Not for the first time in the qualifiers, Kerry edged over the line to book their passage into the next round with a one point victory over Westmeath in Mullingar.
Having failed to score from play in the opening half hour and finding themselves six points down at one stage in the second period, Jack O’Connor’s men had to draw on all their reserves to see off passionate and gutsy display from the home side.
Ultimately it was the introduction of speed merchant Darran O’Sullivan that was the difference between the teams. The Glenbeigh man was unable to start due to injury, but staring defeat in the barrel, was introduced at half-time and within seven minutes found the back of the net. Colm Cooper found him with a contentious free, and the Kerry comeback was on course.
He only played for 26 minutes as O’Connor sought to protect him from further hamstring woes, but by that stage his role was complete.
Westmeath played like a team unaware of its highly rated opposition with John Heslin dominating centre-field and Ger Egan, Paul Sherry and Kieran Martin running the Kerry defence ragged.
A penalty conceded on twelve minutes after a push on Eoin Brosnan was the only blot on the copybook, which Bryan Sheehan duly converted. Trailing 0-8 to 1-3 at the break, the home side made the perfect start in the second half. Michael Ennis was dragged down in front of goals and David Glennon converted the resulting spot-kick.
Six points down, the turning point in the game was about to arrive. Ronan Foley was coming out of defence when he was called for over-carrying. The decision was meet with widespread disapproval, but to compound matters, Cooper found O’Sullivan with a quick free and the substitute found the back of Darren Quinn’s net.
James O’Donoghue and Paul Galvin quickly added points, before another from O’Donoghue levelled the game. Cooper then put the visitors ahead and many expected the Westmeath challenge to fizzle out.
However Heslin levelled the game again before two more Kerry frees saw the gap restored to two points. Heslin reduced this to one in injury time, but from the resulting kick-out the referee blew the whistle for full-time, much to the annoyance of home boss Pat Flanagan. “We felt there was another minute to go, and that’s why we told him, take the free,” he said. “Their goalkeeper took about 20 seconds to kick the ball out, so again, some funny decisions. I wonder, if we were winning by two points, would it be only two minutes?”
Kerry march on to Round three of the qualifiers, where they have drawn a home tie against Tyrone on the weekend of July 21/22.