A GUT-WRENCHING punch to Cork football's midriff from the Clare footballers in the Munster senior championship was followed by an uppercut from Kerry’s U20s in the provincial decider at Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
Cork football, as a whole, is wobbling and on the ropes at the moment.
‘Hard times create strong men, strong men create good times, good times create weak men, and weak men create hard times,’ said author G Michael Hopfs before. Where does Cork football right now lie in this cycle? It’s hard times, no doubt. We must stick with it. The leaders need to step up. It may take time but the wheel will turn.
Cork went into the Munster U20 football final as 5/6 favourites with Kerry at 6/5. However, Kerry’s lesson in their semi-final fright against Clare had come at the right time for them. It took 80 minutes with extra time, but they fell over the line by a point after what was considered a poor performance, particularly defensively. From the off on Monday night, there was far more bite, purpose and pace to Kerry’s play, and Cork just weren’t in that gear.
From my experience playing and coaching against Kerry school teams, you have to be extra wary on a big pitch when the sun is shining and the ground is solid. Keep it tight early. Stay in the game. Find out how good they are. Cork found themselves seven points down after four minutes following the concession of two early goals – and it sucked the energy out of them. It was too easy and Cork were wide open at the back early on. That said, the 2-1 to 0-0 scoreline after four minutes had only developed to 2-6 to 0-4 after 40 minutes.
In a game that finished with double scores, 2-12 to 1-6, Cian McMahon and William Shine were the pick of a Kerry forward line that tore the Cork defence to shreds early on. McMahon, named at centre forward, moved into the corner. Kerry played a traditional three inside. Their midfielders, O’Donnell and Burke, broke the tackle at will, at pace and the quality of quick ball going inside was top class, leaving Cork’s inside defenders in one-on-one situations. McMahon first got in behind with a lovely back-cut run and a beautifully weighted pass over the top to finish. Then midfielder Cillian Burke could have walked the ball into the net and looked at one stage like he was going to be bundled out over the endline. While on the ground he audaciously tossed the ball in the air and hook-kicked it into the net. A terrible start for Cork and an uphill struggle after that.
Kerry manager Tomás Ó Sé, and his star-studded backroom team including Seamus Moynihan and Bryan Sheehan, had their boys finely tuned for this one. The question must be asked: why can’t we play football at pace and with speed at the moment in Cork? Or did they just go off script on the night? As an example, twice in the first half Cork turned over the Kerry attack and there was an opportunity to break fast. I counted at least six red jerseys who stood still following the turnover, all within 30 metres of the Cork goal. Time and again they went down the middle into traffic and lost the ball. No head up. Nobody looking in. To be fair Kerry were pretty much as open as Cork at the back in that opening quarter.
Cork had one point from play in the opening half courtesy of Gabriel Rangers and Carbery’s Paddy O’Driscoll who was replaced at half time, harshly I thought. He kicked a point and won a free that was converted. O’Driscoll had a scuffed chance at goal and had a wayward effort for a point but he was the one Cork forward that was breaking the line. His replacement, Niall Kelly from Newcestown, was the only other Cork forward to score from play as he came away with a handsome 1-2 from his second-half effort. Compare Cork’s 1-3 from play to Kerry’s 2-10 and that paints the picture.
Cork pushed up hard on Kerry’s kickout from the off but they got no joy from it. They had two banks of four inside the Kerry 45 with the goalkeeper also pushing up. The banks of four were zonal which left Kerry centre back Armin Heinrich unmarked with an option to dart left or right at the top of the ‘D’. He was an easy out for the Kerry goalkeeper far too often. Cork did create goal chances of their own, the standout two being big Tom Cunningham’s chance to palm to the net on the stroke of half time and Hugh O’Connor’s blistering effort that went through the goalkeeper’s legs only to be taken off the line by Joey Nagle about ten minutes into the second half. Cunningham’s definitely would have sent Cork in at half time in a different mindset if he’d managed to connect properly.
Cork lost the turnover count. We were outworked. We looked physically behind them and our football at the moment is of a lower class. How many seniors will Kerry get from this bunch compared to what Cork will get remains to be seen.
The Cork seniors will hopefully get a chance to reclaim a bit of pride in the Sam Maguire and the minors are yet to come also, but the U20s loss, and the manner of the performance, has done little to lift the mood.