A point from the outstanding Pádraig Boyle looked to have given Kerry their second title in three seasons but Paul Braniff showed his leadership qualities by catching the resultant puckout.
He ran hard through the centre of the Kerry defence but his attempted equaliser had too flat a trajectory. Johnson, Rochford and Tom Murnane all challenged but it was the biggest man that got the touch.
Shane Nolan had a 20m free from an angle even after that but his poorly-struck shot was easily stopped by Stephen Keith and the celebrations could begin for the Mourne men.
“When you’re a point up the clock goes very slow and when you’re a point down the clock seems to go very fast and mine was going very fast,” said Down manager, Gerard Monan of those closing moments.
“They never gave up which in fairness to them the past four or five weeks has carried us through here.”
The game got off to a stunning start as Johnson fielded the sliotar and smashed a rocket of a shot beyond Rochford after 81 seconds. The giant full-forward slotted a point from the next attack.
Boyle sent a ground shot to the Down net before the third minute had elapsed however. Kerry boss Tom Howard was struggling to make sense of it all.
“There were times we could have conceded more and there were times that we could have scored more in the game” reasoned Howard.
“There was a big game out there. You were never comfortable and you couldn’t say that this game was in the bag or that we were comfortable in this game. You were always waiting for the next thing to happen, it was that sort of a game. You don’t like to say you are planning your way through or structuring games. At times you were scratching your head wondering how we would react or what would we do and where we had the advantage, but things were happening at 80 miles an hour.”
Nolan was magnificent in the opening period and his 16th minute goal contributed to his 1-5 in that half, 1-3 of which came from play. He finished with 1-9 but significantly, had a much reduced influence in the latter period. Kerry held the upper hand for most of proceedings once they went ahead and three points from Nolan, plus another by former Kilkenny All-Ireland winner, Willie O’Dwyer gave them a five-point cushion with 10 minutes remaining. Crucially though, Down finished with the last four points of the first half, courtesy of Braniff –from a penalty awarded for a foul on Michael Ennis — Daniel Toner, James Coyle and Donal Hughes to leave it nicely poised at half time 2-6 to 1-8.
Brendan O’Leary, Boyle and O’Dwyer helped Kerry push four clear once more though, despite two prodigious points from distance by Conor Woods, and they seemed the likeliest victors until Scott Nicholson’s 48th minute goal. Killeagh man Rochford dived to his left to save Braniff’s powerful shot from another penalty – this time after Johnson was hauled down — but Nicholson slashed the rebound to the net.
The substitute added two points and with Braniff slotting a couple of frees and Johnny McCusker equalising in the 66th minute, the game looked bound for extra time until that spectacular ending.
Scorers for Down: G Johnson 2-1; P Braniff 0-6(4fs, 1 pen); S Nicholson 1-2; J Coyle, C Woods (1f, 1 65) 0-2 each; D Hughes, D Toner, J McCusker 0-1 each.
Scorers for Kerry: S Nolan 1-9(0-5fs); P Boyle 1-3; W O’Dwyer 0-2; B O’Leary, A Boyle, .G O’Brien 0-1 each.
Subs for Down: S Nicholson for Conway (35); J McCusker for Sheehan (52); M Turley for D Toner (57); M Hughes for B Toner (64).
Subs for Kerry: J Egan for Costello (ht); G O’Brien for Harty (ht); S Maunsell for O’Brien (62).
Referee: C Browne (Galway).