BY MICHEÁL O'SULLIVAN
CORK poked the bear – and they got mauled. This was as bad as it gets: a record championship defeat to Kerry. Absolutely miserable.
All the talk coming from Kerry prior to last Sunday’s Munster SFC final revolved around the word ‘revenge’ for being ‘caught’ with a sucker-punch last-minute goal in the monsoon at Páirc Uí Chaoimh in last November's Munster semi-final.
Well, the Kingdom men exacted their revenge in devastating fashion.
Kerry won by a record 22 points, 4-22 to 1-9, and they racked up 3-10 in the second half, compared to Cork’s woeful two points. The Kerry danger man, David Clifford, scored one free over 70 minutes, and who could have forecast that? I wrote in last week's column about stopping Clifford and if you did, how Cork might not have been far away from victory. He was stopped by a wonderful exhibition of man-marking from Sean Meehan, the only Cork player who emerged from Killarney with his reputation enhanced. As the game unfolded it was Clifford’s older brother Paudie and Sean O’Shea who stepped into the breach to steer the Kerry ship to a facile victory.
As a former Cork footballer, that second half was difficult to watch. Cork collapsed too easily. They offered hope with an excellent opening quarter, but then they capitulated, alarmingly. The gap between the top few teams and the rest seems to be getting wider and wider. It appears, too, that we are not going to get competitive contests now until the All-Ireland semi-finals with the upcoming Ulster final being a possible exception.
Considering Cork are the biggest county in Ireland with a huge playing population, questions have to be asked: why are we so far behind?
We are all aware that there is a plan in place to bring Cork football back to where it belongs. From my involvement in schools’ football at the top level over the last ten years, regularly coming into contact with Kerry school teams, it was obvious year on year that they were developing and churning out a conveyor belt of talent. Successive minor All-Irelands followed and it takes a run of successful underage teams over a period of time to put together a senior team capable of winning All-Irelands, which Kerry now have.
There is no doubt that Cork’s underage conveyor belt is moving nicely. Having secured All-Ireland titles at U17 and U20 recently and the present U20s securing their third Munster title in four years, having beaten the Kingdom in a cracker at the semi-final stage. This run of talent needs to continue for a prolonged period in order to develop and secure enough top-quality players to create an adult squad that can bring us back to the inter-county senior football top table. Kerry are ahead of us with their production line and their team is young so we could be in for a few more long afternoons before the exciting talent coming through is mature enough to compete and win in places like Fitzgerald Stadium.
In Paudie Clifford’s after-match interview, having deservedly accepted the man-of-the-match award, he mentioned how Kerry boss Peter Keane had been adamant in the run up to the game that ‘Cork wouldn’t live with Kerry fitness wise’. There is no doubt that they are further down the road than us in that respect but we just did not have enough top-quality players on the pitch and a strong enough bench to get near them. In temperatures running towards 26 degrees, the conditions were going to have an effect on energy levels so playing economical football and having experienced players to come in was going to have an influence on the outcome. Before Kerry's bench was needed the game was over.
Cork's injury woes have been well documented and only nine players from last year's Munster final started last Sunday’s hammering in Killarney. However, Cork started in a blaze of glory and threw the kitchen sink at Kerry early on with the Hurleys, Brian and Michael, contributing a goal and three points between them. Cork went man-to-man all over the pitch, got numbers back, got numerous turnovers, broke fast and delivered quick ball into the forwards, economical football.
The problem with going man-to-man is that once the overlap is created, it’s goal time if players don’t make good decisions to then take the man in the most dangerous position. This was particularly evident for the Brian Ó Beaglaoich’s goal when the Cork defenders all followed their men and he was allowed run 70 metres and stick it in the net. The warning signs had been there though as this was Kerry's fourth goal chance.
Kerry were wide open early on, off the pace and sloppy. The Kerry management then switched Ó Beaglaoich onto Hurley with Jason Foley sweeping in front and Tom O'Sullivan started to run Michael Hurley, contributing two points from play. The high press on the Cork kick-out materialised with Kerry pushing five players forward to cut-out Micheal Martin’s short options. Cork were forced long and were unable to compete aerially and Kerry went from four down at the first water break to five up at half time. In the absence of Daniel O’Mahony, Powter had to mark Sean O’Shea which destroyed his contribution in transition. Cork's early game plan was shut down, they couldn’t compete around the middle, and it was game over.
The dressing room is a difficult place to be for both players and management after a defeat like this but the great thing about football, and sport in general, is that there is always next year.
Cork have to learn from this and hope that they come into next year's championship campaign with all their better players injury free and a renewed vigour and appetite to improve. It will take time to get back into conversations surrounding All-Ireland titles at senior level but I am encouraged by the quality of underage players coming through. Cork are playing catch-up and it’s going to take time.