Here are four options under-pressure Rebels could deploy to slow down Kerry juggernaut
IF YOU listened to popular opinion, is there any point in Cork footballers even turning up to Saturday evening’s Munster semi-final against Kerry?
The Rebels have been written off by everyone. Their own fans. GAA supporters outside the county. The media. The experts in the media. Everyone. While Kerry are flying, Cork are just about surviving. Two teams in different leagues, literally.
Cork are short numerous players through injury. Manager Keith Ricken had to take a step back due to health reasons. The Rebels had the worst defensive record in the entire Allianz Football League. Barely escaped relegation to Division 3. The Páirc Uí Rinn or nowhere venue saga. Ian Maguire’s hand injury. When it rains it pours.
It all means Cork – under the guidance of stand-in manager John Cleary – go into this Munster derby so far under the radar they are hardly detectable.
The odds are that Cork won’t win, but they will put in better showings than the 2021 Munster final drubbing (4-22 to 1-9) and 2022 McGrath Cup final defeat (2-17 to 0-11), both in Killarney.
The tighter confines of the Boreenmanna Road venue coupled with the Kerry players’ lack of familiarity with the pitch should put Cork on the front foot, at least for a while.
Regardless of who takes the field I expect Cork to be better organised, highly motivated, to just go out and throw the kitchen sink at Kerry and see what happens. Absolutely nothing to lose, all to gain – that’s a good position to be in.
A number of players have returned to full training over the past month to strengthen John Cleary's hand. They include Maurice Shanley, Sean Powter, Cathail O’Mahony, Brian Hartnett, Brian Hayes and Killian O’Hanlon. How far along they are and what part they can potentially play on Saturday remains to be seen.
So what kinds of options could Cork have been working on since the league ended to stymie Kerry’s free-flowing league form and put in a performance that we can take belief from going forward?
OPTION 1: Don’t get sucked out. Go 6-6-2. Pressure the middle third. Leave two up.
The one thing defenders like least is to be dragged out the field and end up running back towards their own goal, often ending up with their backs to the play. The defence doesn’t get a chance to get set, turn and face the oncoming attackers.
We saw during the league, David Clifford one-on-one by himself inside the 45-metre line with a long, accurate delivery coming from the middle third and the ensuing pandemonium it causes.
It’s important that the Cork defence doesn’t get dragged out in this situation: always have a plus one or plus two, extra defenders filling the spaces either side of Clifford. Don’t be surprised if you see Kerry boss Jack O’Connor throw a spanner in the works though with the introduction of Sean O’Shea who missed the majority of the league due to injury.
Shut down the top of the D and expect the unexpected.
OPTION 2: Concede the Kerry kick-out after shots from open play.
Trying to get some measure of control on the opposition kick-out is the key to being competitive at inter-county level.
After a free or set-play the opposition have the best chance of pushing up, cutting out the short options and forcing the kickout long where there is a higher chance of disruption. Kerry have over an 80 percent win rate on their own kick-out in every game they have played this year.
They are particularly dangerous from kick-outs after a point from open play or a wide ball. This is because the play is broken, players have been dragged out of position and there is less time to set up defensively.
An option for Cork to curb Kerry's fast-breaking defence and midfield and cut the space around the likes of Clifford and Paul Geaney is to concede the Kerry kick-out after a shot from open play. Leave one up and retreat to behind Cork’s attacking 45, let Kerry go short, slow their play down and clutter the middle third to prevent quality service.
OPTION 3: Go man to man all over the park and trust your defenders.
Kerry are Division 1 football league champions and are favourites to win the All-Ireland title. They had to make sure this game went ahead on Saturday as they could have been under-cooked going into an All-Ireland semi-final, potentially against Dublin.
With six scoring forwards who are not afraid of their defensive duties, Kerry often end up with a lot of quality coming from deep.
Stop this at source with a ferocious work-rate and physicality and trust possibly Maurice Shanley to go one-on-one, knowing that help is on the way if he can delay David Clifford. After what happened on the last two trips to Killarney this is an unlikely option.
OPTION 4: Stop Paudie Clifford.
If David Clifford is one edge of the Kerry sword that is looking to slay all before them on their way to a first All-Ireland in eight years, then his brother is the equally sharp other edge.
Often the foil to David, Paudie Clifford is the playmaker and unselfish provider of quality service inside. Limiting his influence is key to restricting Paul Geaney’s and David Clifford’s effectiveness.
In the McGrath Cup final earlier this year Éire Óg’s John Cooper was centre back on Paudie and played a sitting role, letting the Kerry forward go deep and pick up easy balls which enabled him to ignite Kerry’s attacking play at will. Granted, Cooper was playing behind a losing midfield that day but the eldest Clifford has to be followed and man-marked.
Cork being beaten by less than ten points this Saturday would be acceptable and allow them head into the qualifiers in the hope of a favourable draw.