A DAY for an ambush, somebody remarked before the start of this extraordinary Munster football final in Pairc Ui Chaoimh yesterday and it turned out to be just that.
Except that Kerry were not alone in being shocked by the extraordinary events of the second half because in truth Cork were staring down the barrel of another humiliation when they trailed 1-8 to 0-3 at the break.
What happened afterwards could not have been scripted.
In over 40 years of watching provincial finals between these great rivals, I can’t recall a more dramatic turnabout in fortunes.
And, it wasn’t merely that Cork achieved a triumph which seemed beyond their capability up to the time they resumed for the second half and gained inspiration from replacement full-forward Michael Cussen. It was the way that Kerry almost capitulated in the concession of 1-13, and that in the end they were powerless to stop Conor Counihan’s revitalised team accomplish an epic victory.
Boosted by the inclusion of captain Graham Canty, Cork adopted a strategy of using the Bantry man as a sweeper in front of (full-back) Derek Kavanagh while also deploying Anthony Lynch in the corner to mark Colm Cooper. And, predictably they took Nicholas Murphy out of right half-forward to take over the position nominally allocated to Canty in the middle.
With Kerry benefiting from a strong wind, they made little headway in the opening 10 minutes. During this time, the scores were level twice after a Daniel Goulding free after 30 seconds saw the home side in front for the only time until 14 minutes from the end.
In early attacks, the champions made little headway in around the goal mouth, where the Kavanagh/Canty axis was proving successful in preventing Kieran Donaghy from winning ball and Cooper anonymous.
However, Kerry gradually began to take control, starting with their monopoly of ball-winning around midfield — where Darragh Ó Sé once more proved superior to Murphy and Seamus Scanlon offered strong support. And, as the game developed, they gained a double advantage through the display from Donaghy and the influence of TomasÓ Sé, who was a free agent because of Cork playing seven men in defence.
Killian Young and Pádraig Reidy also had space to go forward on a regular basis but much of their good work was undone by poor passing.
It was a struggle for Cork to build up decent attacks and over the course of the half they were to be frustrated by a series of bad wides and once Donncha Walsh put the ball in the net in the 13th minute after he was played in by Donaghy, Kerry steadily increased their grip.
In response, Cork had little to offer by way of a meaningful resistance, other than a few powerful surges upfield by impressive corner-back Diarmuid Duggan and the probing play of Donncha O’Connor and Daniel Goulding in around the full-forward line. But, effectively they were going nowhere and looked in dire straits going in at half-time.
With the wind undoubtedly proving a factor, Cork got the best possible start by matching their first-half total of three points in less than seven minutes. Interestingly, the second of those came from Michael Cussen, the only substitute brought in on the resumption and who was to make a game changing contribution. In another few minutes, Kerry were to gain two of the only other three scores they managed — the second a terrific kick from Tomas Ó Sé, who in general play was to concede ground to Donncha O’Connor after he moved out from full-forward.
By now, the game had started to radically change in Cork’s favour, stemming from a huge improvement around midfield (where Pearse O’Neill got in some good work) and half-back, in spite of having an out-of-touch Murphy sent off for a second yellow card.
And, crucially, continuing progress here was to be reflected in a succession of scores, the most important of which was a goal from Cussen in the 50th minute — when he touched in a long ball from Ger Spillane.
Even more drama was to follow immediately when Marc Ó Sé was controversially red-carded after a clash with Sean O’Brien with both players attempting to win a ball on the ground. Cork maintained the momentum with scores from two Goulding frees, the first a marvellous kick. Then, in the 56th minute, Donncha O’Connor kicked them into the lead and while Sean O’Sullivan cancelled this score after a break initiated by substitute Darren O’Sullivan, a great kick from James Masters (introduced five minutes earlier) put Cork into a lead they weren’t to lose.
Kerry were under too much pressure in defence to get their game going properly and at a stage when they were labouring at half-forward, the loss of Paul Galvin and Declan O’Sullivan was really felt. And, they were to finish with 13 players after Darragh Ó Sé received a second yellow card before late substitute Paul Kerrigan had the chance of goaling for Cork but kicked over the bar.
Derek Fahy’s refereeing was generally good, but he could have made more allowance for the conditions. And I felt he erred in sending off Marc Ó Sé.