All of the vagaries of youth were on show Saturday night as Cork and Kerry both put up their dukes and indulged in a scoring slugfest. Maybe we should have seen it coming, maybe we should have made allowances but then Cork were no punch-bags on this occasion. Unlike in last year’s final, they absorbed the hammer blows and pushed forward.
Tactics were all but cast aside, Kerry’s tyros lured into toe-to-toe combat with their foes, several of whom had been or are college mates. Both teams lacked calculation and the impetuousness must have been galling at times for Ronan McCarthy and Peter Keane but this was a fledgling Munster final bearing in mind the vast inexperience across the field.
“This is a very young team that we have, we had five fellas playing in their first Munster final and I don't know how many of them played in their first Munster final last year (also five),” said Keane. “So we've a very, very young team and for them to react and respond like that was very pleasing.
"By the same token, you had a half-forward line (of) Diarmuid O'Connor 20 this year, Seanie O'Shea 21, Dara Moynihan 21... like when do you see that at inter-county level? Three lads with an average age of 20 and a half?
“I'm repeating myself but when I would have spoken throughout the League, that was something that I was very conscious about. Four or five lads stepped away from Kerry at the start of the year or late last year and as a result of them stepping away, you lost experience on the field and how are these fellas going to get experience? Only by throwing them in there and having a cut at it.”
McCarthy gave Munster final starting debuts to four players - Nathan Walsh, Liam O’Donovan, Matthew Taylor and Killian O’Hanlon. Had Eoghan McSweeney been fit, there was another. All four performed reasonably well. Walsh’s hamstring flared up against him to stunt his contribution and O’Hanlon won the second-half penalty while Walsh and O’Donovan played with the abandon so lacking in previous Cork displays against Cork, which enthused McCarthy greatly: “I’d no worries about fellas like Liam O’Donovan and Mattie Taylor. They live for it, absolute machines when it comes to their physical fitness and you saw it there, I thought they were absolutely out of this world, the two of them. Two small men with big hearts.”
All the hype built up by encouraging challenge game results looked to be bunkum as Kerry opened up a 1-5 to 0-1 lead after 13 minutes. Cork did have an early penalty shout but then Seán O’Shea might also have found the net when set up by David Clifford in the 15th minute. It had been O’Shea who teed up Tom O’Sullivan for the first goal of the game in the sixth minute, O’Sullivan and Gavin White’s forays forward a characteristic of the first half.
White had another goal chance towards the end of the half, which Kerry finished in front 1-10 to 1-6, Cork not scoring their first point from play until the fifth minute of the second half. But then they were repeatedly going for the jugular. Luke Connolly, Ruairí Deane and Mark Collins all had shots at goal - Connolly’s going wide, Deane’s being denied by Shane Ryan and Collins blocked by Tadhg Morley. The one that counted was Connolly’s palmed effort after a ball from a throw-in broken to Deane and he assisted the mercurial Nemo Rangers man.
Connolly added a second goal from the penalty spot three minutes into the new half when O’Hanlon was brought down by Morley and the game was level on 47 minutes as Brian Hurley got a touch onto an Ian Maguire shot half-blocked and dropping short, a score which Kerry goalkeeper Ryan will be disappointed with.
For a team that kept four clean sheets only to concede three goals against Mayo in the Division 1 final, that openness at the back has to concern Keane. He tried to explain the reasons for them on Saturday:
“Us going up the field and not killing the ball, that was a killer, and we got turned over a few times....Tom O'Sullivan shot up the field one time, he made a great run, and Gavin White did it another time and then we lost the ball above. And then sure you're out of position.
“They're two defenders, and next thing you're out of position and they have an overlap and you're chasing your tail coming back. That, to me, was probably a factor in it.”
Kerry’s response to that last goal, though, was strong as they jumped two ahead before Paul Geaney picked up a black card for a body collide with Kevin Flahive having earned a yellow card along with James Loughrey just minutes before. Twice, Cork brought it back to a solitary point, the latest of those occasions in additional time but the leadership of Clifford and Stephen O’Brien held sway.
Kerry came away with what they wanted - a win with a fight - but in doing the frailties were again exposed. Without an enforcer or two at the back, they are too cavalier. After the horrific defeat 12 months ago, McCarthy gave his players an ultimatum - “We have a choice here: we can lie down and die now or we can turn around and get ready for two weeks’ time.”
As Cork get back together tomorrow, he need not be so stark but so much rests on Saturday week. A Super 8 appearance and Cork have salvaged 2019. Defeat and it’s another lost summer.
Scorers for Cork: L. Connolly (2-0, 1-0 pen); M. Collins (0-8, 6 frees); B Hurley (1-0); S. White, J. Loughrey (0-1 each).
Scorers for Kerry: S. O’Shea (0-8, 6 frees); T. O’Sullivan (1-1); D. Clifford (0-4, 1 free); S. O’Brien (0-2); D. Moynihan, P. Geaney, D. O’Connor, M. Burns (0-1 each).
M. White; N. Walsh, J. Loughrey, K. Flahive; L. O’Donovan, T. Clancy, M. Taylor; I. Maguire (c), K. O’Hanlon; P. Kerrigan, S. White, R. Deane; L. Connolly, B. Hurley, M. Collins.
Subs for Cork: K. O’Donovan for N. Walsh (inj, 35+2); K. O’Driscoll for S. White, M. Hurley for B. Hurley (both 59); S. Sherlock for L. Connolly (66); A. Browne for M. Taylor (68); S. Cronin for J. Loughrey (69).
S. Ryan; J. Foley, T. Morley, P. Murphy; G. White (c), J. Sherwood, T. O’Sullivan; D. Moran, J. Barry; D. Moynihan, S. O’Shea, D. O’Connor; D. Clifford, P. Geaney, S. O’Brien.
Subs for Kerry:[b/] G. Crowley for J. Foley (43); M. Burns for D. Moynihan (50); A. Spillane for J. Barry (52); B. Ó Beaglaoich for D. O’Connor (66); M. Griffin for T. O’Sullivan (68).Sent off: P. Geaney (yellow and black, 54).
Referee: A. Nolan (Wicklow).