It is almost three years to the day since Daithí Casey last saw game-time with Kerry. It was February 1, 2015. Mayo were the visitors to Killarney on the league’s opening weekend, Casey introduced for Stephen O’Brien with five minutes remaining. Come that summer’s championship, the Crokes man was no longer part of the panel. Where the inter-county scene is concerned, he was a forgotten man in the years subsequent.
Involved in the winning of a free shortly after his introduction, Casey would lay off a couple of passes thereafter, but his defining involvement arrived with 75 minutes and five seconds run on the watch, the 27-year-old burrowing a path towards the 20-metre line before swinging over the winner. Hometown hero.
“He has been playing absolutely fantastic football for Crokes and he was on our radar last year,” said Éamonn Fitzmaurice of their match-winner. “He is a great guy, works hard. For a Killarney man to get a great score like that and to win the game by a point is all good.”
That the home outfit required this 76th-minute point to fall over the line despite holding a numerical advantage for the previous three-quarters of an hour shouldn’t be lost in the frenetic nature of the finish and the blooding of eight new players.
Coming down the stretch, Fitzmaurice’s young side were in trouble. Ahead by 1-8 to 0-8 at the break, they were breached for a Tony McClenaghan goal within 70 seconds of the restart.
Yes, the response was positive; Micheál Burns, Gavin Crowley, in what was his first competitive start, and an at times subdued Paul Geaney finding the target to leave the hosts sitting 1-11 to 1-9 in front. But in the ensuing 23 minutes, they’d manage just two white flags.
Donegal lost midfielder Nathan Mullins to a straight red card on 20 minutes - the son of Brian appeared to throw a leg at Brendan O’Sullivan - and yet the manner in which they began to successfully pick apart a scattered Kerry rearguard suggested it was not they who were short a body.
The returning Odhran MacNiallais, the supreme Paddy McBrearty (0-2, 0-1 free) and his namesake Stephen reeled off four unanswered points to push the northerners in front for the first time since the opening minutes. A Paul Geaney penalty blasted over the bar further amplified the feeling that the visitors were closing in on a first league win on Kingdom soil since 1988.
A breakaway move involving Niall O’Donnell and MacNiallais ended with the latter palming the ball past Shane Murphy for Donegal’s second green flag. 2-13 to 1-13 they now led.
Geaney scrambled home a Kerry goal and three-in-a-row from Stephen O’Brien, O’Shea and sub Killian Spillane had Fitzmaurice’s side back on top, 2-16 to 2-14, as the fourth official announced five minutes of additional time.
It all got a bit messy hereafter. Donegal sub Darach O’Connor knocked a Hugh McFadden delivery into the Kerry net seconds after being introduced, Gavin Crowley and Tony McClenaghan walked for second yellow card offences, young O’Shea levelled before Casey crowned his return in glorious fashion.
“We put a huge effort in for 78 minutes, scored 3-14, and to come away with nothing is disappointing,” said Declan Bonner. “We asked at half-time for a big effort. We knew we were up against it as we were a man down and going into a stiff breeze in the second-half. But the effort the lads put in was monumental.
“I thought we had the game won twice. Kerry kept coming back.”
As expected, all eyes centred on the earlier mentioned David Clifford in the opening period. And he didn’t disappoint.
The Fossa teenager was out in front of Caolan Ward for the first ball to come in his direction, gathered possession, offloaded to Barry John Keane, point Kerry.
He’d provide the assist for Keane’s second minor and Stephen O’Brien’s goal on 18 minutes. And, of course, there was a sizeable roar when he won and converted a free four minutes later.
Of the five debutants to start, however, O’Shea, without question, exerted most influence.
Said Fitzmaurice: “I thought the free from Sean [in second-half stoppages] was a great kick, because there was a lot riding on it.
“Look, some of the things we did were naive, but I think that’s the payback. You have to be prepared to take that when you’re trying out a lot of new players together.”
S O’Shea (0-7, 0-4 frees); P Geaney (1-2, 0-1 pen); S O’Brien (1-1); BJ Keane (0-2); K Spillane, M Burns, D Casey, R Shanahan, D Clifford (0-1 free) G Crowley (0-1 each).
P McBrearty (0-10, 0-8 frees); O MacNiallais (1-2); T McClenaghan, D O’Connor (1-0 each); S McBrearty J Brennan (0-1 each).
S Murphy; C Coffey, J Foley, S Enright; P Murphy, G Crowley, R Shanahan; Barry O’Sullivan, Brendan O’Sullivan; M Burns, S O’Shea, S O’Brien; D Clifford, P Geaney, BJ Keane.
J Savage for Clifford, J O’Donoghue for Keane (both 48); D Casey for Barry O’Sullivan, K Spillane for O’Donoghue (inj, both 55); M Flaherty for Coffey (60); B Ó Seanacháin for Burns (68).
MA McGinley; S McMenamin, E Bán Gallagher, C Ward; L McLoone, P Brennan, T McClenaghan; H McFadden, N Mullins; M O’Reilly, C McGonigle, R McHugh; P McBrearty, O MacNiallais, J Brennan.
P Boyle for McGinley (17 mins, inj); N O’Donnell for J Brennan (HT, inj); C Thompson for McGonigle (44); S McBrearty for O’Reilly (46); J McGee for McLoone (66); D O’Connor for McGee (70, inj).
P Neilan (Roscommon).