No rancour in Mayo rivalry, insists Kerry skipper Johnny Buckley

Johnny Buckley at Fitzgerald Stadium. Picture: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

If the Mayo-Kerry dynamic awaits a true turning point, at least it now has a sore point.

The 1996 win for John Maughan’s boys proved more blip than hinge. Kerry’s persecution resumed, the cosh brought down heavily in those cruel noughties finals. The championship tally tipped up now to a dismissive 18-4.

For the 2014 semi-final replay, Mayo landed in Limerick in bad form, insulted to be shunted out of Croker by gridiron.

They left bruised, baffled and indignant. The bould Mick Barrett had stormed the field to lend Cormac Reilly a few pointers. And James Horan departed his post noting sadly that raging at refs wasn’t “good for the soul”.

A relationship losing spark had been injected with the vitality of rancour.

Or not, according to Johnny Buckley.

In the soft-spoken Dr Crokes man, Éamonn Fitzmaurice has a dream skipper. Able to stand up when needed, but just as good at playing down.

Three years ago, Buckley was among the sundry Kerry men Mick and brotherhood felt fortunate to escape the sight of some colour of card.

But the velvet gloves are back on.

“It was two teams going at it and just two teams trying to get one over on the other and trying to pip it.

“I wouldn’t say it added any bitterness, it was just that bit of competition. It’s a natural thing when you are playing for high stakes.

“I suppose it was a very unique football match in that it was played in the Gaelic Grounds. We had played there before but the atmosphere definitely was something different to what you were used to.

“The game and the physicality of the game fed into that, and it was just one of those occasions where it was a rollercoaster. Thinking that ‘we’re out’, ’ job done’ to ‘that’s the end of the road.’

“It was a tit-for-tat championship match that could have gone either way and we were just delighted to come out on the right side of it.”

Whenever Mayo’s neighbours mustered resistance in this season’s quarter-final, most observers agreed Buckley stood tallest to guide Kerry out of turbulence. He’s as sharp playing down the MVP garlands.

“No, I wouldn’t agree with that, I wouldn’t agree with that. There’s plenty to brush up on. It was just great to be back up there and playing. Just having been injured and out of it last year and a lot of this year, it was great to just get back up and be stuck in the middle of it.”

For Kerry’s first Croke Park visit of the year, he was beyond the periphery, fidgeting on a sofa.

“I sat down with (Kerry physio) Colm Fuller and the medical team and put a programme in place for a six-week block to try to get the body right in preparation for championship training and thankfully that’s worked out okay.

“We felt the body wasn’t right. I was struggling with my knee and knew going straight back in with Kerry wasn’t a wise decision.

“The footballing instinct inside you says ‘go back playing straight away,’ but Colm, who’s a clubmate of mine, said ‘this is the right thing to do, and stick with it.’”

So he saw teammates loosen the Dublin monkey in the league final with a remote control in his hand.

“It was a bit surreal, I was just watching the game at home with herself and I turned into a Kerry supporter for the day. I was shouting at the TV no more than anyone else at the end of the game.”

On their return to HQ last month, Kerry rarely moved with the same fluency against Galway.

“There were periods in the game where we just didn’t score enough. We had the possession and just getting that transition up to the scorers and being able to capitalise in the periods when we were on top is definitely something we’re working on.

“It’s hard to put your finger on it. We felt we were in a very good place going into the game, training had gone well. Just on the day, we didn’t play with the intensity or put in the performance we were hoping to put in or had trained to put in.

“That performance won’t do against Mayo.”

Back in 2014, Kerry had to produce a performance against Mayo without Colm Cooper, a task they face again on Sunday.

Buckley is gradually acclimatising to county life without his stellar clubmate.

“He was missed at the start… the first couple of sessions. he was a great figure around the team. Obviously around the field, but in the dressing-room too.

“But I’m sure he’ll tell you it’s the nature of football in Kerry and any other team that you come and do your bit and now he’s enjoying his club football and playing great stuff.

“There’s someone sitting in his seat and the show must go on.

“Going watching him in club games is a pleasure. It’s nice to see a fella in the county league on a Saturday evening thinking he has a handy day out and then seeing my man coming into his corner. He knows he’s in for a fun one.”

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