale of the opening period can be distilled into Cork not taking their goal chances while Kerry availed of the two they were presented with. Murphy denied Hurley and Luke Connolly before Kerry caught Cork twice.
In the 15th minute, O’Grady evaded Cronin’s clutches after a nice Mark Reen ball and finished well to level at 0-4 to 1-1, and then, on 23, O’Callaghan was allowed to meander through the Cork defence far too easily to make it 2-1 to 0-5.
Cork’s attacking capabilities were greater, however, and though Murphy produced two more saves from Mac Eoin, both resulted in points, Hurley converting a rebound with the second one tipped over to leave the game tied at half time. The hosts looked set to push on, and while they eventually did, it was far from easy.
Scorers for Cork: D Mac Eoin 0-7 (0-3f), B Hurley 0-4, J O’Rourke, A Cronin, S Kiely 0-1 each.
Scorers for Kerry: C Cox 0-5 (0-2f), G O’Grady 1-1, S O’Callaghan 1-0, J Walsh 0-1.
CORK: D Hanrahan; B O’Driscoll, C Dorman, A Cronin; TJ Brosnan, D Cahalane, J Wall; T Clancy, I Maguire; A Cadogan, M Sugrue, J O’Rourke; D Mac Eoin, B Hurley, L Connolly.
Subs: C Vaughan for Sugrue (39), S Kiely for Maguire (53), K Hallissey for Cadogan (55),
KERRY: S Murphy; F McNamara, P Kilkenny, D Culhane; P Ó Sé, T Morley, M Mangan; J Walsh, S Keane; J Hickson, M Reen, S O’Callaghan; G O’Grady, C Cox, C Brady.
Subs: K Murphy for Brady (42), C Keane for Reen (52), J Sheehy for Hickson (57).
Referee: D O’Mahony (Tipperary).