kingdom giants rise to top
Donaghy and Moran - the Kerry stars reborn
WE had everything in Limerick on Saturday evening, and then we had some more. It was as if the set of 'Gladiator' had been transposed to the Gaelic Grounds, but no one had told the combatants that this was make-believe for the cinema instead of life-or-death.
Then Cormac Reilly, a man who has surely holidayed for the last time in Westport, blew his whistle to signal 'action' and off it went in a series of oscillating twists and coruscating hits. For some two-and-a-quarter hours (breaks included) of glorious anarchy.
At the end, the last men standing were Kerry - a team in supposed transition now destined for an All-Ireland SFC final on September 21. Typical Kerry, you might say.
And the ones left utterly bereft, vanquished by 3-16 to 3-13 despite leading by seven points after 23 minutes, were Mayo. James Horan's four-year quest for the holy grail had ended in ... well, a strange kind of glory. No cup. No comfort. Just a bulging memory bank of epic days and agonising 'if onlys'.
Kerry, meanwhile, limp on elated. By the time a madcap extra-time had concluded with a melee, a one-man pitch invasion and finally that uncharacteristic sending-off of Cillian O'Connor for a wild, frustrated kick at Killian Young, several of the Kingdom's leading performers had succumbed to cramp or some other form of exhaustion.
The last two weeks have been the ultimate war of attrition, yet Éamonn Fitzmaurice viewed the imposition of an extra 90-plus minutes as a "bonus" rather than a negative.
"We're three weeks out - they're a young team, a young squad," the Kerry manager pointed out. "In terms of what the lads learned, especially the mental fortitude that the lads showed when under severe pressure, you can't buy that. You can't create that in a training session in Killarney - you just can't. What we learned about the group the last two weekends, I'd take that definitely."
On the cusp of summer, few people saw this coming. The memory of Kerry's last competitive outing - a ten-point league thrashing by old rivals Cork in Tralee - augured ominously for a team already being written off in the season-long absence of the Gooch.
Fast-forward five months, and there was the same Colm Cooper - wearing No 28 and taking part in the warm-up.
Afterwards, Fitzmaurice insisted there is no chance of a fairytale All-Ireland comeback. "It must be very, very hard for him being there and looking on," said his manager. "But again - totally selfless, no ego, trying to help out any way he can. It's very big of him but unfortunately, bar a miracle in the meantime, it's 2015."
No chance, then? "There isn't. It's not going to happen."
However, two other Kerrymen who have been to injury hell and back will be marching around Croke Park after playing starring roles in a three-point victory that was ultimately deserved, for all the contentious refereeing decisions that favoured the winners.
Kieran Donaghy, former Footballer of the Year and seemingly forgotten, is a star reborn. His soaring cameo in the drawn match salvaged Kerry's season. On Saturday night, his 28th-minute goal once more revitalised flagging dreams but it was primarily as an assist king that he inspired those around him, tormenting Ger Cafferkey, feeding James O'Donoghue, drawing fouls, some admittedly dubious, and even clawing away Rob Hennelly's attempted placed ball winner at the end of normal time.
Still, Donaghy was allowed to thrive because Kerry had wrested control of the middle, even at a time when the scoreboard suggested otherwise.
David Moran was a kickout colossus, establishing a level of dominance (alongside the impressive Anthony Maher) that was central to victory. It wasn't anticipated but then, with the benefit of hindsight, surely it speaks volumes that Seamus O'Shea has had five different midfield partners this summer?
"When you're coming in early into the Kerry set-up, you think you're going to be there for ten years and the only way that you're going to finish your career is when you retire," Moran mused.
"But it doesn't work like that. It can get taken away from you so easily. But look, I'm not the only one who has done cruciates.
"Colm O'Neill has done it three times; I've only done it twice, so I'm not going to be a martyr for that.
"It makes the good days all the sweeter but, at the end of the day, we have nothing won. An All-Ireland final in three weeks' time and unless we win that, it's been an unsuccessful year," he concluded.
Typical Kerry. The bar is always September.