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Friday 19 January 2018

Gaelic: Cooper leads Kerry charge

Kerry 1-20 Mayo 1-11

KERRY are exactly where they want to be – and where most of us expected them to be – as we turn our thoughts to September. Yesterday’s performance was far from flawless but it was still a powerful reaffirmation of the Kingdom’s status as All-Ireland favourites.



And Mayo? Well, it depends on whether you perceive the glass as half-empty or half-full. They have developed in leaps and bounds under James Horan this summer, and they posed plenty of searching questions for Jack O’Connor during a fearsomely fought first half and even for periods during the second. And yet? They still ended on the wrong end of an emphatic defeat and the long search for that missing person, Sam Maguire, will have extended into a 61st year by the start of next year’s championship.



At no stage during the second half, as Colm Cooper stamped his genius upon proceedings and as Kerry’s attack cut loose against an increasingly stretched Mayo rearguard, did you sense an escape route for the Connacht champions. A run of six unanswered points – launched by Cooper in the 43rd minute and bookended by his effervescent Dr Crokes club-mate, Kieran O’Leary, eight minutes later – was the decisive period of this often absorbing semifinal.



VULNERABLE



What happened in the next couple of minutes was instructive on two levels. Firstly we had Mayo’s ability to chisel out goal chances against a vulnerable Kerry defence – something that will imbue cautious optimism in Dublin or Donegal, whoever they face on September 18. But after Cillian O’Connor had fleetingly revived flagging Mayo hopes with a goal after 52 minutes, you had Kerry’s instant green flag riposte, sublimely executed by … who else but the Gooch, pouncing on a ball that goalkeeper Robert Hennelly had failed to gather, then jinking past Tom Cunniffe as a prelude to an unstoppable finish.



Mayo have been down this lonely road before: Cooper broke their hearts in the 2004 All-Ireland, and hammered a few more daggers through the sternum in ’06. By full-time yesterday he had 1-7 to his name, with his fingerprints all over another handful of Kerry points, and the scoreboard was reading 1-20 to 1-11. In cold print it sounds like a trouncing but, in fairness, this never seemed like a nine-point game, even during a dominant second half which saw the winners run up 1-12. Put it this way: the ’04 final finished in an eight-point drubbing that was considerably worse. Kerry scored four unanswered points from the 69th minute, the last three coming in stoppage time, as Mayo belatedly gave up the ghost.



When the game was competitive, though, they exposed several shortcomings in their vaunted rivals. The eternally game Andy Moran turned and twisted Marc Ó Sé for a hat-trick of goal chances: the first (after 14 minutes) was hammered straight at Kealy, who also saved in the 52nd minute only for O’Connor to fire home in the follow-up, while Moran’s final half-chance flew wide via an upright. On two other occasions in the home straight, Mayo threatened to locate the Hill 16 net. However, their otherwise excellent centre-back, Donal Vaughan, blazed over his third point when they craved a goal while Aidan O’Shea’s bulldozing run ended in a flying block by Eoin Brosnan.



For the 7/2 outsiders to cause an upset, they needed to convert most if not all of these chances. And besides, Kerry spurned openings of their own – twice they carved open Mayo in the first seven minutes, and twice Darran O’Sullivan was denied by Hennelly in one-on-one scenarios. FULL-BLOODED Mayo settled after these early scares and, for much of the opening 25 minutes, had Kerry on the back foot. Their tackling was full-blooded, their commitment absolute, albeit their understandable use of Kevin McLoughlin as a sweeping seventh defender yielded mixed results. It worked in the sense that it took Kerry 18 minutes to register their second point; their initial predilection for playing routeone into Kieran Donaghy didn’t work, with Ger Cafferkey enjoying a fine game. But the withdrawal of McLoughlin also provided Kerry with frequently uncontested kickout possession, and when Tomás Ó Sé assumed the free role from Brosnan, he exerted a critical playmaking role.



Cooper’s influence also grew in the lead-up to half-time, and five unanswered points saw Kerry go from two down to three up before a majestic Moran point on the stroke of half-time left it 0-8 to 0-6. But if Mayo believed Kerry were going to suffer the same second-half fate as befell Galway, Roscommon and Cork (who collectively managed a meagre four points after the half-time break), Cooper and company weren’t long disabusing them of such thoughts. Ultimately Kerry won – convincingly – because they had too much experience and far too much guile. The peerless Cooper apart, they had several other big performers with the elder Ó Sé the pick of their defence.



The more mobile Anthony Maher and Bryan Sheehan won the midfield battle: the pre-match hype surrounding the O’Shea brothers proved overblown with Aidan, especially, guilty of taking too much out of the ball. Strangely, given their final tally, Kerry’s previously red-hot half-forward line had a very unproductive day, with Declan O’Sullivan especially struggling in the slipstream of the marauding Vaughan. Even Donaghy, while tallying two points, has surely more in the locker. But Paul Galvin enhanced his recall claims with a hugely productive half-hour cameo; O’Leary had arguably his finest game for the county … and then you had the unmarkable Gooch.



The sceptics may have wondered aloud if Cooper was past his best after some less-than-stellar recent showings. Now he’s just 70 minutes away from leading Kerry back up the steps of the Hogan.



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