Stephen Rochford and Mayo desperately seeking Sam

Judgment on Mayo will wait three weeks, though Heaven knows why. It’s not as if their defiance, determination and desperation is at issue.

Stephen Rochford and Mayo desperately seeking Sam

For Kerry it was swift and brutal, unreasonable some of it, though oddly understandable in an age when everything concretes into absolutes within 140 characters.

It’s a while since a Kerry senior football side looked as ragged and dishevelled as they were by the close of Saturday’s All-Ireland semi-final replay.

Their 7-2-5 set-up was a formation that didn’t work, but in truth the Munster champions were out of shape and sorts all afternoon, right up to the moment Kieran Donaghy gave the Mayo hordes their pound of flesh with a red-card farewell to Croke Park.

Moments before, James O’Donoghue wriggled like a marlin on a line desperate to force a shot past Keith Higgins.

His failure to do so, and Higgins’ block, put an exhilarating exclamation mark on Mayo’s first championship defeat of the Kingdom in 21 years.

It’s not like the Kerry players were indifferent to Mayo’s painful past, but here was another 80-minute underline of how beautiful and glorious desperation can be. And how difficult it can be to deny it.

Every half opening for Kerry was snuffed out by their opponents, a 46th-minute cameo when Stephen O’Brien and James O’Donoghue were heroically denied a goal by a trio of Mayo bodies a case in point.

Everything that was seen beforehand as a favourable entry on Kerry’s ledger proved otherwise — the six-day turnaround, the dry day, the scope for improvement, and Mayo’s fascination with curbing Kieran Donaghy.

Somewhere last week, the Mayo group clearly paused for a moment’s self-assessment. Get busy living or get busy dying.

Afterwards, Stephen Rochford paused when asked if this was the best performance of his reign, but he was immediate in his confirmation that Saturday was not Mayo’s season high water mark. The graphs for their error count and shots selection move in different directions now. They are economical and efficient with the ball, claustrophobic and yes, cynical without it.

They have what Colm Cooper likes to call ‘champions’ badness’.

Though Lee Keegan, Cillian O’Connor, Keith Higgins, Andy Moran and Aidan O’Shea were prominent on Saturday, they were hardly herculean. Colm Boyle was immense. The bonus is that Jason Doherty, Kevin McLoughlin, Paddy Durcan and Conor Loftus each made their own telling contribution and the first half goal will stir more out of Diarmuid O’Connor.

Even that moment summed up the hesitancy that bedevilled Kerry, Jonathan Lyne on his heels for Donal Vaughan’s 27th minute attempt for a point while O’Connor swooped.

Lyne was one of three unadvertised changes to the Kerry team, the most telling being the exclusion of James O’Donoghue to accommodate a sweeper. Could Kerry have devised a system to create an extra defender without sacrificing one of their deadliest forwards? Lyne or Tom O’Sullivan as a half forward even?

Crucially, for a team that remains susceptible to goal chances, Mayo’s defensive mettle was never examined by an attacker until O’Donoghue was sprung at half-time. Rochford made all the right noises afterwards, but seeing the Legion man in the stand behind him for the throw-in was a gift he hardly anticipated.

In the past Éamonn Fitzmaurice has readily put his hands up when his management has been found wanting, but the sense persists that the errors here were made during the week.

If first instinct was reflected in the named team on Friday night — with Donnchadh Walsh being the only change from the drawn game — then it might have been the correct one. Give the same group the opportunity to redeem themselves. That Kerry second-guessed themselves is a testament to the effect Mayo’s half-back line now has on opponents before a ball is thrown in.

Not that tactical considerations weren’t a factor, but it’s fanciful to think they override individual supremacy in one- on-ones. Only when he had fisted Mayo’s killer second goal two minutes after the break — having won his own ball again over Shane Enright — did the Kerry management see fit to change the plan for containing Andy Moran.

That goal, and referee David Gough’s error in black-carding Darran O’Sullivan, were blows an out of sorts Kingdom was never going to recover from.

“You can be moving pieces around your tactics boards and have (sideline) meetings all you want, it’s a different kettle of fish out on the pitch,” Fitzmaurice rued afterwards. “Particularly against the top Division 1 teams, they will ask you questions about everything you do tactically. If they do one thing, you can react to it. (But ultimately) it’s about having the ball and we didn’t have enough ball.”

Mayo led 1-8 to 0-6 at the break, spooking Kerry ’keeper Brian Kelly to such an extent that he put one kickout over his endline on a balmy August afternoon. Kerry’s designated free man was Paul Murphy, but it turned into whoever Mayo decided not to pressurise at a moment in time. It made some mockery of the notion this never-ending summer has robbed Mayo of their legs.

“They’re certainly not running out of steam anyway,” Fitzmaurice acknowledged. “They’re getting stronger and stronger the whole time. Massive credit to them and their conditioning. They’ll take stopping.”

Where Fitzmaurice and Kerry go from here is interesting. Though he has another season (and several thereafter if he so wishes), the Finuge man will take a while to decide whether his stomach is braced for such lows.

For all the promise of a bright future, Kerry have now won only one All-Ireland in eight years.Fitzmaurice might have been speaking for himself too when he spoke on Saturday of the obsessives who represent their counties nowadays.

“It’s a huge commitment. People don’t realise that, they don’t have a clue. The only people that know really are wives and girlfriends. That’s it. Parents don’t even know. It’s absolutely a massive, massive commitment and the lads will make their own minds up in their own time and they’ll deserve that much at least, to be allowed that space and decide if they have the appetite. But what those fellas put in, people don’t know, they just haven’t a clue really.”

Twelve minutes from time, James O’Donoghue clipped a point off the post to reduce the gap to four points (2-12 to 0-14), and with Mayo lying deeper and thinking conservatively, Kerry might have asked serious questions were they not already in panic mode by this stage. I noted that six minutes into the second period, Kerry were already trying to manufacture goals. Even when they got it to four points, Peter Crowley picked up a second, needless, yellow card to reduce them to 14. Cillian O’Connor might have been black-carded but Jason Doherty maintained his colleague’s accuracy from placed balls with a decisive 45, as Crowley trudged to the sideline.

If Fitzmaurice is of a mind to continue into a sixth season in charge, he will grab at the crumb of comfort that is the Super 8 structure, guaranteeing bigger games more frequently. Kerry left their mojo after them at the beginning of July in Killarney, and one game before the drawn semi-final offers nothing like the gutchecks Mayo have had along the road to the final.

Seeing off Kerry so emphatically will embolden the Mayo players for another joust with the Dubs. It also further validates Stephen Rochford, who has carried himself with exemplary poise in recent days in the face of unsavoury criticism. The manager was originally regarded by some as more of a facilitator surrounded by a crop of coaching experts, but Rochford is a serious operator.

The dynamic he’s fostering is working, their strength and conditioning is incredible and the notion that they are a squad 16-deep looks less credible with every outing.

If Cillian O’Connor is to be believed, Mayo still “have to work on our fitness a little bit.” That’s scary in itself, though nothing as scary as the prospect of rising once more above themselves to complete the greatest story ever told.

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