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THE LAST WORD: Full-blooded first 50 minutes provides blueprint for the future

May 15th, 2022 6:00 PM

By Ger McCarthy

Cork's Cathail O Mahony trys to break past the challenge of Kerry duo of Jason Foley and Tom O'Sullivan at Páirc Uí Rinn on Saturday. (Photo: George Hatchell).

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It was a case of mixed emotions for Cork’s players and supporters whilst shuffling quietly out of Páirc Uí Rinn last Saturday night.

A 12-point hammering from your arch rivals is never easy to accept. Yet there were green shoots of hope amid the Rebels performance.

John Cleary and Jack O’Connor interviews completed, the journalistic core (or that ‘meeja crowd’ to give us our printable title) were of the same opinion.

No one can argue with the fact Cork put in a terrific effort for 60 minutes of last weekend’s Munster semi-final. Played out in front of 10,743 supporters, the hosts gave as good as they got for as long as they could.

The remainder of the provincial encounter belonged to Kerry. Outscoring their opponents 0-12 to 0-1, O’Connor’s charges re-emphasised their billing as serious All-Ireland contenders.

The gulf between being a Division 1 team and Division 2 equivalent was laid bare for all to see.

John Cleary’s tactics were clear from the outset. Get numbers behind the ball, deploy Sean Powter as a sweeper, put Kevin Flahive on David Clifford, sit deep and hit the Kingdom on the break whenever an opportunity arose. It was hard to argue with that approach.

Up to the hour mark, and longer than he probably anticipated, Cork’s tactics were proving a thorn in Jack O’Connor’s side. That’s when Kerry's manager took advantage of the depth of his substitutes bench and Cork’s growing tiredness.

In the blink of an eye, Kerry surged seven points clear on the back of Seán O’Shea’s marvellous individual second half display. Add in Paul Geaney, David Moran, Paul Murphy and Mícheál Burns’ arrival off the bench plus Cork losing their two best players, Kevin Flahive and Seán Powter to injury, and there was only going to be one outcome.

So, were Kerry’s struggles to break through Cork’s rear-guard a result of rustiness or John Cleary’s tactical setup? The answer is a bit of both.

It is rare for two managers to walk away from a 12-point differential and have plenty to work on but that’s the reality emanating from last Saturday night’s game.

Despite winning, Jack O’Connor has a lot of homework to do if Kerry are to break down similarly well organised Limerick, Tipperary, Dublin, Tyrone, Mayo or Donegal defences over the coming weeks.

Bottom line, the Kingdom will be there or there about come July because they possess such a large number of experienced and All-Star quality players.

As for Cork, the over-the-top response to a 12-point defeat in the national press and on the Sunday Game, sadly, came as little surprise.

If you were to listen to the constant, hollow, negative headlines surrounding the Cork footballers - Dara Ó Sé, Marc Ó Sé and Sean Kavanagh are prime examples - then there seemingly wouldn’t be any point in turning up to watch the Rebels.

What good does kicking a team when they are down actually do? Of course certain aspects of the senior Cork setup deserves criticism. Constructive criticism is one thing but headline-grabbing, click-baiting digs from former inter-county players who endured similarly difficult spells during their own careers?

There is no doubting Cork football is struggling but, at the same time, all is not lost. There is hope for the immediate and long-term future.

The reality is that, in 2022, this is a Cork setup that remains in transition. Transitions take time and involve peaks and troughs. Cork football is in the middle of a trough right now but will come out of it.

Look at the number of new players blooded in their year’s National League. It will not be until 2023 that those players benefit from the experience of playing Division 2 football for the very first time.

Injuries are not an excuse but they hampered Cork’s build-up to this year’s provincial championship. Ian Maguire and Sean Powter togged out on Saturday night without being close to one hundred percent fit and they gave it everything they had. The same goes for Maurice Shanley who didn’t feature in the National League. Losing Mícheál A Martin and Kevin Flahive to injuries were further blows. It is also worth remembering amidst last Saturday night’s drama that Cathail O’Mahony came of age and Stephen Sherlock underlined his importance to the Cork senior team. Those are two gifted forwards to build around.

Kevin O’Donovan, Rory Maguire and John Cooper’s display across the half-back line helped keep a clean sheet. Another plus point for John Cleary and his selectors.

In terms of physicality or pure muscle, whatever you want to call it, Kerry are clearly ahead of not just Cork but most counties right now.

Additional investment and increased funding (if it can be found) in extending existing strength and conditioning programmes is something the Cork senior, U20, minor and U16 setups would benefit from.

As for bottom lines, forget about extended runs in the Munster and All-Ireland championships until Cork emerge from Division 2. That’s got to be the immediate target for 2023.

Saturday night’s game showed us that the longer Cork remain in their current division and miss out on regularly facing the top-tier teams, the longer it will take to bridge the gap to Kerry and other All-Ireland contenders.

The upcoming qualifiers offer Cork an opportunity to extend their season or at the very least produce a full 70-minute performance that gives hope for next year.

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