At the full-time whistle they sought each other out. These two greats. These two forces of nature. These two totemic figures, one in green and gold, the other in Saffron.
ach knew, each knows, just how good the other is. There’s that mutual respect there between these warriors, especially after a battle for the ages.
At end of seventy minutes of rollercoaster action there was no bitterness, no recrimination, simply a shared love of the game, a love of their counties.
Neil McManus took the spoils and the glory, a second Joe McDonagh Cup title in three years. The man he embraced, like his team, denied again. Somehow though the legend of Mikey Boyle and this Kerry team burns brighter than ever before.
Of all the finals he’s played in Croke Park, Sunday might well rank amongst the greatest, if not the greatest the Ballyduff man has played. Simply for the level this game was played at, the level the Kingdom reached, the level Boyle hit in the second half after a relatively quiet first half.
Boyle seemed to play more of the role he’s made his own this past couple of seasons after the break, dropping back around the edge of the D to cut out Antrim attacks at source. Certainly the Glensmen didn’t find nearly as much space as they did in the first half.
Instead, more often than not, they found Mikey Boyle. Hand-outstretched plucking sliotar from sky time and again. It wasn’t all down to Boyle, of course, pretty much everyone out there in green and gold upped their game, upped their work-rate.
It meant that Antrim didn’t have nearly as much time on the ball to pick those beautiful passes they did in the first half. Those lovely little cross-field passes dried up as Antrim were forced to go long a bit more than they would have liked.
There more often than not to meet it was Boyle, leaving Antrim increasingly frustrated and, it felt, out of ideas as the Kingdom came in wave after wave down the other end. It was truly thrilling stuff. Can’t-take-your-eyes-off stuff and, even more crucially, top quality stuff.
At the end of seventy minutes, despite a rather remarkable see-saw, there was nothing between the sides. Just a single point.
Indeed, it’s quite possible that had the game gone on a little longer Kerry might have won it. The Kingdom’s remarkable fitness seeming to outlast Antrim, despite Darren Gleeson’s men having the superior bench.
Once they got up and running, Kerry hurled possibly the finest game they’ve hurled and considering some of the hurling they’ve played to date this year alone, that’s saying something.
At the end of it all, neutrals were left purring in satisfaction by what they’d seen from both sides. One former inter-county hurling manager enthused nearby that he’d witnessed a great game of hurling. And he had.
This had a little bit of everything. Unsurpassed drama, led largely by the Kingdom’s contribution to the show played out on Croke Park’s pristine green proscenium. It’s important to says too that these weren’t the cheap thrills of a Michael Bay movie, this production was of Oscar quality.
The commitment of both sides was second to none. The skill on view sometimes outrageous, The way Conal Cunning somehow flicked it over Louis Dee for Antrim’s fourth goal. Jordan Conway’s take for his second goal after it was sent in from distance.
Possibly even more impressive was the Tralee man’s finish for that goal having been hooked brilliantly by Paddy Burke, forcing the Crotta club man to volley it home, practically one-handed. A finer finish you won’t have seen last weekend, and we’d include Sunday’s epic Munster final in that.
Of course, such was the quality of the Kingdom’s performance – their level practically indistinguishable from Antrim’s who are now Leinster bound – that there have been murmurings that Kerry ought really be expedited into Munster regardless.
Honestly, though, we’re not quite sure they’re ready for that just yet. For all their quality on the weekend they were clearly far from flawless. Maybe it was due to a mixture or nerves and tactical mistakes by management (rectified later on as we’ve noted), but Kerry really did start very poorly, to say the very least.
It’s easy to get swept along with the emotion of the rousing recovery drive and to forget about why it was necessary in the first place. It could also be the case that Antrim took their foot off the gas a little thinking the game was won – as we all did truth be told – and found it hard to kick it up a gear there after.
The truth is probably somewhere in between, even if we do lean more heavily towards last weekend’s performance having been one of the all-time great Kerry performances.
Still Kerry have flaws, they continue to lack the depth you’d need to compete in five Munster championship games over the course of seven weeks. Kerry could do with at least another year at Joe Mac level to develop this side before they push on to Munster.
Without wanting to disrespect anyone, Kerry needed a bit more impact off the bench, which might seem an odd thing to say seeing as Jordan Conway and Maurice O’Connor delivered 2-3 from play between them.
Still – and no disrespect intended to guys who are putting in an unbelievable effort – after that the impact was scant enough.
That Kerry only used four of five subs available is telling. As we’ve said before the tune that Stephen Molumphy and co are getting out of this group is magnificent, but they need a greater spread of talent.
Losing Daniel Collins – having his best game in green and gold since Kilmoyley’s run to the All Ireland club final – to injury was a serious blow. There’s no escaping it, Kerry are tight for numbers.
Hopefully next year that won’t be as much the case. You’d hope one or two guys who opted out for this year might think again when they see how well the campaign has gone. You’d hope some of those Under 20 players, who ran Tipp so close in March, will be ready to step up and provide that jolt of additional quality and depth as well.
Add a Mike O’Leary or a Barry Mahony into the mix on the weekend and, who knows, maybe Tipperary hurling folk might have been shifting uneasily in their seats this week.
Look, we can understand the lure of Munster hurling – and, boy, does Mikey Boyle deserve a crack at it before he retires – but for now we think Kerry would be better off staying put, finishing the job and building up their panel along the way.
After three finals in as many years, the Joe Mac is an itch the Kingdom have to scratch. Once they have, absolutely it’s time for a crack at the Mickey Mackey Cup and the Munster blue bloods.