2010 All-Ireland-winning Cork footballer John Hayes is happy even though he admits that his prediction in this column last week that Cork would beat Kerry in the Munster SFC semi-final was made slightly more in hope than anticipation after the fatigue from so many losses to the Kingdom over the years.
‘Cork’s goal prowess to prove too much for the Kingdom, Cork to go on, Kerry to go out. Up the Rebels.’
I can tell the truth now. I made this prediction ever so slightly more in hope than expectation. It was a prediction based on my county loyalty, a desire to be positive and a deep sense of fatigue from so many losses to Kerry in my years both as a player and a supporter.
Kerry remain a better team than Cork despite Sunday’s result, but Ronan McCarthy and his team have closed the gap these last two seasons, and Sunday’s brave performance and dramatic victory are just reward for their perseverance. As a fervent Cork football man, I want to publicly congratulate everyone involved and thank them for providing by far my favourite moment from what has been a mostly wretched year.
And oh, what a moment. Writing this on Monday evening, just over 24 hours later, I must have already watched Mark Keane’s goal for the ages a few dozen times. Set to excited Cork commentators, Micheál O’Hehir’s 1982 Seamus Darby commentary or to the theme song from the movie ‘Titanic,’ I can’t see it often enough.
When I foresaw Cork needing goals to win the game, I ventured that at least three goals would be required to bridge the gap to Kerry. As it turned out, all it took was one wonderful, beautiful, magical Mark Keane special at the most perfect time.
As in 1983, Kerry had no chance to respond. If Mark were to go back to Australia now, and never kick a ball for Cork again, his hero status in this county is already assured.
The goal came at the end of a long build-up, where Cork went backwards and sideways across the pitch several times before Sean Meehan provided some penetration and he and Damien Gore recycled possession to allow Luke Connolly to attempt a shot. Despite its dramatic denouement, the game itself has been derided in most quarters as a drab and difficult watch. As someone who generally likes to see progressive attacking football, on this occasion I care not a jot.
While it is true that Cork’s build-up play was often slow and laboured, this can be attributed to Kerry setting up far more defensively than is their typical wont, and some biblical levels of rainfall. Hard rain onto a firm surface can combine to make handling and keeping your footing treacherous. As a free-taker, I firmly believe being overly conscious of the prospect of losing footing contributed to Sean O’Shea and David Clifford missing frees that they would normally convert with ease.
Much of the media reaction has been focused on Kerry’s shortcomings, both on the pitch and more especially on the sideline. Peter Keane seemed to approach this game as if training for challenges further down the line. They may protest otherwise, but there is little other explanation for retreating so much against a team they have dominated for a decade.
Perhaps also chastened by the concession of so many goal chances in the 2019 Munster final, Kerry pulled 13 behind the ball, and hoped that Clifford and Tony Brosnan would score enough to see them home. Sean O’Shea barely featured until the last 10 minutes of normal time, while Cork were allowed time and space in possession around midfield as Kerry sat deep.
Cork were very patient in possession, at times certainly overly-cautious, and the direct football afficionados were no doubt getting very frustrated in front of their TVs. Doubtless, though, management would have warned of the premium on possession in the conditions.
The game being so tight all the way through as well would lend itself to some natural conservatism amongst the players. Anyone can launch a ball 50 or 60 yards into the forwards, but this option needs to be an almost sure thing in such conditions before it is tried.
Even in the dying minutes, after more than 90 minutes of hard graft, Cork remained patient in working the ball to Connolly. Lady luck and Keane getting the AFL bump on Tommy Walsh took care of the rest.
In terms of being more direct and looking ahead to the Munster final, and hopefully beyond, Connolly’s introduction was pivotal. It was noticeable that he played with his head up, looking inwards to the full forward line after his introduction.
He was also willing to take on shooting opportunities more readily when they presented themselves. He should start against Tipperary.
As a unit, Cork defended manfully with strong individual contributions from Micheál Martin, Maurice Shanley, Seán Meehan and Seán Powter. The midfield combination of Maguire and O’Hanlon settled after a slow start, for my money having the better in this area. O’Hanlon’s two frees were crucial also.
Cork’s forwards did not set the world alight with attacking football on a difficult day, yet they worked ferociously to prevent Kerry’s key counter-attacking defenders from having an attacking influence. This was another box tick for Ronan and his management team.
This was a day when Cork showed tremendous spirit and appetite for battle and, crucially, were the aggressors in the physical stakes. For all the footballing lessons handed out over the years, too often Cork teams (including teams I was on) were also guilty of not bringing the intense aggression that the likes of Tyrone did against Kerry.
This did not transpire last Sunday, and Cork delivered enough good, hard hits to upset Kerry and knock them out of their stride. It’s a lesson we need to heed for future encounters.
Being truthful, the analysis of this game will have been largely done by the time you get to read these words, I’m actually far more interested in talking about what this means for Cork football. Not to put too fine a point on it, it’s just a massive shot in the arm for football in this county.
This was the first Cork versus Kerry senior championship game I watched on TV since the All-Ireland semi-final in 2002. I’ve been at, or involved in, every game since. In that time, we have played Kerry 25 times in championship. Kerry have won 16, Cork have won five and there have been 4 draws.
There were five painful Croke Park defeats in that timeframe. We last beat the old enemy in a knock-out game in the 1999 Munster final. Haulie O’Sullivan occasionally likes to remind us in Ross that he was ‘man of the match’ on Darragh Ó Sé on that day!
I have no hesitation in saying this victory is the most important in my lifetime outside the All Ireland wins of 1989, ’90 and 2010. I can also say I enjoyed it more than any victory we had over Kerry when I was involved, because this time they can’t come back to haunt us this year.
It’s a crushing blow in the short term for Kerry, but with their quality and the love of football in the county, they will come back to compete on the biggest stage soon. The expectations on Leeside have not been high for our footballers for a few years now, so this win alone is a major fillip. And we need to capitalise on it.
Tipperary will be waiting in the long grass, smiling at the prospect of taking on a Cork team they don’t fear for an automatic passage into an All-Ireland semi final. Mayo or Galway will await; good teams but not unbeatable.
The carrot for both Cork and Tipp now is the best chance of making an All-Ireland final they will ever get. We will look at that game in more detail next week.
Maybe another day I will come back to something that the tiresome Colm O’Rourke touched on in the TV coverage, and that is where Cork footballs stands in the hearts and minds of sportspeople in Cork. Indeed, the television coverage was heavily tilted towards the Kerry post-mortem, rather than any appreciation of Division 3 Cork beating one of the two big All-Ireland favourites. Those gripes can wait though.
For now, the Cork football faithful can enjoy these few days. Trump has been ousted, Kerry are vanquished and we’re hearing talk of progress for a Covid vaccine – 2020 is looking up!