CORK took 20 shots at goal in Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Sunday evening – 21 if you were to count Luke Connolly’s assist for Mark Keane’s winning goal but we’ll put that down as a perfectly-placed pass.
Of those 20 efforts, 13 resulted in scores with five wides and two efforts dropping short. Apart from Keane’s decisive contribution, the only other Cork shot at goal taken from inside the 20m line was Mark Collins’s free to put them 0-8 to 0-7 ahead in the 59th minute.
Two minutes later, there was a fleeting moment where it looked as if a two-point lead might be established as Luke Connolly played a good ball into Mark Keane, who caught cleanly for a mark but only thanks to a push on Tadhg Morley, with a free accruing for Kerry.
When the Kingdom kicked the next three points, with Seán O’Shea belatedly getting going as he kicked his first two points of the game before Killian Spillane – so impressive off the bench for Peter Keane’s side – made it 0-10 to 0-8.
It was only the second time that there had been such a lead in the game (Kerry were 0-5 to 0-3 in front after 27 minutes before Cork got the last three points of the first half) but with such little time left, it was a huge advantage.
It wouldn’t have been a disgrace if Cork had been unable to salvage something from there – a two-point loss would have represented an improvement on 2019, which was a huge leap forward from the 17-point defeat in 2018.
Cork weren’t willing to settle, but neither were they willing to get frantic. Subs Keane and Michael Hurley combined to set up Luke Connolly for an effort from between the 45 and the D and then, after David Moran was black-carded, Cork had three minutes in which to try to fashion a levelling chance.
For a minute and a half, possession was held – that could have been seen as an unwillingness for someone to take on a chance, but it could also be said to be players sticking to the process and not snatching at an opportunity. Eventually, a surge from Seán Powter drew a foul and Collins did the needful to send the game to extra time.
Playing the way they did, it was unlikely that Cork would cut Kerry open to create a goal chance – hence the two shots inside the 20 over 90 minutes – but there was an assurance in what they did do. There was a plan and they stuck to it, highlighting the impact that coach Cian O’Neill has had. While Cork had a patient game plan, there was a bravery needed to carry that out rather than panicking as the clock ran out.
The management deserve credit for their bravery too in giving so many championship debuts in such a big, knock-out game but that was rewarded with the displays.
Even so, Cork were a Division 3 team playing against the Division 1 champions and, even with a good performance, they needed their opponents to not fire as well as they can. Clonakilty’s Maurice Shanley was one of those given their bow, marking David Clifford, and a return of three points from play for the Kerry captain was as good as anybody marking him could hope to limit him to.
While Clifford’s point in the fourth minute of extra time was a wonder-score from near the end line, he missed two very scoreable frees, while O’Shea wasn’t as influential as he can be, either.
At midfield, the upper hand oscillated but Cork’s three-point surge coming up to half-time was built on three huge wins on Kerry kick-outs between the 28th and 35th minutes, with Ian Maguire, Paul Walsh and Killian O’Hanlon all coming up trumps while Maguire won a mark from a Micheál Martin restart, too. Given Kerry’s strength in midfield, Cork could have stayed away from a pitch battle in that area, but Martin only went short once and that was in the first period of extra time.
Again, Cork were rewarded for their bravery and the thrilling denouement was the finest example of that as Keane etched his name into the history of the fixture.
Given the criticism that Cork have shipped in recent years – a new team being judged by the standards of Conor Counihan’s side – this was a sweet one to savour.
Of course, it will count for nothing if they don’t beat Tipperary on Sunday week, but there is no sense that this team will entertain complacency.