RUN a finger back along Kerry’s pained path to yesterday’s peak and it is one of endless bumps and bruises. Until late July, that is, when Jack O’Connor took his troops to Tullamore for a meeting with Antrim.
It was in O’Connor Park when the road finally began to even out and Kerry finally built up speed and kicked through the gears with increasing confidence and purpose all the way to yesterday’s emphatic victory.
Liam Bradley’s lads clung on like limpets that day, though their minds and bodies still ached from their Ulster Championship defeat six days earlier, but this was the day when Kerry would rediscover their mojo.
With the game in the balance in the third quarter, O’Connor turned to his bench and motioned the demoted Colm Cooper and Tomas O Sé onto the field. But Mike McCarthy had already begun the charge.
Called back to inter-county duty after three years in retirement, McCarthy lined out that day at centre-back but spent most of that second half plying his trade at centre-forward, turning the screw on Antrim.
Even at the time, it was apparent that here was a Herculean performance but little did we know that it was the springboard on which Kerry would make their leap for further glory. Think we’re overegging it? Well, ask Jack.
“I felt 15 minutes into the second-half above in Tullamore against Antrim was the turning point of the year when Mike McCarthy drove the team on in a big, big way,” said the Kerry manager.
“I’ve mentioned that several times. He really stood up and was counted that day. Other fellas learnt off him and I think, him more than anyone, he turned the year for us.”
McCarthy’s influence continued to permeate through the team and his attacking capabilities were in evidence again in the quarter-final against Dublin when his was the final pass which put Cooper in for his goal.
He had been asked to return a number of times before O’Connor finally managed to twist his arm two months ago and it will go down in the annals of this Kerry team as one of the manager’s masterstrokes.
“Mike Mac has always been a great footballer,” said O’Connor. “Maybe for years he was marooned in the full-back line and wasn’t able to ... it’s like Moynihan when he spent his good years out there.
“There was always a great footballer in him. He, more than anybody, has energised the team.”
His influence was less obvious yesterday but just as crucial. Pearse O’Neill has enjoyed a wonderful summer in the unfamiliar position of centre forward but he won’t recall this All-Ireland final with any great fondness.
O’Neill ended the game without a score to his name and his general contribution was almost as limited thanks to what looked, at times, like an effortless performance from the Kilcummin 31-year-old.
“He slotted in brilliantly,” said Aidan O’Mahony. “He’s some footballer. Had he been there the last couple of years … you’d never have known but it took something for that man to come back out of retirement.
“He’s a media shy guy but he does his talking on the field and he was an inspiration there today. Hopefully we will have a couple of more years together.”
Time and again yesterday, McCarthy was spotted standing statue-like, hands on hips. Such a stance would be criminal at any Junior ‘B’ level but McCarthy is an old dog who knows when and where he can cut himself some slack.
The contrast with his opposite number could hardly have been greater. Graham Canty’s contribution to Cork this year – or any other – can hardly be overstated but he can’t but have been addled yesterday.
Prominent in attack all summer, his dash was cut by Tadhg Kennelly who, true to form, roamed the pitch endlessly. The national anthem must have been the last time the Listowel man stood still until his substitution after 51 minutes.
Unlike McCarthy, Canty was taken for a few points by his man. Twice in the first-half Kennelly slinked far enough away and into space to engineer a launching pad for shots on goal. Two efforts found their target.
A third, the easiest of the three, slid inches wide of the post. The pattern was set by the time Kennelly was called ashore and Donncha Walsh was installed in his place. Canty and the rest of the Cork defence was stuck in damage limitation mode.
So, the decade ends as it began for Canty – in search of that elusive All-Ireland medal. What must he think when he sees McCarthy? A man who can walk away for three years and clutch four of them in the palm of his hand.
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