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Cleary under no illusions about Kerry challenge

May 7th, 2022 8:00 AM

By Kieran McCarthy

Cleary under no illusions about Kerry challenge Image
Cork senior football manager John Cleary.

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Kingdom clear favourites for Páirc clash this evening

JOHN Cleary is a realist. He knows the size of the task ahead of the Cork footballers on Saturday evening – but he’s not without hope either.

Still, while David shocked Goliath once (Cork’s 2020 Munster SFC semi-final win against Kerry), the element of surprise is now gone. Factor in too that since then David’s grown weaker and Goliath has bulked up.

Home advantage, in theory, will help Cork to a degree, but stand-in manager Cleary, who has taken the reins since Keith Ricken stepped back for health reasons, is preparing for this game with his eyes wide open.

‘Playing in Páirc Uí Rinn might be a little advantage but we are under no illusions, we are playing Kerry on a very good, full-size inter-county standard pitch,’ the Castlehaven man told The Southern Star.

‘Kerry are even money favourites to win the All-Ireland, we are 150-1. We are 12-1 to win on Saturday night. You can butter it up whatever way you like, but we need to concentrate on getting the very best performance out of ourselves and let’s see where that takes us.

‘Kerry have made no secret that their intention is to win the All-Ireland this year. They have played some fantastic football. I saw them in the league final against Mayo and they were outstanding. All we can do is look after ourselves and do the best that we can do.’

Whether Cork’s best right now is good enough to wobble Kerry is a matter of debate. The two rivals are in different stages of their development, Division 1 league champions Kerry much further along that road than an inexperienced Cork group that survived relegation to Division 3 on the final day of the league.

Cleary, who joined Ricken’s management team as football coach, admits it wasn’t part of the plan to blood so many new players. But needs must. In the opening Division 2 loss to Roscommon, six debutants started (John Cooper, Joe Grimes, Daniel O’Connell, Blake Murphy, David Buckley and Mark Cronin) and two more came on as subs (Chris Óg Jones, Mark Buckley). More followed in the weeks ahead. When Kanturk’s Tommy Walsh came off the bench against Down in the second last league game, he was the 15th Cork debutant in this league campaign. That’s a staggering turnover. Again, not part of the original plan.

‘There were a good few lads thrown in at the deep end. At the start of the year the idea was to blend them in gradually, maybe give them a small bit of game time in the McGrath Cup and then introduce them during the league, but they found themselves centre stage,’ Cleary says.

There were a number of reasons for this the Cork boss points out. Players they hoped would commit to the team didn’t. St Finbarr’s were still in club action. But the big reason was the length of the Cork injury list.

‘At one stage we had 19 injuries, so it was a case of anyone in the group who was fit was going to be thrown in at the deep end,’ Cleary explains.

‘In fairness, a lot of them have taken to it and definitely improved.

Hopefully for the future that will stand to them. It was probably a bit unfair to throw them in at the deep end against top-class inter-county football opposition but the way it panned out we had no choice.’

To highlight the player turnover and injury woes, from the Cork team that lost last year’s Munster SFC final to Kerry in Killarney, Sean Meehan (injured), Sean Powter (injured), Ian Maguire (injured), Mark Collins (retired), Ruairi Deane (not involved), Luke Connolly (not involved), Mark White (not involved), Kevin O’Driscoll (not involved) and Kevin Crowley (not involved) will all play no part on Saturday evening. That’s more than half a team.

With the size of the challenge Cleary is facing in his first senior inter-county championship clash as manager, you’d forgive him for feeling overwhelmed. But knowing him as we do it’s no surprise to see him taking it all in his stride.

‘In fairness the lads around me have done most of the work,’ he says. ‘But there are some things then that just fall to me as the last person in the line. It has been busier in that respect, it’s a case of dealing with things that come up. With regards to running an inter-county team there are a lot of things that come up, but you have to deal with them and get on with it.

‘Going back to the start it was a learning process for us all. Even though a lot of us have been involved in teams this was a new group and a new situation at the top level.

‘We couldn’t start until the middle of December, we had the McGrath Cup in January so we had only three weeks to get off the ground. Then we were into the league in January as well, and a lot of things happened that didn’t help the group – we had people who didn’t commit that we were hoping would, the Barrs were still in club action and the big one was the number of injuries we had. It was a tough start for the group. It wasn’t easy. Throw into the mix that we were losing matches week after week. It was a difficult start, but that is the nature of the beast at senior inter-county level.’

That pragmatic nature has been of benefit to Cleary throughout his career to date and it’s something he will have drawn on over the last number of weeks - period that will forever be remembered for the #PáircUíRinnOrNowhere saga.

The back and forth discussions about match venues, Ed Sheeran and Killarney played out very publicly in the press and on social media but Cleary is keen for it not to effect Saturday's outcome.

‘It wasn’t a distraction. There will be no excuses in that respect. As far as the lads were concerned the game was fixed for Páirc Uí Rinn, maybe not ratified but that is playing on words.

‘Maybe without any consultation with themselves, they read it in the paper or somewhere that the match was changed and I think maybe that got their gander up. Once they made their statement, it was put to one side and it wasn’t mentioned. We just got on with it.’

The prospect of Kerry coming to Cork on Saturday evening is one Cleary, his backroom team and his players seem to be relishing despite the high turnover of players recently and the diverging paths both sides seem to be on but there’s definitely a sense that the Cork footballers will be ready to meet the Kingdom head on at Páirc Uí Rinn.

‘It’s something that surely be to God that a fella would look forward to and that’s what we are telling our group. The lads are under no illusion about the task facing them, a lot of them were in Killarney for last year’s Munster final and have been at the receiving end against Kerry.

‘When they get going they are a hard team to stop. But hopefully the lads will go in there, gain experience, give it their best and let’s see what happens. This is a chance for these fellas to gain experience and hopefully we’ll get players back from injury, and it’s in the future that we will get the benefit of playing Kerry in a top-class game.’

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