So, we’re at the Divisional final stage in this year’s National League and at Croke Park on Sunday we’re set to face off against Kerry for the Division One title. The match is live on TG4, throw-in is 4pm and Noel Mooney of Cavan is the ref.
This pre-game piece usually takes the same form, comprising a gallop through recent results against our upcoming opponents and finishing with a poll to see what the mood is like among supporters as we count down the days to the match. Seeing as we played Kerry just a few weeks ago, however, there’s obviously no point in doing that (though I will in a minute touch briefly on the two matches they’ve played since we met in Tralee) and the poll at the end will, because it’s a final, be slightly different too.
In case anyone is interested, the pre-game piece I did before our Round 5 meeting with Kerry a few weeks back is here.
Let’s move on by joining up the few dots between Austin Stack Park and Croke Park. After the Kingdom narrowly prevailed over us in the cold, wet and wind of Tralee, they headed north to take on the early pace-setters Armagh. We’d put a halt to the Orchard County’s gallop before the Kerry game and while they’d got back on the horse in Round 5 by beating Kildare, Kerry turned them over at the Athletic Grounds the following weekend by 1-13 to 0-13.
That meant Jack O’Connor’s side had the opportunity to relegate Tyrone, the county they dislike even more than us, in Killarney last Sunday. Despite putting out a very strong side, though, Kerry looked strangely listless in a match in which, admittedly, they had nothing to play for but pride, as their place in next Sunday’s final was already in the bag.
Tyrone had their Division One status to play for and it showed as they came out on top by a single point, 1-15 to 2-11, thus preserving their top tier status and poking the Kerry lads in the eyes into the bargain.
Because of that unexpected loss, Kerry won’t bounce into Sunday’s decider off the back of an unbeaten run of regulation games in this year’s Division One. Instead, Cranky Jack will be sending his charges out with the aim of recording a second successive win over us and, into the bargain, winning the National League title.
Jack, to be fair, knows plenty about beating us. He was whistling through his teeth on the line when Kerry eviscerated us in the 2004 and 2006 finals and he was, of course, there too when they beat us less handily in the 2005 quarter-final.
Near the end of his second term in 2011, Jack also led Kerry to an All-Ireland semi-final win over us, in what was James Horan’s first season as Mayo manager. But here’s the thing: that was the last time, in League or Championship, that the Kingdom have lowered our colours at GAA HQ.
Jack was still there in April 2012 when we claimed an improbable extra-time win in the National League semi-final. It may have only been the League but there was at least a hint of deliverance for us in that comeback victory. That was our first win over them at the venue since the 1996 All-Ireland semi-final.
This means that, since that 2011 loss, our Croke Park record against Kerry reads three wins, two draws and no losses.
Two years on from that League semi-final, in August 2014, we drew an absolutely scintillating All-Ireland semi-final against them, on a day when Lee Keegan was harshly ordered off before half-time and our fourteen men all but swept them away in the second half. They had Kieran Donaghy to thank for the draw they snatched that day and they were further in his debt, along with the hapless Cormac Reilly, for their controversial extra-time replay win in Limerick.
Back in Croker, we played out another belter in the 2017 semi-final. This time it was us – in that iconic red and black strip – who got a late, late equaliser, courtesy of Paddy Durcan, before we beat them comprehensively in the replay.
Two years later, in the 2019 League final, came our most recent Croke Park meeting. Like Sunday, Kerry were favourites to win that day too and two first half goals appeared to put them on the road to victory. Our second half comeback, capped with goals from Matthew Ruane, Diarmuid O’Connor and sub Ciaran Treacy, was little short of joyous and the outpouring of emotion on and off the field after we’d won was as uplifting as it was unexpected.
Seen in this light – an unbeaten run against them at Croke Park stretching back eleven years – perhaps it’s no surprise that the Kerry faithful bellowed like they’d won the All-Ireland when the final whistle sounded at Austin Stack Park a few weeks ago. A win for them over us now counts as a significant scalp and Sunday’s final will be more significant still for them if they manage to do it.
They’re fancied to win, of course they are, but this is our favourite ground, a place where, despite our appalling record in Championship finals, we’ve had so many happy days since 2011. If Kerry do get the better of us on Sunday, it’s a victory they’ll have earned.
But will they or will we instead extend this long undefeated run against them at Croke Park? As this is a final that must, even if it comes to penalties, be decided on the day, it cannot be framed in the usual win/draw/lose way. Instead, this one’s all or nothing. So, which is it to be?
Will we beat Kerry in the final?
- Yes (67%, 723 Votes)
- No (33%, 361 Votes)
Total Voters: 1,084