THE crimson sun slipping behind the McGillicuddy’s and the shifting hues of the frosty twilight fading into the inky sky over Tralee formed a memorable backdrop to the drama played out in Austin Stack Park between Mayo and Kerry on Saturday night.
Like all good theatre, it was a scene tinctured with suspense, and it culminated in an unexpected, but pivotal victory for Mayo. All through the first half they had laboured disconcertingly, but emerged after the break in a new frame of mind.
At the end Kerry, having led by four points at the interval, were forced to rue the goal chances they missed in the opening 30 minutes which, had they been availed of, might have had them too far ahead to be overtaken.
But caught they were, and for all of the pace and midfield power they radiated in the early stages when they cut through the Mayo defence as if it didn’t exist, the vital experience of the Gooch and Marc O’Shea and Aidan O’Mahony was missed from a side apparently deep in transition.
Because of absenteeism Mayo’s short-term ambitions are trimmed somewhat.
During the first half you wondered about the state of mind of some players. Like the previous Saturday, there was not much of a pattern to their game, no conciseness, no coherence, no real desire it seemed to pursue much other than the bare minimum.
Kerry, like bats out of hell, besieged them. With every attack a goal seemed imminent.
To have missed two sitters in the first half was due to bad luck on the one hand when the crossbar intervened to deny Adrian Spillane, and on the other when David Clarke authenticated his goalkeeping accomplishments with a couple of first-class saves.
The pressure came mainly from Kerry’s big midfielders David Moran and Jack Barry and Jack Savage and Adrian Spillane on the right-hand flank of the attack. Half-backs Jonathon Lyne and Tadgh Morley also pressed forward forcing a rather dishevelled defence into all sorts of contortions to avert danger.
Somehow they kept their goal intact until the 30th minute when a dozen groping hands failed to make sense of the ball ... until Barry John Keane, perfectly placed, found a crack through which he guided the ball into the net.
In losing his concentration at stages, Donal Vaughan epitomised Mayo’s mindset in that first half. When they moved him to wing back, that old familiar Vaughan flourished, and Mayo seemed a tighter and more efficient defence.
Andy Moran and Conor O’Shea started instead of Alan Freeman and Evan Regan of the announced side, and the Ballagh’ man justified his selection with a performance that left many of his younger colleagues in the shade.
Everything he did, Moran did it with classic simplicity, wining the race to every ball, and dispossessing an opponent in the race he didn’t win. It was Moran at his best, ardent, wholehearted, committed.
Cillian O’Connor played deeper than normal. When he took over on the ‘40’ after the break, he organised and directed his forwards with the skill of a master tutor. Uncharacteristically, he dropped a couple of kicks short in the first half, but his overall total of nine points from frees is telling evidence of his contribution.
TO be frank, we did not expect at the interval the fury and conviction with which Mayo hit the ground in the second half. The changes made during the break were more in harmony with their regular lineout.
Paddy Durcan moved from the corner to his customary half-back spot and made important headway into Kerry territory. Vaughan and Stephen Coen benefited from trading positions. Eoin O’Donoghue, who earlier replaced David Drake, took up position at right corner, his debut for Mayo.
The whole structure had a more normal look to it, and with Parsons and Coen curbing Kerry’s midfield danger, and O’Connor orchestrating from the ‘40’ the old fire was stoked.
Keith Higgins has adjusted with some composure to full-back and a couple of his interventions and runs were well-timed and incisive. Colm Boyle at centre back was what Colm Boyle always is ... reliable and influential.
It is to Donie Newcombe’s credit that he had the composure to overcome a troubling start by Jack Savage, eventually overshadowing the crafty Kerryman.
Fergal Boland grows more and more like realising his potential. Kevin McLoughlin’s industry was also vital as he roamed the pitch.
Barely a minute had passed in the second half when Conor O’Shea sheared a point off Kerry’s lead. He had a chance of a goal, but the point cranked up Mayo’s recovery, and from that moment they were in charge.
The hosts relented only stubbornly, however. Mayo did not take the lead until after Conor Geaney had Kerry’s third and last point of the second half in the 58th minute.
Diarmuid O’Connor, Shane Nally, Michael Plunkett and Danny Kirby strengthened Mayo’s resistance when introduced in the final quarter. Evan Regan, who replaced the hard-working Jason Doherty, was dismissed for a black-card offence shortly afterwards.
This reawakening of Mayo was overshadowed somewhat by the dispatch of Tom Parsons for a red card offence in the final seconds of the game.
From my vantage point on the terrace Parsons appeared to rush in for some perceived injustice. The pity of his intervention is that Mayo, ahead by two points, had been awarded a free in the final seconds of injury time when victory was assured.
They will be without the Charlestown man for the match with Roscommon on Saturday week, and where once Mayo had a surfeit of midfield choices, they are now struggling to find a suitable blend.
While this win was vital for Mayo, it was not vintage Kerry. The younger members being nurtured by Eamonn Fitzmaurice lacked Mayo’s experience. Their pace and whirlwind start belied the immaturity of their new players.
They must now be wondering whether they have the resources to displace Dublin from their entrenched setting on top of the pile. And as implacable foes that can only be a matter of concern as they watch the Dubs’ pursuit of a third All-Ireland in a row and evolution into one of the great Gaelic football sides of all time.
In the second half on Saturday they looked every bit as disjointed as Mayo had been in the first half. They lost Paul Geaney early on with a suspected hamstring problem, and although his loss was not quite so evident while Kerry were on top, they had no one up front to lead them when Mayo tightened the screw.