Frank Rich of the New York Times had within his gift the capacity to sink a Broadway play with a damaging opening night review, but at his most acerbic, he’d be hard put to pour cold water on this new Kerry production.
Was it a flawless start to a new era? Of course not. The conditions and the suffocating set-ups on both sides ensured this league opener was sprinkled with miscues. Kerry’s line-up looked callow by comparison, so to match Tyrone for physicality and maintain levels of intensity right to the death – they claimed the final two decisive points – was almost as pleasing for the new manager Peter Keane as the match points.
Almost. Starting off the campaign with a victory casts next Sunday’s visit to Cavan in a completely different, and less taxing, light. And to do so with late changes Diarmuid O’Connor and Dara Moynihan – though it would appear the former was preordained – excelling throughout made it a fine day’s work all round for the Kingdom.
For Tyrone, not so much. Notwithstanding Kerry’s incessant toil, Mickey Harte’s attack was once again missing a sharp edge. Freshman Kerry keeper Shane Ryan never had a shot to save and it took the visitors to Killarney 50 minutes to score from play. They only mustered a Niall Morgan free in the first half, and it was only when Peter Harte advanced himself into an attacking role after the break that they looked threatening. Wing-back Tiernan McCann bristled with attacking intent throughout, but he never got beyond Kerry’s half-back line, in which Tom O’Sullivan, Brian O’Beaglaoich and Paul Murphy were resolute and intelligent.
Inevitably Kerry wilted physically in the latter stages and conceded a couple of soft frees but there was enough about them to keep the All-Ireland finalists of 2018, with all their nous, at arm’s length throughout – and that’s saying something.
It might have been more comfortable had Stephen O’Brien finished with greater certainty from the game’s only clearcut goal chance after 18 minutes. Or had Tom O’Sullivan converted either of two presentable chances of points after the break. However, the best two forwards on the pitch were both in green and gold, and that was decisive. Sean O’Shea contributed six points, but none more outrageous than his late conversion of a sideline kick which the home crowd of 12,921 roared over the bar. Dara Moynihan has already proven his voracious appetite for work en route to All-Ireland successes with St Brendan’s at colleges level and the Kerry minors, but few would have thought him physically attuned to the demands of senior fare so soon. That he played every minute yesterday was a remarkable stat in itself.
Ditto Na Gaeil’s rookie midfielder Diarmuid O’Connor, who played the sleeves-up wing forward role in a revised Kerry attack. Big things are expected of this talent from Tralee, but hardly so soon.
Peter Keane wanted off-the-charts work-rate and he got every bit of that in his bow as a senior inter-county manager. The middle eight anchored Kerry from the first minute, and the 0-3 to 0-1 lead after half an hour was a modest reflection of their superiority at both ends of the pitch, a point conceded by Tyrone boss Mickey Harte afterwards.
“The significant factor was how Kerry played in the first half, and how they really were very difficult to break down,” he said. “They were well structured and pretty intense in the tackle. And that made it very difficult for us to get scores.”
Two points from Moynihan – the game’s first from play – in the 33rd and 35th minutes gave Kerry a four-point cushion at the break, but 15 minutes later, the gap was halved to two by Peter Harte.
Thereafter it was a test of wills and discipline – not just personal but tactical. Kerry’s solid shape was exemplified by the positioning of Paul Murphy and the unselfishness of, for instance, Adrian Spillane, at midfield. Seldom has a midfielder grafted so hard for so little material reward in terms of time on the ball.
Kerry’s replacements saw an inter-county debut for Gavin O’Brien, but it was the experienced Mikey Geaney who made the immediate impact, his point on 63 minutes edging his side three clear again, 0-9 to 0-6. Playing keep ball against the kings of turnover is a dangerous game, but Kerry’s handling and focus was true in the final ten minutes – helped undoubtedly by the deafening approval raining down from the O’Sullivan Stand. Seldom has two home points in January been greeted with such fervour.
Scorers for Kerry: S. O’Shea (0-6, 3 frees, one mark, one sideline), D Moynihan (0-2), T. O’Sullivan, J Barry, M Geaney (0-1 each).
Scorers for Tyrone: D McCurry (0-4, frees), M Donnelly, P Harte, N Morgan (free) (0-1 each)
KERRY: S Ryan; P. Crowley, J Sherwood, B O Beaglaoich; T Morley, P. Murphy, T. O’Sullivan; J Barry, A Spillane; J Lyne, S O’Shea, S. O’Brien; D. O’Connor, P. Geaney, D Moynihan.
Subs: G. Crowley for Morley (45); G. O’Brien for Geaney (58); M Geaney for Lyne (62); K Spillane for S O’Brien (69).
TYRONE: N Morgan; L Rafferty, R McNamee, Hugh P McGeary; T McCann, R Brennan, M McKernan; B Kennedy, D McClure; M Donnelly, P. Harte, N Sludden; D McCurry, D. Mulgrew, C McShane.
Subs: K Coney for Mulgrew (half time); K McGeary for Rafferty (37); D Canavan for Sludden (52);
Referee: D. Gough (Meath)