One of the key hallmarks of a proper team is how they react to disappointing set-backs, and whether they have the mental and physical resilience to respond positively in times of adversity. Do they sink or swim when the pressure is at its highest and their backs are really up against the wall?
hat was the scenario facing the Kerry minor footballers after the Munster final at Pairc Ui Rinn. Having demolished Cork by 14 points three weeks previously, to then be hammered themselves by 3-11 to 0-9 by the same opposition was as unexpected as it was worrying for the Kingdom management.
Of course, at this age grade, unpredictability is often the order of the day, and while it might have been more palatable for James Costello and his selectors to simply classify the provincial decider as a bad night at the office, they knew that it wasn’t as simple as that. Remedial action would have to be taken.
To make the situation even more precarious, Tyrone were the formidable hurdle that had to be jumped in last Saturday’s All-Ireland quarter-final in Portlaoise. This was a Red Hand outfit that already had nine unbeaten competitive fixtures under their belt all season, and were the probable favourites to go on and lift the Tom Markham Cup.
It was a definite case of going from the frying pan of Cork into the proverbial raging fire of the Ulster champions. Without a shadow of a doubt, this was a defining moment for this 2022 collection of young Kingdom prodigies. Their season was entirely on the line in one 60-minute period. The back-door had now been completely shut with the key thrown away.
Summoned into the fray were Desmonds corner-back Ruairi Burke, Austin Stacks centre-back Colm Browne, Ballyduff midfielder Evan Boyle, and Ardfert corner-forward Odhran Ferris. All on their way back from different injuries and spells on the treatment table, there was no time to ease themselves in. It was straight into the lion’s den and make sure you weren’t devoured.
The fact that Kerry now have an All-Ireland semi-final to look forward to against Mayo on the weekend after next tells you all you need to know about what transpired at O’Moore Park on a windy Saturday afternoon. In a massive test of their characters, their self-belief and their collective resilience, the Kingdom youngsters stood up and were counted.
While Burke helped to solidify the full-back line, and Ferris buzzed around with great intent up front on a day that wasn’t conducive to attacking invention, Browne and Boyle were absolutely pivotal to what Kerry managed to achieve. First of all, they brought extra height to the team, which was a significant plus, but, more importantly, they negated Tyrone’s perceived strengths in two vital areas.
Weather conditions ensured that this was never going to be an encounter that would be remembered in the minds of the footballing purists, but for one brief four-minute period late in the first half when Kerry hit four points to just one in reply from their opponents, Boyle’s magnificent fielding of two Red Hand kick-outs that directly led to two of those Kerry white flags was hugely crucial.
The tall, elegant figure of Boyle – the latest production off the conveyor belt of that wonderful sporting family, and underage again next year – certainly justified his selection. Browne was a revelation, pocketing the highly-rated figure of Tyrone captain Eoin McElholm in his general defensive duties, but also finding time to continuously break the lines on his direct and powerful bursts upfield.
Kerry looked a more confident outfit with Boyle and Browne back in the thick of the action, but this was all about the complete team effort, and it certainly had to be that way because there were also many tricky moments during an afternoon where there was never more than three points between the sides, and that was only the case in the immediate aftermath of Tyrone’s seventh minute goal.
Costello’s charges were not rocked by that opening blow, which was a clear sign of their overall state of mind, and that purple patch before the interval enabled them to take a very creditable one-point 0-6 to 1-2 lead with them to the half-time break, captain Cormac Dillon really stepping up to the plate with three fine scores in the opening 30 minutes.
When the herculean figure of Eddie Healy, a constant source of inspiration from beginning to end, boomed over a stunning 40 metre right-foot point just six minutes into the second half, and with the wind now in their favour, Kerry appeared set to kick on. However, little did anyone believe that they would then fail to score for the next 22 minutes.
During that barren spell, the Kingdom were indebted to goalkeeper Shay O’Meara for two solid and competent saves from Tyrone’s Noah Grimes and earlier goalscorer Caolan Donnelly, while they also had to contend with the black card dished out to Ballymac wing-forward Niall Collins for apparently over-celebrating the winning of a Kerry sideline turnover.
The Kingdom really had to dig in during that ten-minute period where they were at a numerical disadvantage, but with Browne leading a dominant back division, Tyrone could only manage a solitary point in that spell before, fittingly, Kerry’s scoring drought was broken by an outstanding 45-metre free by Fionn Murphy in the 58th minute.
Like Browne, Healy, Boyle, Jack Clifford and the others who helped Kerry to gain a serious foothold around the middle of the park, thwarting Tyrone’s attempt to control the game from there, Rathmore man Murphy was a massively influential presence, always looking to burst forward and penetrate the Tyrone rearguard when in possession.
The Ulster side tried valiantly to retrieve the situation in the dying moments, but with Jack O’Sullivan making a couple of important defensive interventions, Kerry held firm for a thoroughly deserved victory. It wasn’t pretty, it was never going to be that kind of game, but it certainly was bloody effective. It wiped away the memories of the Cork debacle, that is for sure.
Kerry now prepare for Mayo in the last four, emboldened and battle-hardened by what they have been through over the last two weeks. With Darragh O’Connor to return from suspension and Jake Foley, hopefully, back in the mix after injury, there will be more options for Costello to ponder.
Whatever happens from here on in, this team have shown they have an abundance of big-match bottle. The class of ’22 will take serious stopping now.