With a smile as broad as that on ‘A Rose of Tralee’ winner, Kerry captain John Griffin slowly hoisted the Christy Ring Cup above his head into the early evening Croke Park air to the raucous acclaim of the players below him and the small but vociferous group of supporters in the Hogan Stand behind him and uttered the words, “At Last”!
Having won the title in 2011 but been defeated by Down in 2013 and Kildare in 2014 when odds-on favourites, the Kingdom had halted the losing sequence in emphatic fashion to claim their ‘Holy Grail’ of hurling to the delight of their small pocket of supporters.
All the while, the Derry players and management in the 1,800 crowd could only watch as Eamon Kelly’s team claimed the spoils in what was Derry’s first foray to Croke Park at this level.
While it must be acknowledged that Tom McLean’s Oak Leafers had given a very good account of themselves from start to finish despite the 11-point margin, it would also have to be accepted that Kerry were a superior team.
They were two points up after two minutes, 18-year-old Michael O’Leary and ‘Player of the match’ Shane Nolan raising white flags before Ruairi Convery scored the first of his five points from frees when Clare born Patrick Kelly touched the sliothar on the ground.
In the 4th minute, wing-back Keith Carmody picked up a loose clearance from Paddy Henry who, along with midfielder Shane McGuigan, spent most of the 70 minutes helping out in defence and lofted the sliothar between the posts from 60m for 0-03 to 0-01.
Even at that stage the signs were ominous but then disaster struck as powerful right half forward Paddy McCloskey crumpled to the ground in obvious distress. And Derry’s and the player’s worst fears were soon realised as he was stretchered off the pitch.
After the game the disconsolate but stoic player confirmed that he had once again injured the knee that kept him on the side lines for over a year in recent times, the Drum and Kevin Lynch’s player fully aware that his cruciate ligament had once again been injured.
Derry manger Tom McLean spoke about McCloskey after the game, “It’s serious for Paddy, after what he’s come through before with the same knee. I’m so vexed for him! He didn’t even get five minutes on the pitch. We’ll have to get him scanned and see what way he is.”
Still, Derry rallied and levelled the scores at 0-03 each by the 13th minute, a wonderful point from Alan Grant off the left hand and a close range pointed free by Convery when keeper Stephen Murphy unceremoniously and cynically hauled Grant down in a threatening position.
That would be as near as Derry would get to the winners, despite the best efforts of an outstanding full-back trio of Michael Warnock, Conor Quinn and team captain, Seán McCullagh.
Liam Hinphey had started in place of Anton Rafferty at wing-back and gave a polished display of defensive play, not just defending resolutely but also in trying to get the attack moving with studied passes.
However it was at midfield and attack that Derry’s problems mounted as the game progressed.
With Henry and McGuigan dropping back to bolster a defence that became increasingly under pressure Kerry took control, at midfield through Patrick Kelly and further back as any ball that got inside was quickly returned.
Colm Harty had Kerry ahead before Nolan put them 0-05 to 0-03 up and from there they built a match winning lead in the first half.
John Egan added another, Convery landing a free when Derry’s most industrious forward Aaron Kelly was fouled, with O’Leary hitting back with two sumptuous points from distance for 0-08 to 0-04.
Daniel Collins fired over the ninth point but Derry showed that they had plenty of determination as Liam Hinphey pulled back a point.
Then came the moment when Kerry turned the screw irrevocably on Derry’s hopes as Nolan took a pass from Mikey Boyle in the corner and drove up the end line to flash the sliothar to the net for the only goal of the game.
Still Derry battled away as Paddy Henry responded to the setback with a pointed free when Liam Hinphey was fouled.
Colm Harty pointed for Kerry but Convery landed two frees in the closing minutes of the half following fouls on Kelly and substitute Niall Ferris to cut the half-time lead to 1-10 to 0-08.
Until the 46th minute the battle was intense, Derry matching Kerry for intensity and possession but unable to breach their defence.
Then Nolan pointed a free and, despite a converted 65m free by Paddy Henry when the defiant Liam Hinphey was fouled, Kerry’s grip on the game had been restored.
Nolan pointed two further frees with Carmody hitting his second from wing-back, substitute Johnny O’Dwyer picking one off for Derry for 1-14 to 0-11.
From Patrick Kelly’s 60th minute point to the end it was one way traffic as Kelly, Carmody and Nolan with three frees increased the tally, Paddy Henry’s point in the 64th minute of little consequence as Kerry pulled away effortlessly for victory.
Derry full-back Conor Quinn admitted the turning point had been Kerry’s first half goal and said Derry had been well in the game until then.
“Without a doubt, we were still well in it,” explained the Derry defender, “The breeze was hard to judge but I felt it was coming to favour us in the second half.
“Half-time, we were going out saying that if we got a few early scores and got on the ball, it was going to be a game. If we could get it into the last few minutes with a couple of points in it, that’s where we start to excel.
“That’s where we’ve always been good, in dogfights of games that are hard won by a point or two but we never really got that at the start of the second half, it kind of continued the way the first half had ended.”
Kerry scorers: Shane Nolan 1-07 (6f), Michael O’Leary 0-03, Keith Carmody 0-03, Patrick Kelly 0-03, Colum Harty 0-02, John Egan, Daniel Collins, 0-01 each
Derry scorers: Ruairi Convery 0-05f, Paddy Henry 0-04f, Jonathan O’Dwyer, Alan Grant and Liam Hinphey 0-01 each
Kerry: Stephen Murphy; Rory Horgan, Paud Costelloe, Btyan Murphy; Daniel Collins, Darren Dineen, Keith Carmody; John Griffin, Patrick Kelly; Michael O’Leary, Shane Nolan, Colum Harty; Mikey Boyle, Padraig Boyle; John Egan. (Subs) John O’Neill for P Boyle 45 mins; D Butler for M O’Leary, 52 mins; James Flaherty for C Harty, 62 mins; Dougie Fitzel for D Dinneen 68 mins
Derry: Darrell McDermott Michael Warnock Conor Quinn Sean McCullagh, Liam Hinphey, Conor McSorley Kevin Hinphey Sean McGuigan Brendan Quigley Paddy McCloskey Paul Cleary Paddy Henry, Anton Kelly Ruairi Convery, Alan Grant. (Subs) Niall Ferris for P McCloskey 5 mins injured; Dean Flanagan for B Quigley 32 mins; Jonathan O’Dwyer for P Cleary 40 mins; Ruairi McCloskey for C McSorley 57 mins; Michael Conway for A Grant 60 mins
Referee: John Keane (Galway )