The Kingdom ticked all the boxes Saturday night in Tralee of a young side weighed down by the jersey and the loss of four straight National League matches – early encouragement replaced by second half apprehension and anxiety. It took Declan O’Sullivan early and substitute Paul Galvin late on to steer them to two league points, made all the more welcome by Mayo’s loss to Kildare. If it was a display that hardly offered vindication for the new green and gold wave, there were cameos from the likes of Fionn Fitzgerald and substitute Mark Griffin that suggested Fitzmaurice’s regeneration project is on an upward curve. Whether it is rising fast enough to bring down Cork, Division One’s form team, at Austin Stack Park next Sunday is another thing.
Conor Counihan’s side will provide a far more robust examination of Kerry’s shallow well of confidence than Down did on Saturday. “Everything that could go wrong, went wrong,” explained Mourne manager James McCartan afterwards as first Daniel McCartan cried off in the warm-up before centre-back Aidan Carr had to limp off before half-time. Kerry led 0-8 to 0-1 at the break, with the returning Declan O’Sullivan and Donnchadh Walsh probing up front. Darran O’Sullivan and Johnny Buckley (from frees) were the primary beneficiaries of the former’s toil.
The only blot was the ankle ligament injury suffered by full-back Aidan O’Mahony midway through the half which curtailed his evening, and perhaps his league, depending on a scan. Down temporarily stationed midfielder Kalum King on the edge of the Kerry square to profit from the disruption but once O’Mahony’s deputy, Mark Griffin, found his feet, he surged impressively into the game.
The brittle and cyclical nature of confidence in sport – you don’t have it without a win, but it takes a win to generate it – was all too evident in Kerry’s second half. A high, raking Mark Poland centre came down off the upright to give Down’s Donal O’Hare a tap-in three minutes after half-time. When he added a point a minute later it was a one-score game, 0-8 to 1-2. The combination of Kerry players operating with the handbrake on and the backdrop of an anxious crowd of nearly 3,700 forced Fitzmaurice and his selectors into remedial action. Paul Galvin made his season’s bow and sat deep, though effectively, behind his midfield. He placed Declan O’Sullivan for a Kerry point and Donnchadh Walsh placed Jonthan Lyne — one of the season’s bright elements — to put the home side 0-10 to 1-3 ahead.
Kerry’s desperation seemed to wane when referee Rory Hickey awarded them a 57th minute penalty, but Darran O’Sullivan, with his weaker right foot, dragged it wide. His manager was as bemused as most others who presumed his left peg was a better option. “We might have a chat about that later,” smiled Fitzmaurice.
Twice, through Benny Coulter and sub Arthur McConville, Down reduced the gap to three, but Kerry dropped Kieran Donaghy back in front of his goal in the closing minutes to ensure there was no late theatrics.
“We had to shake it all up at half-time,” explained McCartan, “we set up differently to try to frustrate them and maybe edge our way back into things. They were probably getting a wee bit itchy along the line and on the field. But we were taking wrong options by hoofing the ball into the full forward line. You’d nearly think they were instructed to do that, and we didn’t win one of them all night.”
The victory was Kerry’s first in a competitive game (excluding pre-season) since last July’s All-Ireland Qualifier win over Tyrone in Killarney and it will be interesting to see how it affects the players’ approach to Sunday’s must-win game against their nearest and dearest rivals.
“Cork is always a big game, even if it’s a pitch opening,” said Fitzmaurice. “But it’s great to have these games, thick and fast. Come the summer time it’s maybe one game a month. In the league, you’re learning things all the time.. Some things worked tonight, some things very definitely didn’t.”
Kerry scorers: J Buckley (0-5, 0-4 frees); Declan O’Sullivan (0-3), B. Maguire (0-2), J Lyne (0-1).
Down scorers: D. O’Hare (1-2), B. Coulter, C. Harrison, A. McConville (free) (0-1 each).
Kerry: B Kealy; M Ó Sé, A O'Mahony, S Enright; F Fitzgerald, K Young, B Maguire; A Maher, E Brosnan; J Lyne, D Walsh, J Buckley; Declan O'Sullivan, Kieran Donaghy, Darran O'Sullivan.
Subs for Kerry: M Griffin for O’Mahony (13); P. Galvin for Brosnan (45); K. O’Leary for Walsh (56).
Down: B McVeigh; D McCartan, B McArdle, R Boyle; R Mallon, A Carr, K Quinn; K King, K McKernan; C Laverty, M Poland, P McComiskey; D O'Hare, C Harrison, B Coulter.
Subs for Down: D. O’Hagan for Carr (inj, 24); D Turley for Mallon (32); A. McConville for Harrison (45).
Referee: R Hickey (Clare).