CORK footballers head back to the scene of the crime this Saturday afternoon when they take on Kerry in the McGrath Cup final – but the expectation now is far different to their last visit to Fitzgerald Stadium.
The Rebels’ mauling, 4-22 to 1-9, by Kerry in the Munster SFC final in Killarney on July 25th last year was a new low for Cork football. By the final whistle it was embarrassing. A record 22-point hammering. Cork’s worst-ever Munster final loss to those neighbours. It sounded the death knell for boss Ronan McCarthy, a defeat that he couldn’t survive.
Six months on, Cork will venture across the county bounds again, and into enemy territory, with different mood music in the background. Keith Ricken is the man playing the tunes and has hit all the right notes since he took over as Cork manager. Two games in the McGrath Cup have brought two wins, 2-9 to 0-10 away to Clare and then 1-18 to 1-9 at home to Waterford. There’s an optimism that Cork will develop under Ricken but an acknowledgment, too, of where the Rebels stand in the football pecking order. The stats aren’t pretty.
This year will be the sixth successive season that Cork have campaigned outside of Division 1 in the football league. In that time there was also that one season in lowly Division 3. Cork’s last Munster SFC title was won back in 2012; there have been seven provincial final defeats since then, six of those to Kerry. Cork’s Super 8s appearance in 2019 was viewed as progress – and it was considering what had gone before – but they still lost all three group games to Dublin, Tyrone and even the dead rubber at home to Roscommon. Even the high of the shock 2020 Munster SFC semi-final smash-and-grab win against Kerry didn’t last long as Cork lost the final at home to Tipperary two weeks’ later. Far more lows than highs in recent times, and Ricken knows this. He also knows this isn’t a quick fix, as he told The Southern Star recently.
‘One of the things that I have is an appreciation of time and patience. I am not in it to make the buck now. With some of these things you try to make the buck now but you also try to make the buck in ten years’ time. You are looking in three places: in the past to make sure you learn, the present and the future. I am very positive about the present. I have seen no evidence of an apathy or a lack of desire or lack of ability. Whether we are up to the standard that is required, time will tell,’ Ricken explained.
So far his new-look squad has passed both tests, against Clare and Waterford, but a different beast awaits in Killarney. While Ricken is using the McGrath Cup as the chance to try out new players ahead of the Division 2 league campaign, the third coming of Jack O’Connor as Kerry boss has seen him wheel out a lot of his heavy-hitters already.
The Kingdom have beaten Limerick (2-23 to 0-6) and Tipperary (1-23 to 0-5) in recent weeks, with some familiar faces leading the way. Eleven players who started the Munster final win against Cork have been handed game-time already, including David Clifford, Sean O’Shea, Paul Geaney, Stephen O’Brien and six of the back seven. Ricken’s new-look Cork haven’t the same strength in depth, with Brian Hurley, Daniel Dineen, Sean Powter, Cian Kiely, Sean Meehan, Kevin O’Donovan and Micheál Aodh Martin the only players who started against Kerry last July to get minutes under their belt in the McGrath Cup. Factor in, too, that Cork are without their St Finbarr’s contingent and that they are without a few regular faces from recent seasons – some of whom, it seems, will not be involved this season – and Ricken’s ‘appreciation of time and patience’ becomes more pertinent. Cork team news here
The new manager is putting in place a structure, he feels, will take Cork football forward. That takes time. So too will Ricken’s squad rebuild and that can be seen by the large number of senior debuts handed out in the last two games. Castlehaven’s Rory Maguire and Jack Cahalane, Clonakilty’s Joe Grimes, Dohenys’ Fionn Herlihy and Castletownbere’s Fintan Finner are some of the West Cork men who have made their senior debuts this month. It’s all about building a panel ahead of the Division 2 campaign, which starts the following weekend away to Roscommon, and that will set the tone for the summer, not this weekend’s McGrath Cup final.
Saturday’s derby is a chance for Cork’s newcomers to test themselves against genuine All-Ireland contenders who are much further along their development than Cork are right now. But it’s a chance, too, to strike another blow for Cork football and give the neighbours something to think about. Skibbereen Community School and Hamilton High School Bandon both beat Kerry schools in the Corn Uí Mhuirí last weekend. The Barrs beat Austin Stacks in the Munster club senior football final. Huge wins for the three Cork teams, but also highlighting that Kerry’s football empire isn’t as dominant over Cork as is perceived. There are chinks of light starting to shine through. The minor and U20 footballers have shown this in recent seasons as well. Under Ricken’s watch, the hope is that Cork seniors can close the gap, too.
‘Yes, we want to look at the style of football we are playing. I would like to see it a bit faster. I would like to see more movement. I would like to see more tackling. But that will dovetail into the current championships that we have, and that will take time as well. It will all dovetail together. So when we leave, whenever that is, we will be in a better position, and we will have contributed, and there will be positivity, structure, pride, and style about all we did,’ Ricken said. The mood music is different alright. But this is January and the Munster SFC semi-final between the two counties later in the summer will be much more telling than Saturday’s work-out in Killarney. Cork will also look a lot different later in the year. The pressure is on Jack O’Connor to deliver this season, and that will allow Cork to sail under the radar and go about their rebuild. Block by block.
The McGrath Cup final between Cork and Kerry will be streamed live via www.munster.gaa.ie. There will be a result on the day, and penalties if required after normal time.